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5 Volcanoes Perfect for Lava Chasers

July 08, 2019
9 min read
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The Points & Miles Backpacker is a weekly column appearing every Monday. TPG Contributor Brian Biros, who has backpacked the globe for the past 15 years, discusses how to fund this adventurous, budgeted and increasingly popular form of travel with points and miles. He’ll also explore all things backpacking-related. Read his story here and his high-level approach here.

After 35 years of continuous flow — currently the longest-running volcanic performance in the US — Hawaii's famed Kilauea has gone dark. No more lava flows to light up the night sky or spill over the edge of the island into the Pacific. There's no more lava lake at the top of Halemaumau crater.

10 years ago, I watched lava from Kilauea pour into the Pacific. This longest running show in the US has temporarily come to a halt. (Photo by Brian Biros / TPG)

Fortunately, there are still plenty of great destinations around the globe for travelers seeking volcanic activity more intense than steaming vents. There are several other spots on the planet where you can view actual lava right now. Some are easy and affordable to reach, while others are remote and expensive. But all of these volcanoes will reward you with the amber glow of Earth's creation.

Mount Yasur in Vanuatu

Vanuatu's famous volcano is tucked away on the eastern side of the island of Tanna, across the island from its tiny, unreliable airport. Luckily, the show at the summit of Mount Yasur is more dependable than the transportation required to reach it. You can expect the stratovolcano to erupt every few minutes as it has for a few hundred years.

If the level of volcanic activity is rated two or less on a five-point scale, as determined by the Vanuatu government, you can take a tour up to the rim to watch the show. The eruptions are categorized at "Strombolian," which means a build up of pressure explodes in an episode that sounds like dynamite, shooting ash plumes and magma chunks into the air.

Tours are run three times a day — in the morning, at midday and again in the evening. I recommend the evening tour. You arrive to the rim before sunset and stay until after sundown. The glow of the crater intensifies as the lighting dims, making each eruption more spectacular.

As the sun goes down, Mt. Yasur glows brighter. (Photo by Brian Biros / TPG)

Unfortunately, in recent years, the tribe that owns the land and controls access to the volcano partnered with a company from the capital Port Vila that now operates the tours and has begun price gouging. My guidebook, which was published two years ago, listed the entry price to the volcano at $32. When I went in January it was $96. And as far as anyone can tell, it's the same volcano. Other island locals seem equally frustrated. They depend on volcano tourism, and the cost of entry is beginning to keep tourists away.

Erta Ale in Ethiopia

The voyage to Mount Yasur is easy compared to reaching Erta Ale, which is located in Ethiopia's Danakil Depression — considered one of the most inhospitable places on the planet. The six-hour dusty, bumpy drive through a scorching desert only gets you to base camp. And those guys following you with automatic rifles? They provide protection from rebel groups.

From base camp, you'll start the three-hour trek to the crater rim, but the hike isn't too strenuous for anyone in decent shape. It begins after the sun goes down to escape the midday heat and you'll reach the rim at dark to experience the full glory of the magma lake. Camels are available for hire, but I honestly find riding a camel much more uncomfortable than walking.

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At over 100 years old, Erta Ale is the oldest lava lake in the world. (Photo by Joel Santos / Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
At over 100 years old, Erta Ale is the oldest lava lake in the world. (Photo by Joel Santos / Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

Even though this lava lake is as much of a sure thing as there is in the volcanic world, volatility remains. On some days, the lake is erupting, shooting pieces of lava onto the rim and necessitating a 150 foot perimeter. Other days, the conditions are just right to walk up to the rim and peak into the lake below. And on other days, recent rock falls may be smoldering below, producing an ash cloud that blocks your view of the lake. Once you're on the ground in Ethiopia, talk to people who recently completed the trip to set your expectations.

