Exploring the Undiscovered Gem of Central America

Nicaragua—land of lakes and volcanoes, sprinkled with colorful colonial towns, where rainforests and earthquakes abound and the energy of its lands and its peoples pulse beneath your feet. Outside the bustling, chaotic capital of Managua lie a series of geological sights and famous artisanal towns that provide a perfectly balanced recipe for a day-trip.

The small town of Masaya and its surroundings are located just a half-hour drive outside of Managua. This caldera hosts Nicaragua’s largest national park, an adorable tourist market, and one of the country’s many active volcanoes. The Mercado de Masaya is a famous artisanal market in the town that sells a variety of local products, ranging from woven hammocks and wooden crafts to leather wallets and paintings of volcanoes and lakes on bird feathers. Given that the market caters largely to foreign tourists, prices tend to be high and haggling is essential.  Slightly outside Masaya rests the town of San Juan de Oriente, home to a street of artisanal and fairly priced pottery, and Catarina, famous for its breathtaking promontory from which visitors can see the Laguna de Apoyo and various volcanoes.

This lagoon is a freshwater gem, formed over the last two hundred years in the crater of an extinct volcano, and a refreshing vision of wilderness right outside the dusty capital of Managua. Several resorts and restaurants line the dark sand beaches, and visitors can participate in a variety of activities  such as swimming, kayaking, hiking, and birdwatching. Howler and Capuchin monkeys scamper through the forest canopy surrounding the lake, and harmonious bird songs drift through the cool air. If you are looking for some relaxation and respite, a weekend stay at the Laguna is the best choice, as it perfectly captures the hot spot of biodiversity that defines Nicaragua.

What better way to further explore its geological wonder than by visiting an active, smoldering volcano? The Masaya Volcano National Park became the nation’s first National Park in 1979 and is the host to one of the nation’s  most active volcanoes. Its last significant eruption was in 2001, when burning rocks were sent 500 meters into the air, destroying parked cars and harming individuals as they came crashing back to earth. Under current safety guidelines, visitors are allowed to drive up to the Santiago Crater and witness the almost constant smoke and real-life lava light show for evening tourists. However, the guidelines recommend that visitors do not stay longer than five minutes, as the air contains slightly toxic chemicals from the volcanic material. The viewpoint offers its visitors a stunning view of the volcanic strata, the surrounding craters, and the historic cross of Bobadilla at the top of a neighboring hill. Those who want to visit the park at night can also sign up for biodiversity tours of the bat-filled caves.

The National Park itself contains a Visitor’s Center that hosts a permanent collection of art, information, and history of the Masaya Volcano. It relays the story of its significance through the centuries, explaining how indigenous populations inhabiting the area before the Spaniards arrived believed the volcano to be home to a high priestess. The priestess was appeased only by the sacrifice of virgins and children, thrown enthusiastically into the mouth of the volcano. When the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century, they noted the ardent, ever-burning fire whose flames licked the sides of the crater, and believed that the indigenous were consulting a witch inside the volcano. They thus aptly named it the “boca del infierno” (the mouth of hell), and when Fray Francisco de Bobadilla arrived in 1538, he placed the famous cross at the edge of the crater to exorcise this demon.

This land, enchanted by centuries of explosive geological energy, has been shaped by the movement of the earth as much as it has by the movement of its people. A trip to Nicaragua is complete only with exploration the country’s diverse and breathtaking landscape. There is no way better to start off your adventure than by taking a detour to Masaya and staring into the mouth of a glowing, breathing, lava pit.