Smoke and sulfur belched upward continuesly from Nicaragua’s most active volcano. Rain poured down and the wind whipped at my face stinging it like acid as I tried to look down into Volcan Masaya’s enormous crater, hoping for a glimpse of molten lava.
Peace Corps Training was officially halfway over now, and as a reward, we were given a free trip to Volcan Masaya National Park. Although it Masaya is far from the highest volcano even in the immediate area, with Volcan Mombacho so big we could see it in the distance from the Masaya park, Masaya’s constant activity attracts visitors from all over the world.
According to the park’s visitor center more than 50 percent of their patronage comes from “extranjeros” or foreign tourists. The entrance to the park is 100 cordobas, roughly four US dollars. For that, not only can you visit the crater itself, but also a very educational museum dedicated to it.
There are exhibits of the volcano’s geology and how it effects the local environment as well as a history of how the volcano was seen by human societies. Ancient tribes believed that a “Hag deity” lived at the bottom of the crater and was honored with human sacrifices. The Spanish saw the place as the gateway to hell and proceeded to baptize the volcano and mount a large wooden cross on the top.
Naturally we weren’t out at this site just for fun. Peace Corps decided to use the place for our diversity session. The idea was people are like volcanos, they have some really amazing topical features that make them different in appearance. However, if you get down to the core of them all, there’s a chamber of molten magma deep down in all of them that makes them who they really are. At first hearing this metaphor I wasn’t totally on board but after going up the slopes of Masaya, I started to get a better idea of how right it really was.
We drove all the way up to the lip of the crater. Being allowed to do this is something that is unique to this volcano in not just Nicaragua but the whole world. In 2001 it “burped up boulders” according to Moon travel guides, damaging cars and narrowly missing people.
Lonely Planet travel guides say that Volcan Masaya is for adventure tourism, and it is suggested to limit your visits to only 20 minutes. The billowing clouds of greyish sulfur smoke that smells like a full latrine will convince you to keep it short if the warning didn’t. But don’t let that keep you away from this place. It’s amazing to stand on the shoulder of one of nature’s great marvels of raw power.
Originally published in Va Pues, March 2012
(The Peace Corps magazine in Nicaragua)