Some Like It Hot: Travelling to the Volcanoes of Central America

August 5, 2015 Paul Manser

So you’ve partied in a favela until the sun rose over Rio, been for a polar swim in Antarctica and even looked a wild bear in Russia in the eye. Your passport would make any stamp collector green with envy and you’re not about to stop now. But where to next? Well, it goes without saying nothing quite says unique travel experience and dinner-party conversation stopper like being chased down the side of a mountain by a flow of bubbling hot molten lava in Central America.

While the chances of encountering a wall of lava are actually slim, there’s still plenty of excitement to be had in witnessing the savage beauty that helped shape our world, and in coming into contact with the wildlife and local cultures that live in the shadows of some of Central America’s most feared mountains.

Volcán de Fuego in Guatemala

How do you know a volcano means business, that’s it’s not just a bored mountain looking for attention by emitting questionable gases? Well, it’s fair to say that a volcano whose name translates into English as fire isn’t messing around. Volcán de Fuego overlooks Guatemala's former capital of Antigua and is one of Central America's most feared active volcanoes, having erupted as recently as July 2015. Known for producing tall ash plumes and spectacular lava fountaining when it erupts, Volcán de Fuego is best viewed from a safe distance.

Volcán de Fuego is active and erupted in July of this year. Photo courtesy Conred G.

Those looking to get closer to the action, though, don’t have to travel far. An hour's drive from Antigua, there’s Pacaya Volcano. Its gradual slopes offer up the unique opportunity to partially ascend a live volcano. While the crater is off limits due to the unpredictable nature of the mountain, travellers are able to partake in one of the most unique meals of their lives — toasting marshmallows over a smoking fumarole using earth's natural ovens.

Away from the region’s volcanic activity, travellers should also take the time to wander the cobbled streets of beautiful Antigua. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Antigua is a peaceful colonial city that is home to museums, cafes and a famous chocolate museum that no doubt keeps half of the country’s dentists in business.

Masaya Volcano in Nicaragua

Those who want to encounter volcanic activity first-hand should make their way to Nicaragua, where Masaya, one of the most accessible (and menacing) volcanoes in Central America, lies under an hour’s drive from the colonial city of Granada. So don a gas mask, look over that life insurance policy and check out the impressive crater, which continues to emit smoke and sulphur gases. Once there, you should double-check that policy before trying out the newest craze and volcano boarding back down.

If you want to see the beautiful aftermath of volcanic activity, head over to San Jorge on the shores of Lake Nicaragua and board a ferry for Ometepe Island. This unspoiled piece of paradise formed out of the lava flowing in between two volcanoes — Maderas (1,394 m or 4,573 ft) and Concepción (1,610 m or 5,282 ft) — is a nature lover’s dream with abundant wildlife. A walk through its lush forest offers up unique chances to see howler monkeys and green parrots in the wild.

Ometepe Island in Nicaragua.

Ometepe Island in Nicaragua.

Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica

While many visitors to Costa Rica arrive in San Jose with enough sunblock for several days at the beach, this Central American nation is defined by its volcanos, which give the country much of its character—and define the geography of much of the central and northern regions. So to really understand Costa Rica, you need to head for the hills! Costa Rica's backbone of mountains and volcanoes hold some of its greatest treasures.

You’ll find Arenal Volcano in the district of La Fortuna. The volcano is active, and occasional eruptions make it a natural wonder to be respected. Arenal is especially impressive at night, when the glowing molten lava can be seen against the ink-black sky. Arenal sits on the southeast shore of artificial Lake Arenal (77 square kilometers of water) and its reflection on the water is as welcoming a site as a taxi waiting to take you home after a big night out. Separating the mountain ranges of Guanacaste and Tilarán, the lake was created by a hydroelectric dam. Winds sweep down the lake at speeds that reach from 48 to 72 kph (29 to 44 mph), and the far end of the lake is one of the world’s top windsurfing locations. 

You can't beat a view like this!

You can't neat a view like this!

Visitors to La Fortuna could do a lot worse than hiking the area’s nature trails or swimming in a refreshing waterfall; and for those needing an extra serving of adrenaline in their lives, why not try canyoning down instead? 

After a long day of exploring, take a relaxing soak in the lush, cascading hot springs at the Baldi Hot Springs Resort. Soak under the shade of the surrounding canopy in one of the natural thermal baths, fed by rivers of volcanically-heated water running down directly from the source.

The area offers a number of adventure activities such as canyoning.

The area offers a number of adventure activities such as canyoning.

Many people may ask why you would want to get up close and personal with ecological landmarks that could burn your eyebrows off if the wind blows the wrong way. But what they are missing out on is the primeval mixture of fascination and fear that witnessing volcanic activity first-hand can bring. Couple that with the rich colonial heritage of the areas’ towns and cities and abundant wildlife, and you’ll soon realise that volcano touring through Central America is in fact the hottest thing in travel right now.

Getting There

G Adventures runs a number of departures in Central America encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater for different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.

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