Standing on the volcano edge, peering into the inferno below, it’s easy to see why the first Spanish invaders thought Masaya volcano was the “Mouth of Hell”. Spewing sulfurous gases, the permanent lava lake was a first for the Europeans, who thought they were getting a glimpse into the underworld. These ideas were encouraged by the local inhabitants, who saw the volcano as a god. They would give it offerings of animals, and human sacrifices of children and virgins, all to encourage the rain. Local chiefs would also consult the volcano about important matters, reportedly speaking with a sorceress with spiky hair, fangs and breasts reaching to her waist who would appear inside the volcano. The connection between hell and the volcano led the Spanish to believe that the native gods were created by the devil.
Fun fact: in 1529 a monk climbed the volcano to erect a cross in an attempt to exorcise the devil from the Mouth.
These days the volcano is no longer seen as quite so otherworldly, but it is impressive nonetheless. The volcano is located in Masaya Volcano National Park, Nicaragua’s oldest national park. Only a short distance from Masaya, Managua or Granada, it makes a great day trip. The volcano can be visited during the day from 9am to 4:30pm. There are no set tour times and you can drive up yourself to check out the volcano, as well as take advantage of some walking trails. Entrance is 100 cordobas (~$3.50US) for foreigners.
But I would suggest waiting until dark to see the volcano at its most glorious. Entrance at night is tightly controlled, with only ten cars allowed in at a time. The first tour begins around 5pm and the last leaves at 7:30pm. At $10/person, it’s more expensive than going during the day, but I think it’s well worth it. We were warned that the night tours are extremely popular and made sure we got to the park thirty minutes early. We were the first to arrive, but it was only ten minutes before the park’s driveway was full and the cars began to park along the side of the highway.
During the day, a car isn’t necessary as there are periodic shuttles that take you into the park. At night, however, you will need your own vehicle. You can also go with a tour company out of Masaya or Granada if braving the Nicaraguan roads isn’t for you. While we were waiting for the gates to open, we were approached by an Australian couple who had taken the bus to the park and now had no way up the volcano. We let them jump in the back seat, but it might be a risk to just show up and hope you can find a ride.
Visiting the volcano is sometimes not possible. The sulfurous gases can be overwhelming at the top. Tours are completely suspended if there is too much gas and the wind is blowing the wrong way or if there is too much volcanic activity. Time spent at the top is limited to fifteen minutes so that visitors don’t breathe in too much of the noxious fumes. Small explosions have damaged vehicles in the past, but no one has ever been injured.
Sometimes the gas can be too thick to easily see the lava lake, but I was incredibly lucky. There was minimal gas, giving me a clear view of the churning lava below. Although it’s called a lake, it reminded more of the ocean. I could even hear the turbulent waves hitting the sides of the crater. People crowded around, only a small barrier between them and the sharp drop. I tried not to imagine what it would be like to be thrown in to appease a god.
Truly a once in a lifetime sight, and a highlight of this beautiful country.