What to Expect
Santorini is an exceptionally beautiful group of islands with beautiful beaches and exciting nightlife but the star of the show is the series of volcanic eruptions that took place here and shaped the history and future of the islands. Though the eruption wiped away an entire civilisation (Minoan), it gave the islands its unique soil and climate and ultimately a booming tourist trade. The black and red sand beaches, the eerie lunar landscape and the soil that produces the fascinating blend of wines are all the gifts of the volcanic eruption.
The result of the Santorini volcanic eruption is the creation of 5 separate islands; Santorini, Therasia, a deserted islet called Aspronisi and the volcanic islands of Palea Kameni and Nea Kameni. The volcano was submerged with the caldera edges in Santorini, Therasia and Aspronisi forming a rough circle and the volcanic islands of Nea Kameni and Palea Kameni in the centre.
Today when people talk about visiting the Santorini volcano, they normally refer to visiting the islands of Palea Kameni and Nea Kameni which contain the hissing volcanic crater and bubbling therapeutic sulphur baths. They also refer to visiting the black beach of Perissa and the red volcanic rocks in Red beach that look like they have stepped out of a lunar landscape.
Thirasia was originally a part of Santorini but the 1600 BC eruption blew it apart from the main island. The volcanic island duo of Palea Kameni and Nea Kameni were formed after the eruption. Excursions to the island of Thirasia and walks along the spectacular caldera also form a part of the Volcano tours.
Choose which activity you want to engage in from these depending upon the duration of your stay in Santorini, fitness level (most volcano spots include hiking and/or swimming) and preferences.
The eruption of Santorini happened in 1650 in Greece and was one of the biggest eruptions in the last 10,000 years… it caused the eruption of 30 cubic km of rhyodacite magma and the formation of a 36 km Plinian column. The massive removal of magma caused the collapse of the volcano and a huge caldera formed. This is the caldera that’s visible from many parts of Santorini… the famous Fira to Oia hiking trail uses the edge of the same caldera.
The eruption caused the Minoan civilisation to vanish and probably triggered the story about ‘the lost city of Atlantis’. Santorini as a whole is a maze of overlapping shield volcanoes… that’s what makes its terrain so different and so picturesque. The white layer at the top of the islands is actually Minoan tephra (pumice and pyroclastic surge) that’s a result of the eruption that happened in 1650 B.C. the second series of eruptions (11 of them) happened much later and continued till 1950 and this was when the two volcanic islands of Nea Kameni and Palea Kameni were formed.
The volcanic eruption disrupted the shape of the island which was originally round in shape (it was called Thira) and used to enclose a shallower caldera. Huge sections of the island fell into the empty magma chamber following the eruption and literally vanished into the sea. The last eruption destroyed the rich highly developed economic centre that Santorini was at that point in time.
After 1969, organised archaeological excavations have unearthed a prominent Minoan town that was submerged under volcanic ash for 4000 years. It appeared that most people had fled from the town before the eruption occurred… very few human remains were found. Well-preserved paintings, ceramics and other household objects were unearthed and they let the world know of a civilization that defined an unknown prehistoric period. Wild stories began to spread about the lost civilization and people started equating it with the legend of the lost city of Atlantis.
The volcanic activity on Santorini Island and its tragedies and intrigues attract a lot of attention. The volcanic activity is closely monitored by the Institute for Study and Monitoring of the Santorini Volcano (ISMOSAV). As of now, the islands are perfectly safe to visit and offer one of the most exhilarating first-hand looks at the volcanic activity.
Top Volcano Spots and Activities
Though all of Santorini and its neighbouring islands bear evidence of the eruptions, the following places attract the highest number of visitors because of the exceptional experience they offer.
Palea Kameni and Nea Kameni
Two small islands at the centre of the Santorini Caldera; Palea Kameni and Nea Kameni are the two youngest volcanic zones in the eastern Mediterranean region. Palea Kameni or the old burnt island is less than 2000 years old while Nea Kameni or the Young burnt island began to form 450 years ago. The activity of the Santorini volcano formed these islands. In fact, 11 eruptions since 197 BC created these two islands, the most recent of which happened in 1950.
