America,  Nicaragua,  TDM,  Travel Journal

Travel Guided Tour: Lake Ayopo, Pueblos Blancos & the Masaya Active Volcano (Nicaragua)

Today we have an appointment with David, a French speaking Nicaraguan guide highly recommended by Lauriane to visit the surroundings of Granada & Masaya. We enjoyed every minute we spent with him. I tell you about our little adventure in details.

Part 1: Travel Diary Part
2: Practical Tips

Part 1: Travel Diary

Paradiso Hotel near the Apoyo Lagoon

David comes to pick us up in 4×4 around 8:45 am to bring us to the Apoyo lagoon. It is the only lagoon in the surroundings where the water is pure and one can bathe without fear. The others (from Masaya and Managua) are very polluted.

We stop at Paradiso Hostel (link Booking), a place so peaceful by the lagoon, perfect for digital nomads too. Of course, we don’t get much 3G and Internet is only available at the reception (see picture below) but the speed is correct (9.5Mbps down, 10.2Mbps up). There are shuttles from the hostel to Granada (for 3$ each way, don’t hesitate to contact them if you want to go there).

They also offer Spanish courses. Compared to the rates I have in Granada, it’s 100$ more expensive per week, but the setting is still nicer.

For day visitors like us, access to the shower, deckchairs and a free drink (tea or coffee) is $5/person (included in the tour with David). Fresh drinks can be taken in addition, for $1 or $2.

Today, there is quite a lot of wind, creating some waves on the lagoon. Apparently, this is very rare – usually the water is super calm and it looks like a giant glass of water, plants are reflected on the water etc. This will not be the case today. The lagoon was born from the explosion of a crater, and is 7km in diameter. There are few constructions around the lagoon, which is now a nature reserve.

We are against the light, the photos don’t do justice to this beautiful place. The lagoon is in the shape of a cone so the more we advance, the deeper it is. The water is transparent, but the “sand” is rather black, and strewn with pebbles, so we see a little turquoise color but not too much.

Mirador on the lake

What I like when we do the tour with a local guide is that he always knows secret corners, like this, by the side of the road. So, this viewpoint, more beautiful than the official one, between two houses… offers us an incredible view of the Apoyo lagoon. We can see from far away, on the left (you surely won’t see it on the picture), the big lake Nicaragua, which makes 10% of the surface of the country. When we saw it for the 1st time, we believed that it was the ocean ahahha so much it is enormous.

On the right, you can see the Mombacho volcano (which you can also see from Granada), still active, with some fumaroles coming out. On the top of this volcano, it is a tropical forest, with a real ecosystem. Climbing is possible (by the way David is specialized in climbing volcanoes if you are interested), you can see slothful people etc. The danger would come from an ant called paraponera or rifle bullet ant because the sting of this huge ant hurts as much as if you receive a bullet.

Viewpoint of Caratina

This is the official viewpoint in the village of Caratina. It’s very pretty but I like the viewpoint between two houses too. The view is even clearer here and you can see much better the big lake at the bottom, and how green, green, green Nicaragua is. We are just coming out of the rainy season too, but it is true that there aren’t so many people, not so much agriculture and there are a lot of trees.

San Juan de Oriente

We visit another pueblo blanco (white village) that has “blanco” only in name. They are rather artisanal villages. Each village is specialized in a trade, some sell plants (Catarina), others pottery (San Juan de Oriente), wooden furniture, hammocks… they are really talented in the area. San Juan de Oriente is well known for its pottery and delivers all over Nicaragua. When there is a cruise that stops in Nicaragua, there are vendors that come to pick up products here to sell them directly to the port, to tourists.

a plate warmer

I really like the style and the color, it’s very different from anything I’ve seen in Vietnam or Morocco. The colors come from natural products (charcoal, flowers, plants…), the patterns inspired by the emblematic animals of the region (birds, turtles)

JB is entitled to a private pottery class and, unsurprisingly, fails miserably. At one point, the piece of clay completely escapes from his hand and lands 30cm away. David and I regularly receive bits of clay ahaha. Luckily he did not choose this job to make a living 🙂

The craftsman explains to us that between the order and the delivery, it takes at least a month, the time for everything to dry. There are always some losses at the time of “cooking” so they always make a little more, just in case… to be able to honor the order.

The city of Masaya

The town of Masaya is a city of folk festivals. During the last 3 months of the year, they celebrate non-stop, and this attracts many local and foreign tourists. Today, we stop at a restaurant to taste the famous Baho, a typical Masaya festive meal.

