9km (5 1/2 miles) from Granada

Smoldering volcanoes, raucous street parties, frantic shopping opportunities; Masaya and the Pueblos Blancos have lots to offer every type of visitor. Masaya is Nicaragua's capital of shopping. In a country that is a treasure-trove of quality handicrafts, Masaya is the industrious nucleus, churning out an endless array of tempting souvenirs such as intricate pottery, handsome woodcarvings, sturdy leather goods, and beautiful hand-woven hammocks. Most travelers experience Masaya as a one-day shopping trip from the capital or Granada, and many never venture beyond the Gothic, palm-lined walls of Masaya's block-size Mercado Viejo (Old Market). That's a pity, as the region has more to offer than what you can stuff in your suitcase. In addition to its beautiful waterfront promenade and an old fort, the nearby Volcán Masaya is the most accessible active crater in the country and the most terrifying and exciting to visit. In the surrounding tabletop mountains are a string of villages known as the Pueblos Blancos, each with its own niche in hand-honed craftsmanship. Masaya is also famous for throwing street parties, with festivals running throughout the year, featuring such colorful participants as 12-foot tall women on stilts, costumed dogs, and "headless" priests. Arrive at the right time, in fact, and you may never want to leave the party.

This restless city of 100,000 creative souls is spread along a hot plain and up a gentle slope to the Masaya Crater Lake, with the smoldering Volcán Masaya in the distance. Though it was first explored by the Spanish in the 16th century, the city was not founded until 1819. It has a fiery history of rebellion and resistance to whoever tried to impose their will, be it a volcano, filibusterer, American Marine, or dictator. What was left of the city's colonial heritage was shattered by a series of earthquakes in 2000, yet it retains a colorful and vibrant character.