MASAYA, Nicaragua – Once considered “the gate to hell” for its potent sulfurous emissions and violently threatening irritable bowel syndrome, Nicaragua’s Masaya Volcano is now a happy place to take the family.
Less than half an hour from the beautiful colonial city of Granada, Masaya Volcano’s gaseous Santiago Crater offers compelling, if smelly, proof that not all volcanoes are created equal.
A perimeter wall built precariously close to the gaping crater allows you to go right to the edge and smell the fumes rising from the lava flows below. The crater rim and the thick gas cloud provide an undeniably unique backdrop for a family vacation photograph.
As you climb up the newly rebuilt staircase to the cross built on the cliff above the crater, the sulfur cloud gets increasingly strong, tickling your nose and lungs as you huff and puff to the top. The climb is worth it, however, as you stand at the top and look down into the volcano – getting a view similar to the last thing sacrificial victims saw after they were thrown off the edge by the indigenous 500 years ago, according to the bilingual guide.
On the west side of the rim, if you’re lucky, you may catch sight of families of parakeets returning home for the day to their cliff dwellings inside the crater.
Though the fumes can get thick at times, be thankful they are. Despite ominous signs to motorists instructing them to “park with their cars facing downhill” to make a fast escape in the event of an eruption, your guide will explain that there’s really nothing to worry about as long as the cloud of escaping gases remains thick. The problem, the guide warns, is when there’s no visible sign of gas emissions, which means that pressure is building inside the potentially deadly mountain.
The most dramatic way to see Masaya Volcano – one of the most visited spots in Nicaragua – is during the night tour, which leaves at 5 p.m. from the rim of the crater.
After explaining the history of the volcano and leading you up to the cross for a panoramic view of the crater and Managua, your guide lets you into areas of the park that are normally off-limits – which is where the real fun starts.
As the sun prepares to set, the guide leads you up a narrow pass to the east of Santiago Crater. The trail, a combination of volcanic sand and small rocks, lined with amber slopes of shrub grass, soon gets startlingly steep as it parallels the rim of the extinct San Fernando Crater.
After you scramble up the last 200 meters of the steep volcanic peak, an incredible 360-degree view opens, with Masaya to the east, Santiago Crater to the west and the early evening lights of Managua to the northwest. From the top of the volcano, you can watch the sun set behind the volcanic cloud and seemingly dip into the crater, sending a dazzling array of colors across the gas-filled sky.
The guide leads you down the mountain path before the night envelops the last of the sunrays. Once back on the edge of the active crater, the family can pile back into the car for the two-minute drive to the south side of the volcano, there to explore the bat cave. Here you are given protective helmets and flashlights, and led down another path toward the entrance to an old lava-flow bat cave.
As you gingerly enter the stony tunnel, the bats dart and flap past your head. Those family members old enough to remember it may find themselves whistling the Indiana Jones theme song (Indy, no time to argue! Throw me the idol; I’ll throw you the whip!)
At the back of the cave, some 700 meters inside the mountain, the guide shows you where a witch reportedly lived and read the future to indigenous caciques hundreds of years ago, and where Sandinista rebels hid when the National Guard bombed Masaya during the insurrection in the late 1970s. Back outside the cave, the last stop on the tour offers a crater-rim view of an active lava flow deep inside the volcano.
Then it’s back to Granada for adult cocktail hour while the kids talk about volcanic eruptions, lava flows, bats, witches and rebel hideouts.
Indeed, no adventure theme park can come close to the real-world excitement of Nicaragua.
Masaya Volcano by Night
Granada’s Tierra Tour (www.tierratour.com) arranges night tours to Masaya Volcano. The group minimum is four people, and the cost is $30 per person. Tierra Tour will pick you up at your hotel at 4 p.m. and have you back safe and sound by 7. Note: The trail is quite steep in parts, so keep this in mind for very young or very old family members.