This is a first.
I’ve spent years dreaming of places I would love to visit and last week, the place that I had chosen for my “Fantasy Friday” destination, became a fantasy reality: Masaya National Park, Nicaragua.
This March Break, with my school, I had the absolute honour of taking a few of my high school students to Nicaragua, along with the help of Earthwatch, to study an active volcano and its effects on the both the environment and the local population in the region.
Our group was able to meet with three outstanding experts in their fields, each having studied in Masaya National Park for 20+ years. How lucky were we?!
We first met Dr. Hazel Rymer and her team consisting of Dr. Glyn Williams-Jones and Dr. Hilary Erenler. I meant to feel intimidated when walking up to them in the humid Managua Airport, but they could not have been nicer and were most accommodating to our ragged, yet eager group of teens (and me – running on 24 hours of no sleep).
We were all set to spend the week in Masaya helping the Earthwatch team gather information in regard to the gravity and sulphur content in the air; as well as studying the behaviour of a species of bee not known to be in the country before Dr. Erenler discovered them a few years ago.
Several pieces of equipment were tried and tested by my students and I could tell they were fascinated with the results and their contribution to the studies. I’ll save you all the three hour long geophysics lecture (for now).
I loved that on one of our hikes around the volcano we bumped into a troop of howler monkeys. Unfortunately, as I was at the tail end of the group of students, meaning that by the time I saw them, I only caught a glimpse of their disappearing rear ends.
Luckily, the day was redeemed when my group and I were able to spot 35 different species of butterflies and a cave (which was actually a dried up lava tube) filled with bats. Oh, how I love bats (seriously – love them).
* Don’t worry – no butterflies were harmed during our studies.
It was quite interesting comparing this national park with other parks that I am more familiar with. Instead of entering a park, seeing herds of bison, elk and pronghorn thriving in every direction, I was greeted with a herd of COWS!
After speaking with the team, I discovered that it was not uncommon to see a domestic cow and horse traveling through the park from nearby towns. They have no fences to keep these ‘locals’ out of the protected area.
Also a common sight were the park rangers who escorted us around to our various research destinations. My students asked the rangers why we were receiving an escort and we were informed that a little protection is (or once was) needed for the humans in the park. Not from the wildlife though, as can be the case in Canada or the USA. The protection is from the locals who live around the edges of the park – in the past they would come in and harass the park visitors and even attempt to steal their equipment. It is an extremely safe place now, though. Do not worry!
Where to fly: Managua (40 minute drive to Masaya townsite)
Where to stay: We stayed at Hotel Regis, where the owner, Carlos and his wonderful family took such great care of us. I felt like I was at home in this cozy little place, and it didn’t hurt that he had a huge vat of coffee ready for me when I woke up every morning. Mmmmm, best moment of the day.
Where to eat: Of course I need to vote for Carlos’ home cooking, as they were the best meals of the trip. But when we did venture out into Masaya, we tested our palate at two very tasty places: La Jarochita Mexican Restaurant and Tele Pizza.
What to do:
1. Visiting Masaya National Park is a definite must. How often do you get to visit an active volcano? It’s impressive. And even more impressive if you get to hang out with the big-wigs and study the volcano beyond the tourist gates. You know those signs that say: “rock slide area – do not enter” or “do not pass beyond this point”? Phhhht! We were volcanologist VIP’s for the week (we actually were very very safe the entire time, don’t worry).
I was not quite able to photograph for long periods of time as I had the responsibility of watching over my students who were researching at the edge of an active volcano. But I was able to use my Nikon to capture a quick shot of a howler monkey, as well as several species of butterflies. Next time, I will definitely bring the proper lenses for the park.
2. When staying in Masaya, be sure to stop at the Masaya Crafts Market. I’m not a big shopper, but they did have some beautiful handmade crafts and paintings. I did end up purchasing a pottery vase that surprisingly made it home in one piece!
3. Laguna de Apoyo is a quiet and unique beach to stop in at for a day of relaxation. We rested up here after a long hike studying the butterflies and had a refreshing dip in this volcanic crater.
4. This will be a sort of treasure chase for anyone who can find the museum we visited one afternoon. I cannot recall the name of it, or in what part of town it was. I do know that it was created in someone’s front foyer of their personal home and that it held many examples of the traditional jewelry, pottery and art from Nicaragua’s past. Very neat! The lady that was running it was the daughter of the original creators of the museum. Now, with that information, go find it!
5. Prison break, anyone? We were lucky enough to make a quick stop-over at an abandoned prison, Fortaleza El Coyotepe, on the way to the national park. Let me tell you, it was eerie. Imagining all the years of terrible torture and living conditions in the dark, dark basements brought chills to us all. But it was fascinating at the same time. We found a crazy room filled with bats constantly circling around us. Hypnotic!