Bit of a dramatic one this, taken at the summit of Masaya volcano in Nicaragua. That cloud isn’t a handy prop to set the mood, it’s actually smoke rising from the crater itself – the sky was a clear blue behind me.
Even without the spectral presence of the cross looming over the crater, the knowledge that you are standing right next to the gaping mouth of an active volcano does add a certain frisson to proceedings.
Despite being one of the country’s shortest volcanoes at a little over 630 metres, Masaya is also one of the most active. Back in 1993, a lava lake filled the base of the central caldera and it is still possible to glimpse the orange glow between the billowing clouds of smoke.
Occasional eruptions aside, Masaya’s history is also steeped in drama of a different kind. The Spanish, never shy of an evocative turn-of-phrase, believed it to be a place of evil and dubbed it “La Boca del Infierno”, or “The Mouth of Hell”.
They were responsible for erecting the first cross on the lip of the crater where the current one stands, to exorcise the Devil from the fiery depths below.
Indigenous people before them were a little more creative, dropping unfortunate virgin girls into the volcano to appease the evil spirits within.
Years later, this method also proved popular with President Somoza, who – according to my guide – used it less as a form of religious mollification and more as a convenient way of disposing of political nuisances.
With all this mythology it is easy to forget what Masaya actually is: an awesome natural phenomenon. Peering into the smoky depths is undeniably eerie, but also incredibly thrilling.
Some of the locals at least have made peace with the demonic volcano: arrive in the late afternoon and you can see pairs of small green parrots returning to their nests inside the caldera. Thousands of these tiny creatures, known as chocoyos, have made their home here, impervious to the noxious fumes and inhospitable terrain. And, it seems, the evil spirits.
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