Nea Kameni is one of the world’s youngest landforms and has gained the status of a protected natural monument and geological park. The view of Nea Kameni is sensational as a part of it is green in colour and stands out against the volcanic ash of the entire scenery. If you come here around spring, the green colour is particularly vivid.
Visits to Nea Kameni are only possible through daily boat tours that are arranged from Mesa Gialos that’s the old port/ ancient harbour of Fira. There is a 2 euro entry fee for accessing the volcano and then there is a half an hour walk to the crater. On your way to the crater, you will only see one kind of plant growing on the islands… little yellow flowers that add a sprinkling of colour to the red and black volcanic rocks.
The short walk to the island’s youngest crater is exciting… gives you an opportunity of seeing smoke and gas gush out from the centre of the earth. It’s an unearthly experience to touch the edges of the crater and peer down its edge to the molten centre of the earth. The scenery at Nea Kameni is completely lunar and the black crater dotted soil is one of the best backdrops for photography. You will find many cairns (man-made stacks of stones) on Nea Kameni and can use them for assistance while walking as it’s rather a rough walk. It’s fascinating to see the fossilised lava deposits, yellow sulphur deposits from fumaroles and other evidence from the volcanic eruptions.
Palea Kameni is the smaller and the older of the two islands and it has hot springs with high sulphur content. Tourists usually stop at the hot sulphur springs of Palea Kameni that are believed to have healing and therapeutic properties. The waters here actually look yellow because of the high content of sulphur in them. Remember that people can only reach the hot springs by swimming to them, so non-swimmers cannot enjoy this experience.
There is a highly muddy area near the springs which has become a top destination for mud bathing. Tourists are seen applying the volcanic mud on their body and some carry it away in small jars for future use. There is a small cove near Palea Kameni called Agios Nikolaos that’s a well-known health tourism destination. The water temperature here ranges from 30 to 35 degrees and constantly mixes with sea currents presenting a unique mix of temperature and mineral contents that are supposed to rid the body of chronic diseases and flush out toxins.
The north side bay Agios Nikolaos formed when viscous magma went into the crater and then solidified as a black rough lava tongue around 726 AD. There is a small but pretty ancient monastery there (Agios Nikolaos monastery).
Incidentally the freestyle event ‘Santorini Experience’ takes place every year in October in the sulphur spring waters… this event draws a lot of media attention from abroad. This is a 2.4 km swimming experience between the volcano and the old port of Fira.
Note: when visiting the volcanic hot springs, wear something you don’t care about at all… the water will leave a permanent brown-yellow sulphurous stain on your clothes. You will not be allowed to remove/ tamper with any rocks or the soil of Nea Kameni and Palea Kameni as these are protected geological zones.
How to Reach Palea Kameni and Nea Kameni
The tiny harbour of Fira (also known as the old port) lies 900 feet below the city of Fira and right under the caldera. Large cruise ships leave from here and so you can expect high tourism thoroughfare. The pier in itself is a very entertaining place with loads of souvenir shops, cafes and taverns. The volcano excursion to the islands of Nea Kameni, Palea Kameni start off from here. The boats dock at the volcano bay (Erinia harbour). After a mere 10-minute journey, the tourists can start exploring Nea Kameni and Palea Kameni.
You will have the option of ascending/ descending between the old port and Fira town on a donkey or using a cable car. The experience of seeing the craggy caldera slope and cliffs rise behind you as you access the port is an experience in itself… some houses and structures seem to be hanging on mere air as they sit on the edges of the cliff.
Thirasia is a prominent tourist destination in itself with its beautiful Korfos bay and an army of traditional taverns serving authentic Greek island cuisine and Santorini wines. There is the gorgeous Manolas village with its narrow cobbled streets and splendid view of Santorini Main Island.
