In the center of the Nicaraguan Pacific coast, in the middle of the long volcanic chain which runs through the country from north to south, there is a wide and extended crater in a form of an inverted cone, and in the center of it there is one of the most beautiful lagoons in Nicaragua: the Apoyo Lagoon. Even though it is located close to the populous cities of Granada and Masaya and other small villages, the lagoon and the leafy forest, which covers the slopes of the crater, have conserved still an important natural shape and a huge attraction.
The natural beauty of the place, the abundant flora and fauna, the calm and clean water of the lagoon and the green slopes of the crater make Apoyo an incredible destination for national and foreign visitors, offering an interesting variety of activities. This gorgeous destination is frequented by thousands of visitors each year, even though the infrastructure is still developing. Apoyo has definitely an immense potential for eco-tourism, which could develop more than expected.
In this special we will provide a description of Apoyo, its attractions, and also its current conservation problems.
Description of the crater-lagoon
The crater of Apoyo was formed approximately 23,000 years ago, after a strong volcanic explosion which left a hole measuring six kilometers in diameter. Time went by and subterranean waters and rain filled the crater and the slopes became covered by vegetation. Today this crater is considered to be a sleeping volcano, in repose, with certain volcanic activity still present through a few hot springs in its interior.
As part of the Nicaraguan volcanic chain, Apoyo is located between the Mombacho Volcano in the south and the Masaya Volcano in the north. It is not the only crater in the country which contains a lagoon; in Nicaragua there are various volcanic lagoons like the lagoon of Cosigüina (in Chinandega), the one of Tiscapa (in the center of Managua), the one of Apoyeque (just outside Managua), and others. Out of these volcanic lagoons Apoyo is the one with the major tourist potential due to its conserved nature and its accessibility, and also because of its large size, being the largest crater lagoon of Nicaragua.
The Apoyo lagoon has a surface of 2,110 hectares. It is very deep: according to investigations the lowest level of the conic hole is 100 meters underneath the sea level and the shore of the lagoon is 75 meters above sea level. The water is the most crystal-clear out of all fresh water bodies in Nicaragua and possibly in Central America. Even though it is not fit for direct human consumption, it is very clean, with a low level of natural or human contamination.
The temperature of the superficial water ranges from 27°C to 28 ºC. During summer months, as a result of the winds that strongly blow during this period of the year bringing cold waters from the deep, the temperature gets slightly lower.
The slopes of the crater are on a lower level than the surroundings. The angle of the inclination varies in the different sectors; even though in some areas it is not that steep, there are some points where the slopes are strongly inclined. The maximum height of the slopes is 623 meters above sea level and the highest point is located in the district of Catarina. At higher elevations the temperature gets lower at the slopes of the crater, at the highest levels the temperature is up to 4°C lower than at the shore of the lagoon.
Even though the forest ring which covers the slopes is not complete, it is quite well conserved at some parts; in other areas it is diminished due to human activities, especially in areas where there are cattle farms and properties of agriculture cooperatives.
In 1991 the lagoon was declared as natural reserve (Reserva Natural Laguna de Apoyo). The lagoon and the crater are shared by the districts of Granada and Masaya. The northern and southern sectors are in the districts of Catarina and San Juan de Oriente, which are part of the department of Masaya. The districts of Diriá and Granada share the southern and eastern zones. Other districts which have parts of the lagoon are Masaya, Diriomo and Niquinohomo.
Close to the actual lagoon there is community called Plan de la Laguna, which includes 95 houses. Other houses are spread over the slopes, and many summer houses are located at the shore of the lagoon. There are 100 families living in the reserve, and in the surroundings there are some 100,000 inhabitants.
In the interior of the reserve there is electricity but no water nor phone service. There is a primary school and there is some basic form of medical attention, but there is no permanent police presence or public service for black or grey water.
