Just outside Masaya, the PARQUE NACIONAL VOLCÁN MASAYA (2528 1444) offers you the chance to peer into the smoking cone of a volcano, as well as some stunning long-distance views. Gazing warily over the smoke-blackened rim into the crater’s sulphurous depths, you can well imagine why the Spaniards considered this to be the mouth of hell itself – the large white cross above the crater marks the spot where a Spanish friar placed a cross in the sixteenth century to exorcize the volcano’s demonic presence. This is still one of the most active volcanoes in the world; the last eruption occurred in 2001, but plumes have been spotted since then, and signs advise drivers to park their cars facing downhill in case a quick getaway is required.
From the entrance, it’s a 1.5km walk up the road to the Centro de Interpretación Ambiental, home to an exhibition outlining the area’s geology, agriculture and pre-Columbian history, along with an interesting 3D display of the country’s chain of volcanoes. From the centre you’re best off hitching or getting a spot in one of the regular minibuses going up to the crater, as it’s a fairly steep 5km hike up a paved road. Walking down is more pleasant, although in theory (and despite the lack of any kind of danger) you must be accompanied by a guide along this stretch – if you’re not, a ranger will probably follow you down, at a discreet distance, on a bike. The rangers at the crater can point out a few short walks around the area that you can take unaccompanied, and also offer guided tours of two trails, Sendero Los Coyotes and Sendero de Las Pencas, as well as highly recommended night hikes, including a visit to the subterranean Cueva Tzinancanostoc, where you’ll see bizarre lava formations and a bat colony and, if you’re lucky, a chance to see the lava glowing deep in the main crater. Look out for the stunted bromeliads common to high-altitude volcanic areas, and the famous chocoyos del cráter, small green parrots that have thrived in an atmosphere that should be poisonous.