Volcano Hopping in Central America
I live and die by television shows and movies. I'm not above just randomly interjecting Arrested Development quotes throughout my day and I lived vicariously through LOST for six years. So much so that every day I went to the beach in Costa Rica, I tried to snap a photo of airplanes as they turned inland, with the green rolling hills and Pacific Ocean as the backdrop; only so I could tweet the photo with a caption that read: "Previously on LOST." Unfortunately, I never captured that moment. However, it's the natural disaster movies that really mess me up. As cheesy and unbelievable as they may be, there's a small part of me that inwardly believes that parts of it could actually happen. It's for that reason that movies like Volcano and Dante's Peak naturally inflated my expectations when I set off to see my first volcanoes in Central America. As moving as my first experiences were, they didn't include molten rocks rolling down the mountain or lava fountains gushing above the surface. Nonetheless, I hope this guides you on your next trip to Central America.
The volcano of all volcanoes in Central America. Right? As one of the most active volcanoes in the world, I had high expectations for Costa Rica's Arenal Volcano. While it's still regarded as an active volcano, Arenal has been rather quiet over the last year, showing few signs of volcanic activity. Even so, since it's an active volcano, nearby hiking trails can only get you so far. The day I visited was a cloudy day, so visibility wasn't particularly good. I would recommend making a weekend of it and adding a trip to another nearby volcano, Chato, which includes trails to La Fortuna Waterfall, where lava originally flowed from Chato.
Mombacho Volcano is one of Central America's most notable volcanoes because you can see it from some of Nicaragua's top destinations, including Granada and Lake Nicaragua. It's an active volcano, although it hasn't erupted in several hundred years. The top portion of the volcano is a cloud forest, which is rare among volcanoes, and features diverse animal and plant life. Mombacho Volcano is characterized by several different craters, of which most of them are accessible by hiking trails. I, however, enjoyed the views from nearby Lake Nicaragua aboard a boat.
Nicaragua's Masaya Volcano...well, let's just say I had the smallest expectations of all the volcanoes I visited. It didn't quite have the same presence as Mombacho and Arenal, which were easily viewable from many miles away. As we weaved in and out of curves through the national park, I moved from window to window, like a little kid, peaking out to see if I could get a glimpse; only to get near the top and respond with: "This is it?" However, as I walked to the rim of the crater to see it for myself and then heard the stories of eruptions from my tour guide, Marvin, I quickly became much more impressed. Masaya actually became my favorite Central America volcano. There was just something impressive about standing on top of volcanic rock and looking down inside the crater with smoke and gases rising above. So impressive in fact, that after a half-hour, the smoke and gases of the volcano were irritating my nose and eyes and it was time to head on to the next volcano. Before leaving, Marvin told me that at night you can often look down into the volcano and see small pools of flowing lava.
Yes, I know that Apoyo Lagoon isn't an actual volcano, but, it was formed as a result of a volcanic explosion, which is even more extraordinary when you see the view overlooking it. Of the three months of traveling around Central America, this was the best view: Standing at the top of the village of Catarina, overlooking Apoyo lagoon with Lake Nicaragua just beyond. That says a lot, being it was the cloudiest day I had in Central America. I even had a mariachi band serenading me while I was taking photos. I haven't come across the perfect view yet during my travels, but throw in a sweet belle, clear skies, and a sunset and then Apoyo Lagoon may have just been the closest thing to that perfect view.
All in all, my experiences at the volcanoes in Central America were great, even if it was cloudy. While I didn't get to see hot, bright orange lava flowing by, it was a humbling experience to be in the presence of such beautiful, yet powerful parts of nature. While many of Central America's volcanoes are accessible independently, I appreciated having a guide who took us to some of the best trails and views and gave relevant background information that enhanced the trip.
Have you ever been to a volcano?