The nature of the Reserva Natural Laguna de Apoyo
The low historical exploitation of the area that is encompassed by the reserve has guaranteed a quite good conservation of the existing ecosystems. The lagoon and the slopes are an important habitat for a variety of species of tropical flora and fauna. There are also some endemic species, species which are not found in any other part of the world except here.
The reserve houses a tropical dry ecosystem which is confirmed by the varieties of flora and fauna in the area. During the dry season, without any rain, from December to April, the vegetation of Apoyo diminishes its foliage and verdancy, even though there are a lot of flowers and fruits eaten by local animals and migratory birds on their way north. The rainy season, from May to November is characterized by the incredible verdancy and vegetation growth; and at the same time it is a period of nesting for various animal species.
The forests of Apoyo have numerous species of plants and tropical dry trees, such as pochote, black rosewood, mahogany, marmalade plum and guacuco. Another interesting aspect is the large variety and amount of beautiful orchids in the reserve.
The fauna of Apoyo is interesting and diverse as well. There are mammals such as Opossums, Giant Anteaters, Pacas, Jaguarundis, Howler Monkeys, White-headed Capuchins, and others. As part of the variety of reptiles there are Green Iguanas and Common Boas. Birds are abundant: there are oropendolas, falcons, hummingbirds, and some 65 species of migratory birds. There are also various species of butterflies and mollusks.
The water of the lagoon is home of various species of fish. Even though the diversity is not that big, there are four species of mojarras, which are to be found exclusively in the lagoon. One of these species is the Arrow Mojarra (amphilophus zaliosus), discovered in 1976. Recently a group of national and foreign scientists finished studying and identifying the other three mojarra species whose scientific and common names still have to be defined. Dr. Jefrey McCrary, one of the participating biologists, confirmed that there are most likely other endemic species in the lagoon which will soon be identified and studied.
Apoyo as a tourism destination
The area of the lagoon offers various tourist attractions. The waters of the lagoon and the forest at the slopes and the shore of the crater present a variety of activities, which are about to be more developed and presented to visitors. The infrastructure and the tourism offers are still small-scale compared to the lagoon’s potential, but every time there are more projects aimed to increase the tourism infrastructure.
There are currently eight hotels and hostels, located at the shore or very close to the shore of the lagoon. There are also various restaurants, the majority located at the region of Plan de la Laguna. A major offer of hotels and restaurants is available in the cities close by like Granada and Masaya. The small city of Catarina, located at the shore of the crater slopes, offers an ample viewpoint and a variety of restaurants.
The water and the coast of the lagoon, the forest on the slopes and the rim of the crater are places where some of the activities take placed, which are described briefly below.
Beaches: the beaches of the lagoon are sandy and of a dark color and of a varying width. In some sectors there are abundant small stones. Due to the conic form of the crater, the water is quite deep. At the coast there is normally a depth of about five meters. The natural setting and the relatively calm water of the lagoon make the beaches of Apoyo a good place to relax. Swimming can be very attractive at this lagoon.
Due to the summer houses close by the shore of the lagoon, there are not many wide, accessible beaches available for everybody.
An interesting aspect to observe is the cloth washing done by the rural women who wash in a traditional way just like their mothers and grandmothers: inside of the lagoon, with the water up to their knees, over a flat and wide rock, with the soap in their hand rubbing the clothes and watering it constantly.
Hiking: even though it is not a main attraction, hiking through the forest of Apoyo can be very interesting. There are some tours starting at the viewpoint of Catarina heading down to the lagoon, and some hotels in the reserve offer guided tours through the forest. Due to the fact that many spots at the shore of the lagoon are private properties, it is not possible for visitors explore the lagoon by themselves.
The well-conserved ecosystems of the reserve are very attractive for nature lovers. Even though the majority of wild animals are not easily seen, during the hikes it is possible to see some interesting species. The Howler Monkeys are moving constantly from place to place and it is possible to hear or see them in the forest. Birdwatching has a large potential at Apoyo; even though there are no special tours of this type birdwatchers can simply follow the hiking trails to observe the birds that exist in this area.
