The Highlights of Masaya
When we visited Granada in Nicaragua earlier this year, one of the many highlights was a morning tour of Masaya and its National Park. Located between Granada and the capital city of Managua (roughly 30 mins by car from each city), the small town of Masaya is famous for its handicrafts and the park for its active volcano. A number of local tour operators run half-day tours from Granada that include all of the following sights and experiences:
- Masaya Volcano: Peering into the crater of an active, smoking volcano!
- Catalina Mirador: A scenic coffee break overlooking the beautiful crater lake of Apoyo
- The Artisan’s Market: Shopping in one of the best handicraft markets in the region
- San Juan de Oriente: Learning to cast a clay pot as they did in the pre-Columbian times
Peer into the Smoking Volcano of Masaya
Located 30km west of Granada, the Masaya Volcano National Park covers 54 km2 and includes two volcanoes, Masaya and Nindirí, and five craters. The volcanoes have erupted several times over the years, causing a huge impact on the neighbouring geography. Rocks and volcanic ash still blanket the areas surrounding the volcanoes. The volcanoes were feared by both the indigenous people and the Spanish conquistadores who labelled the volcanoes La Boca del Infierno, the Gates of Hell. See the video below of Masaya during one of its more active periods. I should point out that I did not film this myself!
Visitors to the park can peer over the edge at the Masaya Volcano and look into its smoking crater. I was so looking forward to doing this but unfortunately the volcano was too active when we visited and was closed to visitors. Before booking a tour, it’s worth asking your hotel to check if the park is open to visitors first. If, like us, you find that the volcano is closed to visitors during your stay, don’t panic! We got a tip from our friendly taxi driver (contact details at end of post) and discovered another way to see the volcano…
Restaurante Mirador La Vista del Angel
On the north rim of the national park sits a restaurant called Mirador La Vista del Angel. As it’s name suggests, it has a great view of the park. Plan to arrive here after 6.30pm (i.e. when it’s dark) and you will be able to see the glow of Masaya’s red lava in the distance. (Note, the food is fine but it’s the view that you come for). Seeing a live volcano was a first for us and even if you can’t, or don’t want to get up-close, I can assure you the experience is every bit as thrilling from afar!
Tip: Remember to bring mosquito spray with you as the mosquitos were quite bad here at dusk.
Night tours of Masaya Volcano
There are also night tours of the volcano that begin around 5pm and last 2.5 – 3 hours. These sound a lot of fun, providing the volcano is officially open to tourists of course! During these tours green parakeets return from their feeding grounds to their nests inside the crater. Colonies of bats also ascend from the ashes and sulphur, making Bruce Wayne’s Batcave appear tame in comparison. The tour takes visitors to an underground tunnel, formed by the rivers of lava and finishes at a viewpoint from where you can see the bubbling lava itself.
The night tour is usually sold separately to the Masaya half-day package. Like many tours and experiences in or around Granada, they can be arranged and booked by your hotel.
Buy Handicrafts at the Artisan Market
Located two blocks east of the parque central in the town of Masaya is the historic Mercado de Artesanias (the Artisan Market). Sat behind the fortress-like walls of the mercado viejo (old market) that dates from 1888, this is the place to come for high-quality Nicaraguan handicrafts. It’s a fun place to wander and a great place to stock up on gifts and souvenirs. The market is particularly famous for its hammocks but you’ll also find carved wooden bowls, straw hats, paintings, hand-embroidered clothing, ceramics, jewellery, leather bags and more. You’ll find that many of the works on sale come from the indigenous barrio of Monimbó, just a short walk away from the market. The market is safe for kids and you’re not hassled. If they tire, there are a couple a tasty smoothie bars where you can choose your combination of fruits.
Admire the View at the Magnificent Mirador of Catarina
If you were ever wondering why Nicaragua is often called the land of Lakes and Volcanoes, then you should visit the little town of Catarina. Positioned 8km south of Masaya, this tiny town is known for its spectacular panoramic views. From the mirador (viewpoint) you can see the crater lake of Apoyo and in the distance the distinctive yellow towers of Granada’s cathedral rising above the city skyline. Just beyond this, on the far horizon, are the waters of Lake Nicaragua. To the right sits Mombacho Volcano, where we spent the previous morning zip-lining.
Kids can also take a short pony ride at the mirador. More experienced riders may prefer a ‘Sunset ride’ as listed in our 10 Things to do with Kids in Granada.
There are also a handful of restaurants near the mirador in Catarina as well as the usual shops selling touristy stuff. You may, however, prefer to eat in one of the nearby hotels such as Pacaya Lodge.
Go Potty at San Juan de Oriente
Just 1km south of Catarina is the little village of San Juan de Oriente, famous for its reproductions of pre-Columbian ceramics. This village, like many in the area, is known as a Pueblo Blanco, because of its white colonial style churches. This is the place to come to see traditional pottery techniques in action, and you may even be able to have a go yourself. Potters use local clay, the same kind that was used hundreds of years ago, to create all manner of pots, vases, animal figures and more.
There are a number of schools and workshops that offer tours and demonstrations. We visited ‘Taller Escuela de Ceramica Valentin Lopez’, a school run by local artisan Valentin Lopez. After a brief tour of the workshop, his team kindly allowed my children to try the potter’s wheel.
Sitting at a large wooden table, a potter showed them how to kick start the wheel using their feet. This involved spinning a second, large stone wheel that sat beneath the table. Given the coordination that was needed and the speed at which the wheel turned, I was thankful that nobody lost a limb in the process! After throwing a lump of clay onto the wheel, the kids were taught how to manipulate it into a pot….of sorts! Although there was no time to fire or paint the pot, the kids didn’t care. They were delighted with their handcrafted ‘pre-Columbian’ pots!
Booking a Tour of Masaya
A number of local tour operators run half-day tours from Granada that include the the sights and experiences listed above. As most hotels are affiliated with tour guides, the easiest way to book is through them. Alternatively, confident drivers can rent a car and visit the sights on their own.
We booked our tour through a local taxi company, Favio Travels as we had developed a good rapport with one of their drivers, Pablo, on our first afternoon in Granada. My son had bashed his head in the pool and needed stitches. Pablo not only drove us to the hospital but helped usher us through the various departments until we got to a doctor. He was one of the kindest people we met in Nicaragua and the kids loved him. Although Pablo speaks very little English, I cannot recommend him highly enough if you are looking for a kind, reliable and honest driver in Nicaragua.
Where to Stay
Although there are a handful of hotels and guesthouses in Masaya, they are, on the whole, pretty basic. I would recommend staying in Granada, where the choice of accommodation is broader. We based ourselves in Hotel Plaza Colon and did day trips from there. Alternatively, there are a few hotels in Lake Apoyo which are also within easy reach of Masaya. We stayed in Pacaya Lodge and Spa on our penultimate night in Nicaragua, on our way back to the airport from the Pacific coast.
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