One of the most prominent volcanic veins of the Santorini caldera is located on the south side of Thirasia. This is a vertical construct of lava that flows back into the former veins. It is estimated that the volcanic material had penetrated the surface of the fault. The erosion of the nearby materials has created a magical imposing spectacle that stands out like a miniature wall. Solidified white lava can be seen amongst the wild scenery of Thirasia and that makes for a magnificent sight.
A boat tour around the Caldera cliffs and a visit to Thirasia Island makes for a good volcano exploration activity. Incidentally, Thirasia represents the opposite edge of the caldera (the other edge is seen in Fira-Oia)… it was originally a part of Santorini before the volcanic eruption blew it apart. From Thirasia, you will get excellent views of the multi-layered caldera edge of Santorini.
How to reach Thirasia
Boats from Fira old port will take you to Thirasia but service is irregular unless you have signed up for a volcano tour by boat. From Oia’s Amoudi harbour the connectivity to Thirasia’s Korfos port is good (ferry runs 3 times a day) and it’s a very short 20-minute journey. From Korfos port you have to climb 300 steps (or take a donkey) to reach the Manolas village.
Perissa beach is one of the top attractions of Santorini and there are plenty of exciting restaurants, cafes and entertainment options here. However, if you are looking for evidence of volcanic activity then note that the unique black colour of the sand here formed when molten rock from many volcanic eruptions solidified and slowly broke down due to erosion. Photography at the beach is always spectacular. It’s a common practice to carry away a small sachet of the black sand as a memento.
How to reach Perissa
Perissa is a half an hour drive away from Fira by car/ ATV/ taxi. You can also take the bus from Fira to Perissa and then walk to the black beach.
Akrotiri Excavations and Red beach
The Akrotiri excavations are a major tourist draw of Santorini and thousands of people turn up to witness the beautifully maintained site that extends up to 20 hectares. There is a super developed drainage system, elaborate wall paintings, multi-storeyed buildings and beautiful furniture and cutlery… all evidence of the prosperity of the civilization.
The Akrotiri site was believed to have been populated from the 4th BC and continued till 17th century BC when a series of huge earthquakes made all residents flee. The volcanic eruption happened immediately afterwards and a series of lava materials along with 3 to 6 feet of ash covered the whole island.
The town remained preserved underneath till 1967 when professor Spyridon Marinatos began his excavation project here. It was established that the eruption of the Thira volcano caused the Minoan civilization to collapse. Since then the Akrotiri site has been included in many volcano tours.
The Akrotiri Red Beach derives its stunning red colour from the red volcanic rocks of the caldera. The colour of the beach has been attracting thousands of tourists, photographers and geologists. Since the year 2013, some parts of this beach have been marked inaccessible due to frequent landslides. Lots of pebbles and rocks dot this beach and the combination of black and red colour will remind you of the Attic vases you see in Greek museums.
How to reach Akrotiri Red Beach
There is a regular bus service from Fira to Akrotiri red beach (a 20-minute journey) and after that, it’s a 250-meter walk to the archaeological site.
Volcano tours are one of the best activities you can engage in on Santorini Island. You can go for boat trips to Nea Kameni, Palea Kameni, Thirasia and the red beach near Akrotiri archaeological site, but for a more comprehensive experience you should sign up for a guided small-group tour or a catamaran tour. Tours in glass-bottomed boats are also available and you can admire the gorgeous ocean bed of the Aegean Sea as you pursue the volcano trail.
Viator offers great guided tours of the Santorin volcano. There is the Santorini Volcano hot springs Thirasia trip that includes a boat trip to Nea Kameni, Palea Kameni and Thirasia (6 hours of exploration time)
Another kind of tour you could take while in Santorini is the 10.5 hour Santorini caldera cruise and sunset tour to Oia. This combines the romantic Santorini sunset and the exhilarating volcano experience in one tour. This tour includes a visit to Nea and Palea Kameni and Thirasia along with a cruise to Amoudi Bay that stands right beneath the clifftop town of Oia. Experienced the sunset while moving up the steps to Oia while the sun sets on the volcanic cliffs.
Go to this Viator site to book one of the Santorini Volcano tours online.