Exploring Santorini’s Caldera and Nea Kameni Volcano
The Cycladic island of Santorini effortlessly enchants with its phenomenal landscape that’s replete with sapphire blue water, snow-white architecture, and multicolored mille-feuille-like cliffs. What I found myself equally impressed with – perhaps even more dazzled by – was learning about the powerful geological events that shaped the island 3,600 years ago with the eruption of one of the most powerful volcanoes in recorded times.
With Santorini-as-lost-civilization-of-Atlantis myth theories swirling in our minds, exploring the caldera and the still-active volcanic island of Nea Kameni were at the top of our must-see list. To make our understanding of geological events more complete, we also wanted to see the remnants of the prosperous community at Akrotiri, which was decimated by the volcano. Archaeologists believe that Santorini was once inhabited by a group of people similar to those on nearby Minoan Crete. Some even believe that the nucleus of Atlantis might have been situated in what is now Santorini’s caldera.
Half-way through our stay on Santorini, we embarked on a full-day boat trip that would take us from the bustling port of Fira, to the volcanic island of Nea Kameni, followed by a refreshing swim near hot springs, and a stop on the quieter island of Therasia. We’d then return to Fira via Oia.
Nea Kameni, a Still-Active Volcanic Island
During the Bronze Age, geologists called the then-circular island of Santorini, Strongyli, which means ‘rounded.’ After the devastating eruption, however, Strongyli was decimated, creating Santorini’s now-signature crescent shape, as well as several surrounding islands.
Nea Kameni is the eastern Mediterannean’s youngest volcanic landform, and today it is a protected natural monument and national geological park. Nea Kameni has erupted approximately eight times in the past 1,900 years; it’s been dormant since 1950, causing little problems. (See this Institute for the Study and Monitoring of the Santorini Volcano link for interesting black & white images of past eruptions.) Unfortunately, it’s impossible to project when the next eruption might take place. On an optimistic note for those living on or wishing to travel to Santorini, scientists think they can forecast the volcano’s next eruptions at least a few months to a year in advance. They regularly monitor Nea Kameni’s activity, taking into account seismic, geophysical and geochemical data.
Today, magma exists at depths of a few kilometers; it’s visible through hot springs and hot gases, giving Nea Kameni its trademark sulfuric aroma.
To get to Fira’s port to catch our boat for the excursion, we walked down 575+ stairs, meeting Santorini’s fleet of donkeys along the way. Some visitors ride them to avoid the steep hike up or down. We opted to walk down, then take the cable car back up.
New life emerges among the barren, volcanic landscape.
The village of Fira off in the distance, with a boat similar to ours in the foreground. Nea Kameni is a national geological park so visitors are reminded to not take any volcanic ‘souvenirs’ away with them.
The ascent to the rim of Nea Kameni requires walking up some unstable terrain, under Santorini’s trademark blazing sun. We were glad we wore comfortable sandals and protective gear to shield us from the hot rays. The sweeping views from the top were well-worth the climb!
The village of Oia off in the distance.
Just one of many cairns (man-made stacks of stones) on Nea Kameni.
Jet-black lava rock contrasts with Santorini’s sapphire-blue sky as an airplane flies overhead. On the right is an example of seismological monitoring equipment on Nea Kameni.
Yellow sulphur deposits emerging from an opening (fumarole) on Nea Kameni.
We were happy to have a bit of time to escape the crowds in order to explore Nea Kameni independently. The views from the volcanic island onto Santorini were stunning. Here you can see the villages of Imerovigli and Firostefani.
The Greek flag flits in the breeze.
Visitors to Nea Kameni are dwarfed by the vast landscape.
A small Greek Orthodox chapel near the volcanic island of Palea Kameni. Our boat stopped in this spot so that passengers could take a quick dip in the sulphuric, warm water. Although it wasn’t hot enough to be dubbed a ‘hot spring’ we found the water temperature to be refreshing after our sizzling stroll on nearby Nea Kameni.
Restaurants line the water’s edge on the island of Therasia. We enjoyed a brief lunch stop here.
An establishment awaits Santorini’s busy tourist season.
Visitors and locals mingle on the island of Therasia.
Lava rock forms a sidewalk mosaic.
The picturesque village of Oia.
Oia, one of the most popular places in which to take in Santorini’s sunsets.
The village of Fira sits perched high above the caldera.
Returning back to Fira. Sleepy following the day’s events, we decided that the cable car would be our preferred mode of transport back to Fira.
Where in the World?
- Boat tours around Santorini are popular, and quite easy to book via travel agencies and hotels. We don’t often go on organized, group tours, but found this one to be convenient, and pleasant in that we could escape our large group to have some exploration time to ourselves. Our excursion took us to the Nea Kameni Volcano, in the vicinity of the hot springs (where swimming was optional), and to the nearby island of Therasia. We opted to do a full-day tour, but there were also some excursions that were shorter.
- Pack accordingly for the trip: sunhat, sunglasses, sunblock, an ample supply of water and snacks, and swimming gear if you plan to take a dip. (Note that the springs aren’t really hot, but we did find the brief swim refreshing, albeit a bit like swimming in red chalky, water, given the high sulfur content.) On the island of Therasia (stop #3), small restaurants dotted the waterside; we stopped there for a light lunch and coffee break before returning to Fira via Oia.
- There is a 2 Euro fee to enter the National Geological Park of Nea Kameni. While exploring, stay on marked paths to avoid loose lava rock.
- If you’re looking for a cozy studio apartment in which to stay, do consider the Rhapsody Apartments in Imerovigli. Owner George was helpful and friendly, even going so far as to share with us delicious Santorini zucchini from his own garden. We loved the apartment’s quiet location, yet walkable distance to Fira, the island’s public transportation hub.
- Need more inspiration? This link contains an index of all my posts from Greece.
Photography & text © by Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.