The International Writers
Mouth of Hell
case of expulsions of rocks, protect yourself under the car."
This was the first sentence to catch my eye on the pamphlet the
guard gave me upon entering the Parque Nacional Volcan Masaya. If
this werent ominous enough, then the sign at the top of the
volcano was. "Park your car facing exit, in case of emergency."
Of course, my first
question was if such an emergency were to arise, which action should
I perform first?
Nicaragua has nine active volcanoes running up the centre of the country
like a volatile spine. The Volcan Masaya is the most accessible and,
by extension, the most popular. It is also a rare form of basalt volcano,
which attracts scientists from around the world in addition to the steady
flow of tourists. It erupted for the first time in 4550 BC, and to date,
it is one of the largest eruptions on historical record.
On the day I arrived in a rattling, aging mini-bus, the volcano was
smoking profusely emitting noxious sulphuric fumes that stung
my nose and eyes. Despite the haze, however, I was suitably stunned
as I approached the gaping yawn of the Santiago crater. The drop to
the crater floor is vertiginous. The stark grey windswept landscape
gave me the impression a mischievous god shoveled out the centre of
mountain with an ice cream scoop. My stomach convulsed. My feet hurt.
The wind whipping in, out, and over the toothless maw didnt help.
I felt as though at any minute I could be plucked from the safety of
my perch and tossed insignificantly into the mountains belly.
It was awesome.
When the Spanish arrived on scene in 1524, the vent was a bubbling lake
of molten lava. The crater remained that way until 1979, when the lava
retreated. The cross that stands watch over the site to this day, was
first erected by those same conquistadors, who gave the mountain its
nickname, boca de infierno the mouth of hell. The cross was meant
to stop the devil from surfacing. Its effectiveness, however, is still
in question, given the great eruption of 1772. In fact, the stairway
to the cross is currently inaccessible due to a minor eruption six years
ago. Workmen were toiling away at it in the incandescent sun on the
day of my visit.
The indigenous tribes who predated the Spanish were more efficient.
They simply tossed appeasing sacrifices over the edge every once in
I was hoping to catch a glimpse of the famed chocoyos del crater
the florescent green parrots that make their nests in the crags and
caves of the cliffsides, mystifying scientists but, alas, I was
not so lucky. The volcano, which is one of the worlds largest
natural producers of dioxides, also expels bioxides which when combined
with saliva form sulphuric acid. Other than the arcane chocoyos no other
life exists for miles around the vent. Needles to say, visitors are
encouraged to limit their stays.
Trails, maintained by park staff, circle the bleak and rocky moonscape,
offering the intrepid traveller the opportunity to explore the fields
of volcanic ash and stone, which look the forlorn and twisted sculptures
of a modern art museum. As I discovered, however, these trails can come
to abrupt ends as they near the craters edge and become unstable.
Simple wooden signs appear without warning, forcing the hiker to retire,
or to continue at his own risk.
The Sandero de los Coyotes, if you can get past the name, is the longest
and most interesting of the trails, taking several hours to complete.
But even if you have only a short while, the volcano is worth a detour.
You will never see anything else like it on earth.
Brent June 2007
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