Evidence of the presence of indigenous cultures was found in the reserve, and there is one place where visitors can find petroglyphs and the site where funeral artifacts were found.
Diving: the clear waters of the lagoon make the place an interesting site for diving or snorkeling. Compared to the Pacific or Atlantic Ocean the lagoon does not provide a spectacular variety of wildlife, but groups of smaller fish species can be easily seen. The inclined slopes of the lagoon make it hard to explore more than the coastal area. Nevertheless it is most likely a different setting from the one that divers are used to. Some diving operators (generally from Managua) can offer diving trips to the lagoon.
Paragliding: air uplifted by the crater rim forms great circumstances to practice paragliding. This sport involves a parachute-like wing which carries a pilot by using nothing but wind up to significant heights. Paragliders depart from somewhere along the crater’s edge like the Diriomito viewpoint where some sort of open area allows for easy departure. The paragliders are mostly private individuals who practicing their hobby; there are no paragliding schools in the area.
Boating: the winds at Apoyo are strong enough to practice some sailing sports. Actually the only offer to rent a small catamaran is from one of the hotels at the lagoon. The gentle water is optimal to explore using kayaks, and various hotels in the area offer this service to their clients.
Nature: the huge blue surface of the lagoon, surrounded by the green and lofty slopes of the crater, provides an impressive view. Even though there are a lot of viewpoints, only two of them offer easy access: the view point of Catarina and Diría. At the moment there are projects underway to build more viewpoints.
The viewpoint of Catarina, which was mentioned earlier, is the biggest and the most famous one with the best infrastructure. The place is very nice and the panoramic view is spectacular: visitors can see lagoon and its surroundings, the Mombacho Volcano, the city of Granada and the coast of Lake Nicaragua. Furthermore there are various restaurants, small handcraft shops and street vendors, who offer typical snacks, fruits and other things; there are also musicians playing Nicaraguan traditional music with marimba and guitar.
There are two main access points to get to the center of the reserve (to the lagoon) that are accessible by car. One is located in the municipality of Catarina, and this one can be reached through three different roads: one located along the Masaya-Granada highway, another from the Masaya-Catarina road, and the last one from Catarina itself. The second entrance is located in Diría, at the viewpoint. There are furthermore various trails from all parts of the crater rim that lead to the lagoon.
There is a bus that goes down to the lagoon twice a day, reaching Plan de la Laguna and departing from the municipal market of Masaya. From both highway entrances there are small motor-taxies that can be used to reach the lagoon. Similarly, one can also take a taxi from the city of Masaya, Catarina, or Diría. Do note that the price for taking some kind of taxi is significantly higher than taking the bus.
Even though there is no exact number; there are approximately 30,000 to 60,000 national and international people visiting the Reserva Natural Laguna de Apoyo every year, counting the visits inside the crater and on the shore at the viewpoints. This is a small number compared to the potential of this beautiful destination. There is therefore certainly an opportunity to install new tourist services.
The current problems of the reserve
The nature of Apoyo has been preserved so far not exactly because of good management or efficient politics, but because of the low tourism, economic and social exploitation, which has not had a significant impact until today. Actually the nature reserve has different problems regarding nature and other issues, the main problem being the abuse of the lagoon’s qualities.
Since it is a protected area, the institutional authority in charge of the Reserva Natural Laguna de Apoyo is the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARENA). Beside the general weakness regarding the application of existing environmental laws in Nicaragua, this reserve suffers from the administration problems of the different districts. There is no existing managing plan for the reserve and every district uses different means to protect and use the lagoon.
Below follows an overview of the different problems that the lagoon and the crater slopes are facing.
The lagoon: Apoyo is a lagoon without superficial exits for its waters. This fact makes the lagoon and its ecosystem very weak and easy to harm. In the last few years, the introducing of outside fish species and the human abuse of water and soil has provoked problems which can be irreversible.