This huge pot has been simmering since 4am and the ingredients are stacked in a precise order: there are 2 types of plantains, meat, cassava, onion…. there are just two choices: meat with fat(con gordo), or without fat(sin gordo). Marinated cabbage will be added on top. I choose meat with fat and it’s too good! It’s difficult to finish the dish though, unless you’re very very hungry.

We also order a tiste, on David’s advice, it’s a drink based on wheat, cocoa (not the same taste as chocolate, mind you), and corn. The drink is served in this funny glass, which is actually a dried fruit(jicaro). Lunch isn’t included in the price, so we pay 140 cordobas/person, tip included. We recommend that you try Baho when you are in Masaya at the Baho Vilmarestaurant

The restaurant also sells a lot of sweets, which must contain 80% sugar (or more) ahaha.

We continue to the central square – which consists of a beautiful church and a park. Last year, when the riots took place, it was particularly virulent in Masaya, and in this central square. But now it’s so quiet that it looks like nothing happened.

We continue to the Handicraft Market, where you can buy handicrafts from all over the country. The place itself is nice, there are often concerts, the sellers are super nice, not at all insistent.

I really like these beautiful feathers, different sizes, it’s beautiful! They often draw there the emblematic bird of Nicaragua (but the feather does not come from this bird).

The hammocks aren’t only for tourists, Nicaraguans have them all at home. Besides, you will also find them in almost all the hotels in Granada, it’s so comfortable!

Masaya, it’s very local and nice but still has less charm than Granada. Moreover, from Masaya, you can’t see any volcano from the city center (although we are next to 2 volcanoes), while in Granada, you can see the Mombacho from the central square. Héhé, that’s why after this visit, I don’t regret any more not having chosen Masaya as a base these last weeks.

El Coyotepe Fortress

We take the car back to go to the top of a hill, where El Coyotepe Fortress is located. We cross many locals walking, panting and sweating. There are worse environments to do sports, I confess. Here, we are almost in the forest, it is really pleasant.

This place with a beautiful view of the surroundings, has unfortunately been used as a prison. Each cell had very little light and the prisoners piled up on the floor and did their ablution in a disgusting little corner. There are 2 floors, full of graffiti and bats, and you have to ask the guard to open the door for you. He is also a tour guide if needed. In any case, I don’t like the inside at all, on the other hand the view is unobstructed. It has become a place of gallant meeting, despite its glaucous side.

We observe the Masaya volcano from afar and it is only after 15 minutes that I find it strange that there is still a cloud above it. It’s not a “cloud”, it’s fumaroles mixed with water vapor.

By taking a video in accelerated mode (time-lapse), we realize that the “cloud” actually comes out of the volcano.

It’s strange to be in a country where there are active volcanoes close to the city and that doesn’t surpriseanyone because it’s always been like that 😀 But in my head, seeing several volcanoes lined up, 3 active ones, including one where you can see the lava with the naked eye (up close, he woke up 13 times in 30 years, gently spitting a little ash here and there), a little worried voice tells me that maybe we should worry a little bit… “tell me why I’m here already?” 😀

Anyway, on the Pacific side, all America is right on the edge of the tectonic plates, causing regular earthquakes and lots of volcanoes.

From here you can see the whole town of Masaya, which is very green compared to what you could imagine. The capital Managua, which we didn’t like too much, is also super green, even greener than Masaya and Granada combined. We even wonder if the Amazon isn’t just next door… We can guess the damage caused by the last eruption of the Masaya volcano (a very long time ago), there are areas that are completely collapsing, it seems that the lava flowed down to the lake, raising the water level. There are traces of this eruption as far as Managua. There are plenty of lava tunnels around the volcano (which we can no longer visit, but if you want to see what a lava tunnel looks like, we visited one in South Korea).

I hope you can see the volcano in perfect shape, like Mount Fuji in the distance. It is still very active but it is too beautiful !

Active volcano Masaya or the “Lava Tower”

If you go through the door of any travel agency in the area, they will sell you a “lava tour” which consists of going to see the lava inside a crater of the Masaya volcano. There are several craters, but only one is active, and Masaya volcano is one of the 5 volcanoes in the world where you can see lava all the time. Contrary to others that just wake up from time to time.

What luck! And it must be one of the most accessible active volcanoes in America, without trekking, hiking or anything else.

