Ok, so there were a few more stops involved in the tour. However, standing on the edge of an active volcano, watching the smoke billow up from its burning depths- is kinda hard to compete with.
Our entrance fee to the Masaya Volcano included a pamphlet that stated that the volcano could erupt at any moment. In English and Spanish. There's always lava bubbling at the bottom, although you can't see it because of all the smoke venting out the heat at the top. No one else seemed particularly concerned with the warning, nor did I get the overwhelming sense of impending doom- so on we went, bubbling lava and all. Before getting to the actual volcano, we stopped at the little museum of the Parque Nacional Volcan Masaya. We learned many interesting, gruesome facts. For example, the people who originally lived near the volcano believed that the volcano was actually a devil/god. To keep the god satiated, the people gave him sacrifices of women and children. It was considered an honour to be thrown into the volcano-alive- to appease the powerful volcano god. Much to my embarrassment, J sized up the volcano and noted the probably-bumpy trajectory that the human sacrifices took. To summarize his observations: they didn't do graceful swan dives right into the lava...they first free-falled before slamming into the volano's walls and brokenly tumbled into the molten lava. Why he noticed/pointed this out is beyond me. Anyway, when the Spaniards came, they erected a massive cross on the rim of the crater and named the spot the-gate to hell. Seems reasonable enough to me. Especially since in 1772 , said Volcano erupted and killed everyone in the vicinity.
A 15 minute walk uphill to the neighbouring crater offers a stark contrast. Whereas the the Santiago crater is alive and volatile, the very next crater is lush and green, coated in jungle and alive with tropical birds! Fascinating! Speaking of birds, it also turns out that the large amount of sulfuric dioxide gas that is constantly being pumped out of the active crater is of no deterrent to local green parakeets. They return every afternoon to their nests that are literally little nooks inside the crater of the active volcano! Talk about living on the edge!
Next stop on our classic tour we stopped in at the National Artisans Market in Masaya (the town). The market building is a Gothic structure, built in 1888 with turrets, towers and oversized basalt archways. The stalls were jam packed with colourful woven blankets, painted masks, knit hammocks, ceramics and soapstone sculptures. Oh, and neon t-shirts emblazoned with the local Tona Beer logo. Yup- backpackers have been here. It was a fun place to stroll and check out the quality offerings. And get a frozen lemonade.
Our driver stopped in the small town of Catarina, which is known for its garden supplies and ceramics, and sometimes the larger than life ceramics that decorate gardens. Catarina is also known for its gorgeous lookout over the Laguna de Apopyo. Yet another volcano crater in this very volcanic nation. This crater, in contrast to both the bubbling and the lush green calderas in the national park- was filled with water! Deep, clean, perfect for swimming water- but more on that later!
The final stop on our tour was at a traditional ceramic school in a small non-descript neighbourhood
that one would never find if they weren't on a tour. We were given a private and very impressive demonstration of how the pottery is made in the traditional way of the area. Clay is collected from pretty much around the corner. It is then danced on (yes, you read that right) in bare feet for 3.5 hours to soften it up. The potters wheels are powered by the potter spinning a disc with his foot while he shapes the clay on the wheel with his hands. Before our very eyes, our demonstrator masterfully sculpted a lump of clay into a beautifully shaped vase. He made it look so easy- which I know its not, because I've tried to make a pottery mug.. which unintentionally turned out to be a bowl... The pieces are polished by sea stone and the the pit of a local fruit. All the colours are natural pigments and the designs are hand carved. The pottery is fired in brick kiln with real fire and polished a final time. Each piece takes 16 days to complete. They are of exceptionally high quality and exquisitely detailed. If we didn't have to carry the pottery around in our backpacks for the next two months, we would have been very inclined to buy ourselves a piece of this Masaya heritage.
We aren't usually big on tours and very rarely do we take them. But in this case, having someone drive us exactly where we wanted to go, without having to fumble around the local buses, walk extra long kilometers in the heat and be able to see so many sights in a short period, taking a tour made the most sense.
We were the only ones booked for the day, so we had a private tour, arranged through Danny's Tour Agency ( associated with Hostel El Momento). Our tour guide was the lovely Elisetta and her father, Juan, was our driver. Elisetta is studying tourism in Managua and speaks English well. It cost $35 USD each.