In the year 1997 a project trying to commercialize the production of Tilapias received a MARENA permit, even though ecologists and others protested. The fish was raised inside closed nets located within the lagoon. This project was discontinued, but before that time Tilapias were able to escape from their cages and contaminate the lagoon due to mismanagement. There have nevertheless still no investigations been conducted to analyze the impact of this foreign species, but it is clear that there are many negative consequences due to the damage to the natural habitat that Tilapia causes when voraciously consuming algae. Fortunately, the latest monitoring studies have shown that the Tilapia population is steadily diminishing.
Another critical problem, which is easier to control, is the use of motorboats which introduce hydrocarbon to the lagoon. Over time hydrocarbon contaminates the water. An investigation realized by MARENA in 2004 revealed that the 32 registered motorboats (2004) used 80 gallons of gasoline and 20 liters of oil each month.
Another fact of contamination comes from the private houses and the summer houses. Due to the missing public service of collecting black and grey water, most of the septic tanks are leaking to the lagoon.
On the other hand, deforestation and constructions without any environmental consciousness provoked the dragging of soil down to the lagoon, due to the elimination of the natural filtration of raining water.
Actually the water level is going down and the salt levels are going up, which could cause inestimable effects. The lagoon has a relatively high amount of salt, but it is still drinkable water (even though not recommended for domestic use). The salt level rose significantly in the last 20 years, and for 15 years the water level is lowering at a rate of about 0.3 meters per year.
All of these problems could cause a dark future for the Apoyo Lagoon, if the needed steps to protect it are not taken. Just one look at similar lagoons of Masaya and Tiscapa – which were contaminated until they were dead and which nowadays only serve as recipients of used and rain waters – is enough to understand that conservation is a must.
The slopes and forests: Even though the fauna and much of the forests on the slopes of Apoyo were conserved quite well, they are currently facing problems and in the long term they could face destruction. The construction boom, cutting of trees, burning, and the natural tremors can change the face of this beautiful natural destination forever.
The area of Apoyo counts with frequent tremors. Due to the abrupt soil shocks at some places, due to the type of soil and because of the diminishing forests, the tremors can cause a lot of damage at high risk.
The existing precious trees attract illegal wood cutters. Even though today there is better control, in some districts it is still very easy to enter and leave the lagoon illegally with wood. There are just three park rangers for the whole reserve, which is why control is very limited.
Another problem is the occasional fires during dry season caused by human activities. Generally these huge fires are caused by non-controlled fires made by people hunting animals, clean a tract of land, or eliminate a cultivation infected by blight.
Today, the major problem faced by the forests of the reserve is the construction boom, especially urbanizations which offer vacation houses. The first project initiated in 2004, and despite of protests of various sectors the project got the necessary permits to clear a huge area of forest to construct vacation houses, very close to the lagoon. The success of the first project attracted other investors and currently there are five other projects which are about to start deforestation of the slopes and commence their constructions on various hectares (these projects include plans to construct some 500 houses in total). The plans of these projects are generally not taking preservation of the environment into consideration. Despite protests of ecologists and people interested in the preservation of the reserve, official permits are still given.
It is not just the trees which are affected by the mentioned problems; it is the whole natural ecosystem of the reserve. The attractive fauna loses part of its habitat by every tree which is cut and if the situation does not change, Nicaragua will lose Apoyo.
Good news is that the foreign cooperation AMICTLAN (Asociación de Municipios Integrados por la Cuenca y Territorios de la Laguna de Apoyo, Nicaragua) is currently working to protect the lagoon and conserve its fragile ecosystem. Furthermore, with the tourism boom in Nicaragua the local governments and the population start to realize the importance of the conversation of the nature of this beautiful Nicaraguan destination; and even though ecological consciousness has not been assimilated by the population in general, this is still one first step in the right direction. At this moment, MARENA is elaborating a management plan in accordance with the current situation at the lagoon.
We thank AMICTLAN for helping us with information and documentation used for this Special. Be sure to visit the organization’s website at www.amictlan.com.