Just pay 10$ per person (for the entrance) and drive there. Simple. The lava can be seen during the day too, but it’s even more impressive at night.

David first takes us to visit the museum, where he explains the crater we are going to see (Santiago), and the overall structure of the place. Before, it was possible to almost go around the crater, see the bats coming out of a cellar and entering a lava tunnel, but this isn’t possible anymore 🙁 because of security problems. In 2015, the mini-crater within the big crater has widened a bit, so we can see the lava even better now. Last year, a team from National Geographic went to see the inside of the crater and made a documentary about it (to watch on YouTube).

The Masaya volcano woke up 13 times in 30 years and was called “the gate of hell” by the conquistadors, they believed that the volcano was filled with gold and fire, coming directly from hell. A priest wanted to exorcise it with a cross, but even the cross did not resist. Now we find another (huge) cross next to one of its craters.

The night has fallen, we can go and see the lava. The pressure rises all of a sudden. It’s not fear but excitement. I’m going to see lava with my own eyes for the first time in my life, ohlala ! David parks on the parking lot and explains us that the safety instructions want the cars to park in the direction of the departure, in case the volcano suddenly gets excited. If it rains, it’s forbidden to come here – because a family coming to pray, their son having committed suicide in the volcano – was struck by lightning. Double punishment…

Before the crisis, there were a lot of tourists and you had to queue to go there, each tourist could only stay 10 minutes. But now, there is almost nobody left and we could stay as long as we wanted. The wind almost always blows in the opposite direction, what makes thatwe feel almost nothing, we hear almost nothing and we do not even feel heat either. I think that we are at 200m approximately of the crater?? The fumaroles prevent us from seeing the whole crater on the other hand. The best place is 2m to the right of the metal post.

At a certain point, the lava gets a little irritated and there are small bubbles that make you feel “hillbilly”. On the walls of the platform, we still find traces of silica, in the form of filaments, as fine as a hair. Even if we aren’t disturbed by the smoke, there is surely some toxic gas in the air.

To show you a little bit the whole volcano, I’m going to make a screenshot of the video taken by National Geographic. There’s like a solid lava vault falling on the liquid lava. It’s this vault that prevents us from seeing the round shape of the crater.

And here is the platform from where we observe the lava, you see (pro photo taken during the day), we aren’t too far either. I was seriously expecting that it would shake, that it would be hot, but finally it was too easy for an active volcano. I’m really impressed.

David takes us back to the hotel in Granada. Look at this impeccable road from the entrance of the complex to the volcano, it justifies the entrance at 10$. During the day, we can walk up to the volcano, but not at night (normal!). Daytime entrance is cheaper too (500 cordobas for tourists, 100 for locals) – until 5pm.

Part 2: Practical Tips

We paid 60$/person, tickets included (lunch excluded). It is really worth it because if we had done all this by ourselves, not only we would have had too much trouble with the shuttles, colectivos, tuk-tuk…, seen less things, but moreover, we would have paid almost the same thing: about 50$/person (the visit of the Masaya volcano at night is difficult to do by public transport. From Granada, it is minimum 18$/person in shuttle + 10$ of entry + the other accesses, shuttles, colectives, cabs etc.). You might as well opt for a friendly, local and knowledgeable private guide.

My opinion on our guide David

I really enjoyed my day with David too much. Lauriane strongly recommended him to me, but I am even more surprised by the quality of his service.

Usually, we aren’t the type to pay for a guided tour but here, David exceeds all our expectations. With his impeccable French (with a little Belgian accent because he spent a year there), he delivers the perfect dose of information – both about the place to visit, but also about the country in general. You can feel that he knows his country and its history by heart, and has traveled all over the country. Even though I knew the program in advance, there were a few little surprise stops, and small attentions that make all the difference.

Do not hesitate to contact him. As he is based in Managua, where there is little touristic activity, he is used to meeting his clients all over Nicaragua. Even if you are in Leon, Granada, Masaya or San Juan del Sur, do not hesitate to contact him for a tour in your area. He can also organize organized trips from A to Z, or a specific day tour like ours. Whether you are 1, or 25.

Here is his contact information:

David Arroliga, French-speaking guide in Nicaragua, specialist in volcanoes and community tourism :
Whatsapp : +505 8805 7304Facebook :
https://www.facebook.com/DEASfotoyturismo/
Personal website : http://picpanzee.com/deas_t_y_f


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