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Beyond the Surface: Exploring Volcán Masaya's Active Crater


A view of the Santiago Crater in the Masaya Volcano National Park

Welcome back to the Ring of Fire! While we’ve been lucky enough to visit quite a few volcanoes during our travels, including both dormant volcanoes (Arenal in Costa Rica, Pululahua and Pichincha in Ecuador, Apoyo in Nicaragua), and active volcanoes (Acatenango and Fuego in Guatemala, Isabela Island in the Galapagos), it wasn’t until visiting Masaya that we were finally able to look directly into a crater!  


Parque Nacional de Volcán Masaya is Nicaragua’s first national park, and the largest. At the heart of this park lies the complex volcano, known simply as Masaya, that formed approximately 2,500 years ago. However, Masaya is more than just a single peak and consists of a series of calderas and craters: Masaya, Santiago, Nindiri, and San Pedro. Upon arriving, we were surprised to discover that the active crater we would soon be peering into is actually Santiago, rather than the Masaya crater itself. 


Among these, the Santiago crater reigns as the active centerpiece, captivating visitors with its simmering lava lake and billowing plumes of sulfur dioxide.


Elliot peering over the edge of the crater as the sun is setting

Getting to Volcán Masaya  


Abbey watching out the window of the shuttle

Located in Nicaragua’s Masaya District, roughly 40 minutes from the center of Granada, Volcán Masaya makes for a perfect short trip away from the city. The city itself is known for its craft market, or Mercado de las Artesanías, located just 15 minutes from the park entrance.  

  

It’s entirely feasible to visit the park on your own, but you’ll still end up spending a bit of cash. The park is open from 9AM-4:45PM and again from 5-8PM. If you’re going on your own, daytime entrance fees are cheaper at $4 for everyone, whereas the price rises at night to $10 for foreigners ($5 for locals). If you’re coming from Granada, you can either take the Granada to Masaya bus which will take about an hour or you can hail a taxi to take you to the park entrance. Let it be known though that taxis in Nicaragua are fairly expensive and would likely be around $20. You would also need to pay for a separate taxi from the entrance to the crater, as only specific drivers are allowed into the park, and would then need to find another driver for the return home. In total, this ends up costing roughly the same as one of the cheaper tour options.       


That being said, we opted to visit Masaya as part of a tour. If you decide to go this route, we highly recommend booking your tour once you arrive in country, as will end up being MUCH cheaper than anything you’ll find online. Our tour cost $25 a person and included two-way transportation in a shuttle, nighttime entrance fees, and a guided tour of the park museum.    


If you do decide to book online, here are some of the better tours we found:  



Masaya Night Tour - $40   




View of Masaya's valley from the visitor center

Breaking Down the Tour: Pickup and Visitor's Center 


Cactus in the garden across from the visitor center

To put it simply, we were very glad we chose to visit Masaya as part of a tour as all of the rules regarding entering the park and driving up to the crater sounded like a logistical nightmare. Our guide picked us up at our hostel in Granada at 4PM and we arrived at the park entrance around 4:40PM. There was a long line of taxis and buses waiting to enter, but since we were part of a tour, we were able to get in quick and made it to the Masaya Visitor’s Center before 5PM. 


The visitor’s center, or Museo del Parque Volcán De Masaya, is a small but very interesting stop along the way filled with diaramas of the volcano, plant and animal samples, paintings depicting past eruptions, and pictures of an American who crossed over Masaya on a tightrope in 2020. If you get through all the exhibits with time to spare (which you likely will), there’s a great little garden across the road with benches scattered throughout, along with a perfect patio area at the back overlooking the Masaya valley. There are also some small stands with vendors selling snacks and decent bathrooms.

  

Tour guides tend to arrive at the museum early to await their turn to head up to the crater (to ensure there aren’t too many people crowding the top at once). We were there for approximately 45 minutes before being ushered back into the shuttle. By 6pm we had arrived at Santiago crater and were told we had approximately 15 minutes before we needed to be back.    


Elliot approaching the ledge of the Santiago crater

Breaking Down the Tour: Santiago Crater


View of the crater's edge

This is where it gets exciting.


As you walk from the parking lot toward the rest of the crowd, you'll notice the top of the crater is lined with a short stone wall that goes right up to the edge. This is to keep visitors from getting just a bit too close and falling in.


You’ll see plumes of smoke billowing out of this massive hole in the Earth and the air will smell like sulfur. If you're lucky enough to arrive at sunset like we did, these plumes will make the sky glow orange and red. When you look over the edge, you'll see just how deep this crater goes and as you make your way to one of the raised ledges and the smoke clears a bit, you'll have a full view of the lava glowing down below at base of the crater. Even from the edge of the crater you'll be able to see the lava flowing and bubbling.

Once your ten minutes are up and you've had time to take your hundred or so pictures, you’ll make your way back to the shuttle and head straight for Granada.  


Sunset over Santiago crater

Is it Worth it?  


Lava at the base of Santiago crater

During our time in Nicaragua, we met many people who found Masaya disappointing – and we can see where they’re coming from. If you head into the tour thinking you’ll be hiking a remote volcanic area only to reach the top and be all alone on the rim of a volcano, you’d be very wrong.  

  

Masaya is one of the top tourist destinations in Nicaragua and even locals come from all around to see the crater. This means you’ll be entering a very well traveled area with similar regulations to any national park. Your tour most likely won’t encompass any hiking and your 15 minutes of lava viewing may feel a bit crowded and rushed.  


With all that said, we thought our tour of Masaya was well worth it. I mean, $25 to stare into the mouth of a volcano and see an active lava lake?

Yes, please!  


Sunset over Santiago crater

Note: Park Closure  


It’s worth mentioning that on March 12, 2024 (exactly two weeks after we visited Masaya), landslides occurred in the Santiago crater. These landslides caused debris to cover the lava and hinder sulfer dioxide gas from being released. When a similar event happened in 2012, the result was a series of explosions that ended up covering the visitor center in debris.


Given this increased potential for an eruption, the national park is still closed to the public as of April 2024. You can find more information about the closure here.



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We're Abbey and Elliot.

We began our travels in

2022 with just our small backpacks and started this blog to share everything we've learned along the way. We hope we can help inspire your next trip.

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