The boy was still quite weak from whatever stomach bug he caught before arriving in Nicaragua. We needed him to save energy for the grand finale of the trip: a night tour to Volcan Masaya and the smoking Santiago crater.
Since walking around town was out of the question, we decided to spend part of the day at Laguna de Apoyo, a 200-metre deep, 200-centuries old crater lake whose water is kept warm by underground volcanic vents.
Finding it, however, was a bit of a trick. There was a sign pointing in the general direction but after that we were on our own. We might not have found it were it not for a group of young, hitchhiking German students.
The kids were a bit befuddled, as we’ve never picked up hitchhikers and always warn the kids about strangers. But as you can see, they looked pretty harmless and we were lost. And it was worth it, because as we reached the top of the crater and the water inside became visible we were awestruck. Its vibrant hues reminded me of the pristine, emerald lakes in the most remote areas of the Rocky Mountains that can only be reached on foot.
Though it came close, our crappy camera did not quite capture the purity of the colour.
There are a smattering of houses and a few basic lakeside restaurants where you can enjoy a coolish Tona, lay on a patch of rocky beach or swim in the water.
Though surely a national treasure, there is seemingly no protection or monitoring of the area and though it appears the locals do try to keep it pristine we found a chunk of glass along the shore where the children were playing and some garbage. Still, it was amazing.
From the lake, we moved onto the artisan market in Masaya, a bigger and much less pretty town about 20 minutes from Granada.
The market is hidden behind tall fortress-like walls that ooze history.
Unfortunately, we only had about an hour to spend and we could have used at least three. The market was filled with all kinds of handcrafted goods, from traditional cotton dresses to chachkes to beautifully woven hammocks to leather shoes and handbags. There was also an impressive array of local art, the canvasses mostly reflecting the rural agricultural life of Nicaraguans.
When we departed, the young man of about age 15 who had pointed us to a parking spot had washed the car, without our asking. Of course, for his entrepenurial efforts he wanted $10 — for school, he said. It was a Monday, when he should have been at school so I’m pretty sure the poor kid is, well, poor, and has to work so we handed over the money without complaint.
From there, we raced over to the Volcan Masaya national park for a night tour — the highlight of the trip and the only thing that kept the sick boy going.
We were able to drive to the top of the volcano’s cone, and peer over the edge of the smoldering Santiago crater, said by the Spaniards who first conquered the New World to be the gate to hell. We were told to park the vehicle facing out, in case of an emergency evacuation. This became mandatory after a 2001 eruption hurled hot rocks into the air and landed on some cars and narrowly missing some tourists.
These pictures show the crags of the crater’s edge and the sulphurous gases rising from its depths. We climbed to its top, where a gigantic wooden cross reaches into the sky. Visitors are only permitted to stay 20 minutes in one spot, due to the toxic gases.
From there, we explored two lava tubes, caves created from historical eruptions where a very knowledgeable and English-speaking guide explained their formation and how they were historical used for sacrifices by the ancient Mayans.
Another cave was inhabited by bats and we stood inside it, flashlights off while hundreds of bats took to the air; the wind from their wings felt on our cheeks. If you look very closely at the photo you will see them. It was snapped in complete darkness and the flash captured their silhouettes.
This was one of the most impressive natural wonders we’ve seen during our eight months in Central America, and there are many. It rivals ArenalVolcano in Costa Rica, where on a clear night you can see lava flowing down the side of the always rumbling cone.
The only disappointment was a small scam perpretrated by the ticket seller at the national park, who took my $40 entrance fee ($10 per person for the two-to-three-hour tour) then told the tour guides we’d only paid $20 and tried to get them to collect the additional $20.
I thought I’d seen every scam, but this was a new one and annoying that it happened at a national park. But I’m also a seasoned veteran in this game now and have a learned a few tricks of my own. So, I simply explained that I had paid the correct amount and if they had a problem they had better discuss it with the man who pocketed the other $20.
And we drove off. Adios amigos.
Nicaragua isn’t perfect.
About half its population remains painfully poor and it’s not unusual to pass by houses without indoor plumbing and dirt floors alongside the highway. A child rapped on our windows begging for money when we stopped for gas in Granada while a blind man with a cane grasped my hand and kissed it when I dropped some change into his as we passed on the sidewalk in the colonial city. At the border, there is a mother who regularly parades her disabled son past the lines of people waiting to get passports stamped with an outstretched bucket while a pregnant hawker refused to move away from the car window until I relented and gave her some money.
It’s not always easy to cope with these things, both emotionally and financially. Yet Nicaragua remains in my mind a place of beauty and inspiration.
My only regret is that it took visiting there to appreciate the plight of people in the Third World and start thinking about ways that I can make more of a difference.