During my trip to Nicaragua, I worked with Tierra Tour – a locally owned and operated Nicaraguan tour provider. My tours were graciously provided by Tierra Tour, but as always, all opinions are my own.
Granada, Nicaragua lies in the shadow of a giant volcano, but unlike the toxic and unstable Masaya Volcano, this behemoth is peaceful. Mombacho is visible from most vantage points in the city; it’s a lush, green mountain peering down through the clouds on the residents of colonial Granada.
But Mombacho wasn’t always green and peaceful.
Mombacho’s last eruption occurred in 1570, and for thousands of years it was an active volcano violently shaping the landscape around it. Several large blasts from the now-dormant volcano blew massive craters into the mountain, with one of the largest blasts even depositing hunks of earth into nearby Lake Nicaragua, creating the 365 island archipelago now known as ‘Las Isletas’.
But today, the mountain is much more peaceful. The deadly craters spewing magma and rock have long since closed, and the toxic gases have been replaced with verdant cloud forests.
The Climb Up The Volcano
Visitors to Mombacho are faced with a heady climb up steep and unforgiving terrain. While hiking on foot is possible, we opted for the speedier (though certainly no less adventurous) option of driving a 4WD vehicle. A narrow dirt road hugs the side of the volcano, causing the trucks and jeeps that make the climb each day to whine and winny with each graded switchback.
The ride up is bumpy, winding, and unyielding. Fortunately for the vehicles and their passengers, a coffee plantation makes for an ideal stopping point on the mountain.
The Cafe Las Flores plantation is located halfway up the Mombacho volcano and is an active working coffee farm. Las Flores grows their beans under the shade of the forest canopy and the volcanic soils provide an especially rich growing environment for the coffee beans. The entire lifecycle of a coffee bean can be seen at the farm, from the seedlings awaiting planting to the roasted beans. For the thirsty and/or tired, samples of the coffee grown are available at the plantation.
After recharging with some coffee, we piled back into the 4WD to climb the rest of the way to the top of the volcano.
At the Top
The climate at the top of a 1344 meter high volcano is decidedly different from the tropical heat down below. Cool winds blow thick blankets of fog and cloud cover through the dense vegetation, giving these forests the distinction of being ‘cloud forests’.
The plant life here is markedly different from a traditional rainforest – the trees are shorter and stouter and plants that thrive in the tropical heat do not grow here. But the high water content and thick plant cover create an ideal atmosphere for extreme biodiversity. Ropey vines, broad-leafed ferns, and orchids all grow thick in this forest, accessible only via the small single track trail slicing its way through the vegetation.
Cloud forests now thrive on the top of this volcano that was once held expanses of barren rock and noxious gasses. The deadly craters have since closed off, filling with thick trees and other plant life.
Hiking around the crater on Mombacho provides chances to examine various forms of plant life in the cloud forest and gives plenty of chances to take in the massive crater from ‘miradores’ or scenic overlooks.
Dormant, But Not Extinct
Mombacho may not be an active volcano anymore, but it hasn’t died out entirely. The scientific term for volcanoes such as Mombacho is ‘dormant,’ having shown no significant volcanic activity in the last 500 years. However, there are still signs of geothermal life under this old mountain.
On certain portions of the mountain, holes bore deep into the earth. But these holes weren’t created by animals. These cracks in the earth’s crust, or ‘fumeroles’, provide a vent for steams and gasses created from the superheated water in the earth turning to steam as its pressure drops when it emerges from the ground.
Today these fumaroles are only spewing steam, not the noxious gasses and powerful explosions that once erupted from the top of this mountain. But they are a peaceful reminder of what this mountain once was, and what it can become again. It is this danger that the residents of Granada acknowledge and recognize when living in the shadow of this massive volcano with a destructive, explosive history.
But for now, Mombacho sleeps.