During my trip to Nicaragua, I worked with Tierra Tour – a locally owned and operated Nicaraguan tour provider. My tours were graciously provided by Tierra Tour, but as always, all opinions are my own.
Looming over the town of Masaya is a tyrant; a violent, unpredictable presence with a bloody history and the power to destroy once again.
Masaya is the cultural heart of Nicaragua, a town known for its markets, crafts, and folk traditions. But a short drive away from the peaceful city of Masaya lies the Masaya Volcano – where visitors can climb to the top of this tyrant that has claimed lives in the past and peer down into the still-active crater on top.
After the easy drive up, I stepped to the edge of the viewing platform and for the first time in my life peered down into the smoky abyss of an active volcano.
The crater burped and belched its toxic fumes towards me in thick, white clouds. Both hydrochloric acid and gaseous lead spew from the volcano, and the strong smell of sulpher lingers in the air. I got the sense that this wasn’t a place you’d want to spend a significant amount of time, incredible and fascinating as it may be.
The park service recognizes the inherent dangers of the fumes here and limits the time visitors can stay. Too much time spent breathing these fumes and you could do some serious damage to your health. The threat here is so real that we had gas masks at the ready just in case a strong shift in the winds occurred, blowing the noxious fumes in our direction.
After we reached our time limit at the edge of the toxic crater, we hiked up a nearby trail to to gain a perspective of the beast from above. It was from here that we could truly see the size and scope of the massive gash into the earth. Viewing the crater from here, it was no wonder that when the Spanish first encountered the Masaya volcano, they thought it to be the gateway to hell itself.
The volcano also held a special significance to the indigenous people of Nicaragua. As giant smoking mountains usually do, Masaya held a massive influence over those living in its shadow. The indigineous people held great reverence for the volcano and would do whatever they could to win its favor. On some occasions, the native population would appease the volcano by sacrificing a virgin or a child, throwing them into the smoking crater below.
Exploring the Underworld
Telltale signs of volcanic activity abound in Masaya Volcano National Park. Extinct volcanic craters are now filled with thick vegetation, pyroclastic rock from previous blasts litters the trails, and the rim of the large caldera can be seen from the highest points in the park.
Several lava tubes also wind their way underneath the park, relics of ancient lava flows that once carved these caves now provide unique environments for the park’s resident bats. We positioned ourselves near the entrance of one of these caves right as the sun was setting.
At first it started as a trickle. One bat came fluttering out, followed by a few more. And within minutes, thousands of bats were streaming out of the cave. A thick cloud of the winged mammals filled the space between us and the entrance to the lava tube.
As the bats took to the sky to look for their dinner, we slowly approached the mouth of the cave. The bats surrounded us and the closer I walked towards the cave, the denser the cloud of bats became. Yet despite the chaos and near-dark conditions, the bats are precision flyers. Using their sonar capabilities, bats are constantly aware of the world around them.
What looked like a chaotic flight pattern to me was actually a highly organized and sophisticated method of avoiding midair colliisions. As I stood staring into the cave, the bats were flying straight at my face, only veering away at the last second. The winged mammals were using their sophisticated sonar capabilities to not only avoid the human now standing near their cave, but also to hunt down the hundreds insects they would be consuming that night.
While it’s prohibited to enter the cave, we watched in awe from the entrance for 20 or 30 minutes with a steady stream of bats flying out the entire time. They actually outlasted us; when we left there were still plenty of the squeaking creatures departing for their nightly hunt.
Just down the road from the bat cave lies another lava tube open to visitors. We flipped on our headlamps and torches and entered the dark passageway. The lava tube penetrated deep into the earth. We walked a little over a half mile, studying the formations on the ceiling and searching for any signs of life in the blackness.
At the end of our walk we entered into a large cavern that was used as a spiritual site for the indigenous population. The cavern was sacred ground, an ancient temple for these people, and while standing in the massive domed space, we switched off our headlamps and torches to experience just how dark it could be.
I can honestly say I’ve never experienced something so black. I was a half mile into the earth, and there was no place in this cavern for light to penetrate. It was utter, complete darkness.
After several tense moments in the darkness, we switched our lights back on and hiked back to the edge of the lava tube. While we were inside, the last vestiges of daylight had faded from the sky, signaling an end to our time in the Masaya Volcano National Park.
The power at the Masaya volcano is raw; power from deep inside the earth, power from explosions past, and power from the significance this magma-spewing mountain holds for the past and present people of Nicaragua, and a visit to the volcano is a humbling experience of the power of nature.