The mouth of hell

LUNCH STOP: Winsome and Jim Mitchell take in the sights of the town Catarina, during a lunch stop.

WINSOME Mitchell was in Nicaragua in June this year with her husband Jim. They were passengers on a cruise from Miami to Vancouver via the Panama Canal, a place which was on both their bucket lists.

The visit to Masaya Volcano was the highlight of a seven-hour round trip from the port town of San Juan Del Sur, which, combined with the beautiful Nicaraguan landscape of volcanoes and lakes, made the day unforgettable.

Smoke and gaseous clouds billow steadily upwards from the crater of Nicaragua’s Masaya Volcano in a medley of blacks, whites and greys.

The clouds drift, swirl and mingle as they reach the top and stretch slowly across blue sky or float upwards past the outstretched arms of Father Bobadilla’s cross.

The crater huffs toxic breaths of sulphur dioxide through rocky jaws of ochre, black, green and white before the breeze pushes the smoke aside and I stare as if hypnotised, 600 metres down towards the grumbling lava lake, directly into “The Mouth of Hell”.

It’s an awesome experience to witness the forces of nature at such close range, even in daylight when the distant lava lake is little more than a faint tinge of red.
Small wonder then that the Spanish Invaders named it La Bocha del Inferno (The Mouth of Hell) when they saw it at night.

A letter to the Spanish Emperor in 1525 describes the crater as ‘a large mouth of fire which never ceases to burn. During the night it is so big it is as if it reaches the sky, and there is light as if it was day…’

With such a powerful force to fuel superstitious minds, stories of gold, human sacrifice and supernatural events are woven into local folklore.

Several organised expeditions have descended into the volcano, but in earlier civilisations entry was not optional. The indigenous people believed that it was inhabited by an angry god, and maidens and children were allegedly thrown into the crater to appease him.

During times of drought the unfortunate souls were told to ‘go down and bring up water.’

The Spanish in turn were convinced that the volcano was inhabited by a lava-spitting demon, and in 1529 Franciscan Padre, Francisco Bobadilla climbed the volcano to erect a cross on the lip of the crater to exorcise the demon.

The volcano refused to be appeased, and in 1772 a huge eruption transformed the local landscape forever.

According to The Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research the eruption began at 1am on March 16, 1772, after two hours of strong local earthquakes and the lava flowed continuously for eight days.

The lava lake is described as “fire that was as liquid as water and that was burning more fiercely than red hot coal; more ardent in colour and burning more than any fire can ever burn”.

The effects of that explosion form the basis of Nicaragua’s Masaya Volcano National Park which was established in 1979. The park contains two volcanoes; Masaya, and the smaller Nindiri and covers an area of 54 square kilometres.

The 5km drive from the visitors centre to the viewing platform is dominated by continuous heaps of rough, black volcanic rock and ash which stretch into the distance and cover most of the valley floor.

Soft green grasses squeeze through the gaps and flourish in open spaces along with a scattering of trees and pioneer vegetation. Monkeys, coyotes, deer, and other forms of wild life have taken residence here and millions of bats live in underground lava tunnels. Today though, the only sign of wildlife is a few wild horses who ignore the passing traffic.

The road ends right at the rim of the crater where a delightfully worded sign written in “Spanglish” instructs visitors to park their cars facing the exit.

Our guide explains that the visit will only last 15 minutes because internal rockslides may plug a vent and the resulting pressure could cause an explosion. If that should happen, the sign advises protecting yourself under the car. Here at the crater 15 minutes pass too quickly. A lone bird navigates the smoky cloud and I marvel that here, where gas stings the eyes and irritates the bronchial tubes, a colony of chocoyos or small green parrots have adapted to the sulphuric conditions and actually nest inside the crater.

My gaze travels 74 steps up the hill to Father Bobadilla’s Cross and I wonder how many times it’s been replaced since 1529.

I reflect on superstition and human sacrifice and I’m grateful that it’s 2017 and that I’m privileged to witness this unforgettable work of nature for what it really is; an active volcano and not the “mouth of hell”.