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Looking over a concrete barrier, we gasped at the sight of a huge hole, big enough to swallow three Roman coliseums. The orifice belched a white cloud of hydrogen sulphide, hydrochloric acid and water vapour. As it billowed up towards us, we and 50 other onlookers simultaneously coughed.

Clouds of sulphur dioxide spew from the Santiago crater at Volcan Masaya.
Clouds of sulphur dioxide spew from the Santiago crater at Volcan Masaya.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The Santiago crater has a definitive case of halitosis. Since 1946, it's been permanently active. The 635-metre-high crater is the centerpiece of Volcán Masaya National Park, Nicaragua's first national park, created in 1979.

Drive to volcano top

Masaya is the most accessible of the 40 volcanos that pimple Nicaragua's Pacific lowlands. Located 23 kilometres south of the capital, Managua, it's one of only two active volcanos in the world with a paved road to the top.

Fields of ruffled black lava from the last eruption in 1772 frame both sides of the seven-kilometre-road. The route was once used by Native inhabitants. According to legend, they threw young virgins into the molten lava in the crater to appease Chaciutique, the goddess of fire. Skeletons found in lava tunnels, near the volcano, give further evidence to the human sacrifices.

In 1529, the Spaniards erected a giant cross at the summit to exorcise the devil because they believed the crater was the entrance to hell. Below the cross, Santiago's 500-metre-wide crater dwarfs the Lilliputian buses and cars in the adjacent parking lot. The remnants of Masaya's twin, Nindiri, cradle the San Pedro crater (formed by a tectonic collapse in 1859).

Visitors climb stairs on edge of Santiago crater.
Visitors climb stairs on edge of Santiago crater.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Pan American highway

The 500 tons of sulphur gases emitted daily from the crater are so noxious that little vegetation grows for 50 kilometres east of the volcano. The name Masaya means "where the grass burns" in the native Nahuatl language. Driving the Pan American Highway, we see only stunted grasses, cacti and cabbages which are resistant to the sulphur.

Green parakeets have also developed a resistance to the gases and live in the crater to evade predators. On trails around Masaya, visitors can also see white-faced monkeys.

Lava tunnels

One trail goes to the vegetation-filled San Juan and San Fernando craters. A second goes to the Laguna Masaya (a lake formed by an extinct crater filled with water). A third goes into one of 15 lava tunnels. Beyond the crystalline stalactites and stalagmites, there's a stone platform which early Natives may have used as an altar for their rituals. Trails range from one to one-and-a-half hours in length.

A museum in the park houses exhibits on vulcanology and history as well as a restaurant and cafeteria. There are also picnic tables and barbecues for those who want to bring their own food.


Careli Tours: www.carelitours.com

More things to see and do in Central America:

Arts, Crafts and Bargains in Masaya Nicaragua Market

Central America on a Shoestring by Lonely Planet