Masaya Volcano: Staring Into the Mouth of Hell

Masaya Volcano: Staring Into the Mouth of Hell

With the exception of the thick, impermeable clouds of rising sulfur, there don’t seem to be any signs of life in this large pit crater. So we’re surprised to suddenly see a company of parakeets ascend from some unknown abode within the basin that descends hundreds of feet below. Our guide explains that the comings and goings of these parakeets are a crucial clue to the imminent happenings of the Masaya Volcano – a complex volcano composed of a series of two volcanos and five craters.

A few years ago, the parakeets, which had been out and about soaring through Masaya’s skies, returned to their volcanic home here in the Santiago Crater only to reemerge moments later, circling the welkin above. Suddenly, the parakeets flew away, and no more than two minutes later, the ground rumbled and the crater blew its fuse, spewing rocks and ashes through the air. Although cars in the nearby parking lot were damaged, lives were fortunately spared. But the lesson was clear – to escape Masaya’s wrath, pay attention to the parakeets.

The wealthy, children, and beautiful virgins of centuries past were often chosen to face Masaya head on. Indigenous peoples believed that a hag deity left the bottom of the volcanic crater to advise them, and in deference to her, the selected few made the sacrificial leap into the crater’s bowels into what they believed was a sort of purgatory – not death.  Being chosen to make this leap of faith was a great honor that couldn’t be refused without risking ostracism and banishment.

When the Spanish arrived, they didn’t have the same reverence for Masaya, seeing it instead as “The Mouth of Hell”. In 1529, Friar Francisco Bobadilla ordered the construction of a cross nearby in an effort to exorcise the devil from the volcano’s belly.

Unlike the Spanish, this is the one and only time I ever want a glimpse into hell. With a bit of time and patience, the sulfur clouds clear, and we’re offered a peek into the seemingly abysmal drop off.

My thoughts turn morbid as I think about the gashes and injuries the offerors suffered as their bodies banged against the volcanic crater’s jagged surfaces while plummeting to their deaths below.

Engulfed in sulfur fumes, I turn my back to the crater in search of fresh air. Our guide points to the dormant crater nearby.  With the exception of grass, vegetation won’t grow on its surface because of the rising heat below.

View of Masaya Lake
View of Masaya Lake

When Masaya blows again – and it will blow again – I wonder how the landscape will change in this 54 square kilometer super caldera that is the Masaya Volcano National Park. I wonder if the people and the wildlife that live in this area will make it out in time. God knows the parakeets will.



Have you visited an active volcano?

  • It’s an oddly beautiful place – but I don’t think I would like to hang out there for too long. I’d keep thinking about the poor sacrifices!

    • Dana Carmel

      While we were there, the sulfur fumes actually started changing colors from white to yellow to hints of red. We took that as our cue to get out of there. Definitely not the kind of place where you want to linger!

  • A

    Awesome. love the photos. Never heard of this volcano but what an interesting story. So how effective has that cross been so far?

    • Dana Carmel

      Well, if the Spanish conquistadors were still around, my guess is that they’d think that the devil is still fuming deep from within the volcano. Glad you enjoyed this post and the pics.

  • Oh my God Dana, I was horrified learning about rhe fate of the children and the virgin. Looking into the crater through your photos turned my knees into jelly. It’s a very big mouth of hell and so deep as well. Really interesting post and story, Dana. And your writing is beautiful.

    • Dana Carmel

      Thanks so much, Marisol. While we were there, it was quite moving to think about the people who’d sacrificed their lives. But I love learning those kinds of historical tidbits – it makes travel so much more meaningful!

  • Wow. It looks pretty eerie with all the sulphur fumes coming out!

    • Dana Carmel

      It actually wasn’t eerie at all – I only wish that there was a way for us to see further down the volcano.

  • This was such an amazing experience to be that close to an active volcano. What an interesting story behind Masaya. I can just imagine the sulfuric smell here. I’ve been to Volcanoes NP in Hawaii and that was an unforgettable experience too. This looks like another great excursion.

    • Dana Carmel

      That’s one of my favorite aspects of travel – learning the stories behind places. It was definitely a great excursion!

  • Count yourself lucky Dana because this is an experience that only a few travelers will ever experience.

    • Dana Carmel

      It was a true blessing to be able to visit Masaya Volcano. I count all of my travels as blessings. Thanks for reading, Raymond!

  • This looks like a very interesting excursion, I love volcanoes somehow they really intrigue me. It’s funny how animals indeed seem to have a sixth sense.

    • Dana Carmel

      I think this is the second active volcano I’ve been to. The first was in Costa Rica, but I was young and only remember seeing yellowish lava while looking down into it. Thanks for reading along!

  • Oh my gosh what a post, Dana! I had goosebumps because I was afraid you were going to say you and Jave felt the ground started to rumble. Thank goodness you didn’t. Isn’t that amazing with the parakeets? Mother Nature’s creatures are so attuned to give us warnings. I got chills at the thought of those that had to make that sacrificial leap. I’m still shaking my head. This was an amazing post, my friend 🙂

    • Dana Carmel

      Thank God the parakeets stayed put while we were up there, Mike. But you’re so right – the animals always have a sixth sense about those kinds of things. Glad you enjoyed this post and thanks for reading!

  • hi , I am at nicaragua, and i want to go there tomorrow, how can i get there give me info plzzz 🙂

  • Those toxic fumes could overtake you quickly so consider yourself lucky. Never got this close to an active volcano. I was rudely awakened by an earthquake in Costa Rica. I thought the Arenal volcano nearby decided to blow. The wooden cabin really rattled.

    • Dana Carmel

      It’s weird – when we first got there I didn’t really smell the fumes, but they gradually got stronger the longer we were up there. Glad it was just an earthquake and not a volcanic eruption that you experienced in Costa Rica!

  • What an interesting excursion. I’d be heeding the parakeets actions. I’ve never been that close to an active volcano where you can smell the fumes. One has to take a leap of faith that it will only belch but not blow when you’re up there.

    • Dana Carmel

      It would be devastating to be up there during an eruption. I’m surprised no one got hurt or killed the last time around!

  • The edge of the volcano looks dangerous, I’d be scared of taking a peek.

    • Dana Carmel

      If there wasn’t any fencing around the edge, I definitely couldn’t peek either. I’d probably pass out and fall over!

  • Fascinating: I have never been near a volcano (and I am Italian!)…

    • Dana Carmel

      Ha – you have no excuses, Stefania!


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