Volcán Momotombo, amidst the waters of lake Xolotlán.  1280 meters.  Managua, Nicaragua.
El tren iba rodando sobre sus rieles.
Era en los días de mi dorada primavera
y era mi Nicaragua natal.
De pronto, entre las copas de los árboles, vi un cono gigantesco,
"calvo y desnudo", y lleno de antiguo orgullo triunfal.

¡Oh Momotombo ronco y sonoro!
Te amo porque a tu evocación vienen a mí otra vez,
obedeciendo a un íntimo reclamo,
perfumes de mi infancia, brisas de mi niñez.*

                                                  Rubén Darío
                                                  Nicaraguan poet.

*Poem Translation

Nicaragua is aptly known as "tierra de lagos y volcanes", a land of lakes and volcanoes.  Situated within the Pacific Ring of Fire, her landscape is populated by 25 volcanoes, many of which are in constant activity, and whose spectacular eruptions can both delight and frighten.

Maribios volcanic range.

The volcanoes have been at times a source of mystery, and fear:

Volcán Masaya, (635 meters) crater of Santiago.  The indigenous inhabitants of the region called it Popogatepe, or burning mountain.  In 1529 it was visited by the Spanish chronicler Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo, who named it "the mouth of Hell", and friar Francisco de Bobadilla installed a cross (replica in the distance) to guard off the devil.  Masaya, Nicaragua.
Entrance to the bat caves.  Volcán Masaya.  The caves were formed during an eruption: a gust of cold wind passed through the lava and left a void.  Pre-Colombian pottery was found inside the caves, and it is believed that the priestess of Masaya conducted her rituals here.  Today it is home to a very shy bat colony.
Volcán Masaya.  Masaya, Nicaragua.  The air is rarefied and breathing becomes difficult because of the sulfuric gases.

Other volcanoes are the stuff of legend:

Volcán Concepción (left) and Volcán Maderas (right).  Isla de Ometepe.  The name Ometepe means "two mountains".  The ancient legend says that the Nahuas travelled from distant northern lands at the mandate of their gods, looking for a new land in which to settle.  Their sign would be an island in a lake, and in the island, two mountains.  The best examples of Pre-Colombian pottery and stone work have been found at Ometepe, and the nearby island of Zapatera.  They can be admired at the  Museum "Convento San Francisco", Granada.  Isla de Ometepe, Lake Cocibolca.  Nicaragua.

Volcán Concepción.  Isla de Ometepe, Lake Cocibolca, Nicaragua.

Ometepe's twin volcanoes are full of distinct wonders.  While Concepción is barren, hot, and full of volcanic activity; Maderas sleeps and is covered in forests and hidden treasures.  One has to climb to find them, of course...

Some Volcanoes hide their violent past hidden in the mist of the millennia:

Volcán Mombacho, (1344 meters) which blew up its cone in a magnificent strombolian eruption over 20,000 years ago; and formed an archipelago of 365 islets (Isletas de Granada).  Lake Cocibolca, Granada, Nicaragua.

Mombacho seen from the doorway of the Museum "Convento San Francisco".  Granada, Nicaragua.

The 365 Isletas de Granada and Lake Cocibolca, seen from atop Volcán Mombacho.
The crater of Volcán Mombacho.  There is a lagoon at the bottom, which fuels the widespread belief that Mombacho is extinct, but...

 In this field, just off to the side of the crater, one can find small "Fumarolas", which are a sign that Mombacho is really only sleeping...

Which brings me to the volcanoes you can touch, albeit dangerous if you do:

Fumarolas de San Jacinto.  A fumarole is literally a boiling mud pit.  They form in high-temperature geothermal areas where water is in short supply. The little water that is available rises to the surface at a spot where the soil is rich in volcanic ash, clay and other fine particles.  The Fumarolas are part of the volcanic complex of the active Volcán Telica (1061 meters) and the extinct Volcán Santa Clara. 

Fumaroles, with Volcán Santa Clara in the distance.  The strong smell of sulfur abounds.  The landscape of the fumaroles is ever changing.  One should always visit with a guide that can recognize the color and texture of the ground, and determine whether it is safe to walk on it or not.  San Jacinto, León, Nicaragua.

And there are also the new ones:

Volcán Cerro Negro. (728 meters)  Its name literally means "Black Hill".  It first appeared in 1850, and it has been in continuous activity since then, with frequent eruptions.  Its last eruption was in 1999.  Cerro Negro's strombolian eruptions are characterized by the columns of black ash that engulf the municipalities of León and Chinandega, and by the electric storms that light up its summit and can be seen at night from the lonely country lanes. 


"Volcano Boarding" on Cerro Negro's gravel side.  A much needed rest.  It is a hard ascend, made even more difficult by the rarefied sulfuric air.
 Volcano Boarding

Cerro Negro.  León Nicaragua.
As you can see, the volcanoes can provide entertainment (zip lines have been installed in the forest of Mombacho, they call it "Canopy"), they inspire poetry, they mystify, they are a source of pride.  It would seem that most cities in Nicaragua have their own Volcano.  Some of them have paid dearly for that honor:  León had to be built in a different location because Momotombo "ronco y sonoro" buried it with an eruption in the 1610; Cerro Negro's 1992 eruption caused a lot of damage to land and property as well as several deaths; and more recently, during the heavy rains of Hurricane Mitch, Volcán Casita created a mudslide that tragically took many lives and destroyed the villages in its surroundings.  But the volcanoes are also a source of renewable energy, such as the geothermal plant installed at the base of Volcán Momotombo to transform the heat of the volcano into electricity:

Volcán Momotombo.  Managua's pride.

I grew up in Chinandega, the northernmost city in the Pacific Coast, home of, among others, Volcán Cosigüina and Volcán San Cristóbal.  Cosigüina blew off one third of its cone during its most famous eruption in 1835; ash from this eruption has been found in Mexico, Costa Rica, and Jamaica.  A lagoon now occupies its crater.  I have not visited or climbed this volcano, therefore I cannot post a picture of it.  My oldest brother on the other hand, could be a tour guide of the park.

The mighty San Cristóbal, at 1785 meters, is the tallest volcano in the country.  It has a perfect conical shape, and it is ever present from the city streets and the countryside (even on a cloudy sunset)

Volcán San Cristóbal, seen from the docks at Marina Puesta del Sol.  Aserradores, Chinandega, Nicaragua.
Volcán San Cristóbal, seen from the countryside.  Its last eruption was a moderate one in April of 2006, and in September of 2009 it showered ash on the nearby towns.
The volcanoes are to me a  sort of compass: the Pacific Ocean on the West and the Maribios range on the East.  Every time I visit my childhood home I feel I have finally arrived when catch a glimpse of San Cristóbal's perfect cone; and when I leave I make sure to say good bye. 

All images by NPL


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