The smell is atrocious; the heat nearly as bad.
We´re leaning over what is widely reported as the most active volcano in Central America, looking at the colorful layers of sediment: brilliant orange, green, shiny black, gray, purple…but the smell is awful-stinky and sulfuric.
Masaya is actually two volcanoes in one-Volcan Masaya and Volcan Nindiri. The two are made up of five total craters. We´ve chosen to first view Santiago, the largest of the five. Ahead of us, the crater stretches a vacuous half mile across and nearly 1.5 miles deep. Of course we can´t see its total depth due to the plumes of smoke spewing from its cavernous mouth.
According to legend, Masayan people used to believe this crater was the opening to hell and would thus sacrifice maidens, children and pregnant women to its fiery depths. From what geologists can gather, Masaya has erupted probably 20 times, most recently in 2003. And its fearsome magnificence is not lost on us.
Gus, our guide, encourages us to lean out over a ledge (protected by fencing-don´t worry mom) from which Sandinistas used to throw enemies to their deaths as recently as 35 years ago.
We decide to splurge on the private night tour of the volcano´s caves and other craters. The largest crater, the Masaya crater, is a strange sight. There is some sort of geologic split straight across the middle. One side is full of volcanic rock and nothing else-no signs of life. The other side is lush with lagoons, flora and fauna. Apparently, deer, skunks, sloth’s, squirrels and birds live in this half. And it really is that distinct-a sharp line dividing life and no life.
A few hours after the park closes to the public, we follow our guide and three other backpackers through the dark to the mouths of two volcanic caves thought to have formed during an eruption some 300 years ago.
We are instructed at the mouth of the first to kill our lights and stand still. Shivers run down my spine as thousands of screaming bats fly past. I swear I can feel them rushing by, giving me the willies, but Chris is convinced I feel only the air stirred by the furious flapping of their wings.
We walk about 180 meters into the second cave. As the tallest person in the group, I make full use of my helmet. Our guide shows us a pile of rocks early Masayans used as an altar about 150-200 years ago. Archeologists discovered numerous vessels on ledges inside the cave that held the ashes of sacrificed Masayans. They could determine by the shape and size of each vessel whether it contained a child, adult, or pregnant woman.
Chris and I exchange creeped-out glances when our guide asks the five of us to stand two meters apart and turn off our lights. In the blackest black, I feel a huge drop of water mixed with guano hit my shoulder. Another hits my helmet. This is not only an eerie experience…it´s quite gross as well. Fortunately, about one minute into the five-minute lights-out experience, I feel Chris´ hand close over mine. Dependable Chris. It´s worth the ridicule we receive from the group when they see we´ve cheated.
As we walk back along the trail to the last crater, I reach to my throat and feel two very swollen glands. I struggle to hold my head upright long enough to make it to the mouth of this incredible crater, and it´s well worth the discomfort. Chris and I can barely believe our eyes, the sight is so rich! Before us, under a pitch-black sky, the lava in the crater is glowing so hot it lights up the night. Bright, fiery, reddish-orange light glows angry from below.
This is fabulous, beautiful, awe-inspiring. I massage my swelling glands with one hand and hang onto the back of Chris´ pants with the other as he leans out over the mouth to get a better look. Mystical Masaya has cast its spell on us both.