San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Mombacho, Masaya: Two Volcanoes in One Day

There is an easy way to get to the top of Mombacho Volcano, and then there is the hard way. Unlike the famous Concepción and Maderas volcanoes on OmetepeIsland, in which the only way up is to hike a difficult and dangerous path,Mombacho comes with a nicely paved road that takes you all the way to the crater’s edge.

Once there, you’re painlessly rewarded with remarkable views of colonial Granada and isletas of Lake Nicaragua, all of which are about a 15-minute drive from the base of the volcano. Surrounded by a cloud forest and pushed along by cool breezes, you will hardly break a sweat as you hike the various nature trails that connect Mombacho’s four different craters.

But if you want to climb it on your own, bring a pack mule – the 1,300 meters to the top is a steep trek. While it’s easy to make it up in a truck, if you are walking you will find the road is as steep as going. . . well, straight up a volcano. The trip can even put your rental car to the test if it doesn’t have enough horsepower.

It’s best to park at the bottom and grab a ride on the Soviet-made “eco-mobile” truck that was left over from the civil war and now shuttles tourists up and down Mombacho, four times a day.

Mombotours (552-4548) in Granada also offers excellent and informative guided halfday tours to the top of the volcano, for $28 per person. The tours leave twice a day.

The 30-minute trip up the side of the volcano stops half way up at a small farm house, part of a working coffee farm, where you can grab a cup of the local brew. You can also catch the eco-mobile at this point if you’ve found the hiking already too strenuous.

By saving your strength for the top, you can discover the crater on a guided tour that circles the entire volcano. Or you can take smaller trails that offer equally abundant forest and wildlife. All routes are easily marked, which allows you take self-guided tours and learn about the animals and insects that live in the area.

According to the private foundation that runs the protected reserve, Mombacho boasts close to 170 different species of birds, 30 types of reptiles, and three species of monkeys.

The volcano is also covered by thick vegetation and hundreds of bright flowers, which are in full bloom now that the rains are starting to arrive. But get here quick – a clear view below becomes more obscured once the rainy season moves in later this month.

At the top of the volcano are a museum and a restaurant, where you can relax before finding a guide to try the harder “puma trail.” Expect a three-hour excursion, if you’re up for the challenge.

Adventure seekers also have two separate canopy tours on Mombacho to choose from.

Both shoot you through the forest like Tarzan, but with a required helmet and safety in mind.

Easier Climb at Masaya

Mombacho is not the only volcano that makes for an easy half-day trip from Granada or Managua. Just outside of Masaya, 25 minutes from both Granada and the capital, is the Masaya Volcano and national park, where the Santiago crater has been smoldering for several years.

You can sometimes see the plumes of smoke as far away as the airport in Managua.

Past eruptions have left the surrounding area more ashen and rock-strewn than Mombacho, giving it a moon-like feeling.

Though still active, the only real danger is the sulfurous gas that comes from the main crater. The volcano is home to green parakeets that seem to put up with the gases fine.

The entrance to the park houses one of Nicaragua’s best museums – not to be missed for those who are curious of mind.

A short ride beyond the museum takes you to the crater, where you can peer over the dramatic edge to see what the Spaniards once called the “mouth of hell.”

A large cross is still there to ward off the devil. Several trails branch off to get a greater view of the rest of the volcano. Not to be missed is the night tour, which is the only time you can see the bright red lava flow.

The tour starts shortly before sunset, when the parakeets often come back to nest. A guide takes you to an underground tunnel just as the bats head out for the night. Walking through the cave you eventually come to a deep crater, which opened in 2006 and has been shooting out lava ever since.

The bright red glow lights up the surrounding rocks, offering a spectacular finale to the trip. Several groups offer full-package tours from Granada or Managua, including transport back and forth to the volcanoes.

For real volcano nuts, Mombacho and Masaya volcanos can be visited in the same day, with a little bit of planning, a couple bottles of water and a bit of stamina.

Getting There

Mombacho Volcano is located at Km 50, at the El Guanacaste junction of Granada highway to Nadaime. Open Friday-Sunday, 8-5; closed Mondays. Shuttle during the week is open if enough people reserve for tours. Tel. (505) 552 5858.

Masaya Volcano is located at Km 23 on the highway to Masaya. Open 9-5 all week, night tours 5-8 with reservation. Tel: (505) 522 5415.

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