Fuego in Guatemala

As I write this, Fuego's eruptions are creating a surreal backdrop against the colonial town of Antigua, Guatemala. The best views, however, are from the nearby Acetenango volcano. An overnight hike to the 13,000-foot summit costs just $50, all food and gear included, and the nighttime fire show put on by its appropriately named neighbor is an impressive reward for your efforts.

Masaya in Nicaragua

Another member of the Central American Volcanic Belt, Masaya offers travelers an opportunity to gaze down into its fiery depths. Located in Nicaragua's oldest national park of the same name, the complex volcano has a series of interwoven craters. The caldera itself is ominous and spectacular but, once again, the main event is after dark.

About a half hour drive from either Managua or Granada (or a slightly slower journey on a 30 cent chicken bus), this is the most accessible lava lake in the world. Park entrance is $10 and a mandatory shuttle to the top is $3. From there, you'll get about an hour to gaze down into the bowels of the Earth.

Just 20 miles south of Managua, Masaya is the world's most easily accessible lava lake. (Photo by INTI OCON/AFP/Getty Images)
Masaya is arguably the world's most easily accessible lava lake. (Photo by INTI OCON/AFP/Getty Images)

Stromboli in Italy

As part of the Aeolian Islands just north of Sicily, Stromboli emerges prominently from the Tyrrhenian Sea. The island is primarily a 3,000-foot-high volcano surrounded by a handful of settlements housing a few hundred people. The volcano has been continuously active for 2,000 years, and its small, intermittent volcanic bursts inspired the term "Strombolian eruption."

A Strombolian eruption witnessed at the term's namesake. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
A Strombolian eruption witnessed at the term's namesake. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Hikes to the summit start in the evening and take about three hours with beautiful sunset views over the island and sea. You then get an hour to witness what is hopefully a fantastic display of lava fountains. The quick descent down a steep, sandy path gets you to the bottom in an hour. You must summit as part of a tour, but access can be purchased locally for less than €30 (about $34).

Safety When Visiting Active Volcanoes

While witnessing a display of lava first hand is one of the most incredible natural phenomena you can experience, it's not without major risk. The Royal Geographical Society conducted a study on volcano tourism, noting that most tourists are not aware of the risks involved. And at each of the sites I've listed, injuries or even deaths have occurred. Though regulations are in place, these vary depending on the municipality, and ultimately the planet is wildly unpredictable.

On my tour of Mount Yasur, they offered an interesting and counterintuitive piece of safety advice: If there is a particularly large explosion, don't run. Instead, look up so you can dodge any chunks of molten lava that may be headed your way. As we watched from the rim, I inquired about lava rocks bigger than a football that dotted the path. The guide told me they were likely from Level Two eruptions. I then asked him to remind me what the volcano's level was currently. "Two," he responded. He seemed confused that I was confused.

When Pacaya volcano in Guatemala erupted in May of 2010, they had only stopped running tours up the volcano that morning. A one-day miscalculation could have been disastrous.

On tours to Masaya, the drivers park facing down the mountain and don't stray from their vehicles. They'll tell you there's a reason for that, only half joking.

Erta Ale faces additional concerns. In 2012, a group of tourists was killed by a rebel group. Another tourist was killed in 2017. Since then, the government has deemed the area safe, but still requires armed military escorts. Normal volcanic risks remain, however, including poisonous gases emerging from the crater.

Armed guards will escort you up Erta Ale. (Photo by Giuseppe Di Rocco / Getty Images)
Armed guards will escort you up Erta Ale. (Photo by Giuseppe Di Rocco / Getty Images)

Even Hawaii's Kilauea has claimed a number of tourists over the years that ignored safety restrictions. Yet during the violent eruption of 2018, evacuation orders were followed and there were no fatalities.

So be sure to observe the safety regulations and pay attention to any applicable safety procedures. Even if you're one to occasionally stray from the marked trails, you don't want to mess with mother nature's fiery side. But done responsibly, witnessing the glow of molten lava is an experience you'll never forget.

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