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Destination Nicaragua

Facing Masaya Crater

The main attraction at Masaya National Park, at the foot of Nicaragua’s Masaya volcano, is a unique adventure right out of a science fiction movie: a fifteen-minute peek into the crater of an active volcano with dangerous, dancing lava inside.

 Text and Photos: Demian Colman

We’ve been waiting in the car for half an hour in front of Masaya National Park, at the foot of the Masaya volcano, and every second seems longer than the last. We have to wait for the cars ahead of us to drive up and down the volcano in groups of ten before we’ll finally get our chance. All these safety measures —the time allowed visitors at the top (just fifteen minutes); the specific parking spaces; the number of visitors allowed at one time— exist for a very good reason: the main attraction is none other than a glimpse inside the crater of an active volcano at the dangerous, dancing lava inside. That’s right.

The wait is long and my stomach churns with butterflies. To take our minds off it, we remember that only a few hours earlier we were paying penance by climbing up to Coyotepe Fortress. For me, tourism is like going to the movies: you sit down in the theater and off go the lights. The world you know remains outside and the only reality left is the one on the screen. At Coyotepe, you turn off the lights by walking up the hill. There, your world and your reality fade into the background so that your mind, now clear, can absorb as much as possible. The air seems to seep reluctantly into your lungs while your head is baked in sunlight that is only occasionally filtered by trees.

Although it appears to date from the Spanish conquest, Nicaraguans built Coyotepe Fortress in the 20th century, at precisely 1,200 feet above sea level, as a lookout point from which to survey the Pacific Railroad. The hill, along with the building on top of it, is linked to a reality so cruel as to require this clearing of the mind: these walls, now crumbling, witnessed the many wars that have devastated Nicaragua since 1893. It’s cold, dark tunnels saw the worst of the nation’s history until, in 1983, it was delivered into the hands of the Luis Alfonso Velásquez Flores Association of Sandinista Children (formerly Scouts of Nicaragua) as a symbol of a peaceful future. Today, the fortress towers are used only as a place from which to enjoy a perfect 360-degree view of Masaya with its volcanoes, lake, and surrounding landscape. Here, you feel on top of world, breathing in the peace now enjoyed in this country, so we take a deep breath and fill our hearts with the landscape.

But before the credits of this film can roll, with the soundtrack still ringing in my ears, the car here in Masaya starts its engine and brings me quickly back to the present. Before I know what’s hit me, we are finally allowed to journey up to the volcanic crater. From the car windows we see menacing red smoke snaking between the trees, and in my movie-saturated mind I imagine it’s Smaug, the Middle Earth dragon from The Hobbit, greeting us from the not-so-solitary mountain and dancing into the darkness of the night. We head towards the boiling orange glow…

The road is short and we arrive quickly, with no warning of the appearance of Santiago Crater, which now dances on our “screen.” Earlier this year the crater showed signs of activity, revealing once again its great fiery lake. We get out of the car and stop at the exact point indicated by our guide. A river of fire crackles at our feet and the group screams in all languages. This is an active volcano! I feel no heat and can smell nothing unusual. Rather, I feel a kind of admiration in the face of nature’s grandeur, belittled by forces from the center of the Earth. Below, I spy National Geographic cameras in front of the crater, and proud locals describe the study of the volcano. They point out the most famous volcanologist, “there, where you see the rope.” He’s the only one who dares to go down!

At the time of conquest, both natives and Spaniards believed that the lake of magma created by the fire emanating from Nindirí Crater was the gateway to Hell. This prompted Friar Francisco de Bobadilla, in an attempt to exorcise the Devil, to erect an enormous sanctifying cross, which is still standing today. Indeed, Masaya Volcano and its various craters are surrounded by myths and legends that come alive before our eyes. My mind wanders back in time and Smaug continues to dance, preventing me from even blinking. I try to imagine what it must have been like to be the first to look into his fiery mouth.

It was only just this morning that I strolled through the indigenous quarter of Monimbó, where Nicaraguan cultural traditions mingle with those of the First Peoples. Passing through the “tiangue” (indigenous marketplace), I saw green-painted houses and a small museum providing a gateway to other worlds. A guide at the museum shared some of the neighborhood’s indigenous history and pointed out its greatest treasure: the petroglyphs. A recent tourism initiative helped locals showcase the petroglyphs and trained local youth as guides to take visitors on a sacred hike. After a few minutes, our guide appears and tells us that they now just wait for the tourists and adventurers who arrive, on the recommendation of other visitors, to visit the place.

The road, once again, as ritual. Slowly we leave the houses behind and are soon surrounded by greenery. In the distance the lake peeks in and out between the branches and, finally, we see a river; on the river, a wall, and on the wall, drawings; sacred, ancient drawings that have survived time, erosion, and wars. The soul and mind are transported and, if you concentrate hard enough, you can see and hear the real inheritors of this America, walking through the jungle and ornamenting their surroundings with the sacred objects at hand —holy animals, humans, celestial objects— so important that they continue to surprise us, even today.

Gods and Demons. I return to the “long-teated witch with bulging eyes” described in accounts written by the first Spaniards to arrive here. She hides below my feet, calculating her time remaining in the dark until the departure of the white man. At 1,200 feet above sea level, this phenomenon of volcanic calderas, the Masaya shield Volcano, calls to tourists worldwide to dare, as the first monk once did, to peer into the red mist and enjoy the show. Far from the gates of Hell, this to me is Mother Earth, displaying her great wealth and power.

Here we are, amazed to find ourselves before one of the great wonders of nature. The colorful esplanade, the main square constantly full of people, and the beautiful old market with its cultural attractions were nothing but an hors d’oeuvre. This is the main course and we gorge ourselves on it. Now I know how Frodo and Bilbo felt on their great adventures. True, I’m not riding a pony alongside dwarves and elves, but it’s hard to explain everything I’ve experienced. To my cinephilic mind, this is like a scene created in a Hollywood studio. I’m waiting for the curtain to close or the scene to change, but here in magical Masaya this is reality and adventure tourism takes on a new dimension.

I rub my eyes to confirm what I’m seeing. I was raised to run from situations like this, but everything here makes me want to stay, hypnotized by the orange glow below, the mini-explosions that cause the fire to spring up over and over again, eliciting screams in thousands of languages… But our fifteen minutes are up. We get the call to return but nobody wants to move. Who would? Did I mention we’re standing in front of an active volcano? There’s fire, lava!

Still, the guide yells unceremoniously: “Cut!”