The ‘Gate to Hell’

The Masaya in Nicaragua is one of the few volcanoes in the world that offers an extraordinary show of nature: a boiling lava lake
The ‘Gate to Hell’

Barely twenty kilometers from the Nicaraguan capital of Managua, there is a majestic volcano. But it’s not an extinct volcano, covered with ash or snow, or one of those dormant ones that every once in a while emits a puff of smoke. The 635-meter high Masaya offers an incredible spectacle: a flowing lake of molten, incandescent lava.

“There are a lot of volcanoes that spit lava,” says doctor Incer Barquero, a Nicaraguan scientist. “But there are only three that have a constantly active bubbling lake,” he adds, noting that Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano and the Nyiragongo, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are the other two (although a handful of other volcanoes will intermitently have lava lakes).

But Masaya is remarkable as much for its lava as for its accesibility. Masaya Volcano National Park is less than an hour’s drive from Managua. A five-kilometer paved road takes you from the entrance to the park to the volcano and its lookout points; you can actually walk up the road to the crater’s edge in less than an hour.

Seen up close and without barriers, the boiling lava emitting gases from the depths of the Earth is an amazing sight. For the locals, the volcano was always just one among our country’s many natural wonders. But new interest in Nicaragua as a tourist destination, together with the re-opening of the Masaya Volcano National Park in May 2016 (the park had been closed due to volcanic activity) and the debut of nighttime visits to the lava lake, has sparked renewed curiosity about the volcano.

I was born in Masaya, and I visited the volcano for the first time when I was ten years old. I had always heard, of course, about the destruction it had caused hundreds of years ago, and the endless legends it’s inspired. It was said that witches and demons lived in the volcano, and if you went there at night you would not come back alive. I remember feeling like an ant next to that great hole in the Earth. Even today, after having been face to face with the volcano so many times, it seems like something from another world.


The Masaya Volcano Park adventure begins when you leave Managua on one of the country’s most-traveled highways, Managua-Masaya, to the South. The first 12 kilometers take you through the capital’s “premium zone,” including the expansive and exclusive Santo Domingo shopping center.

At the 20 kilometer mark, you will reach the entry point to the park, which encompasses 54 square kilometers and two volcanos – the Masaya and the inactive Nindirí- as well as five craters. Taking in the colossal view is an adrenaline-pumping experience.

To arrive at the mouth of the volcano, intrepid visitors can hike a few kilometers uphill to the Oviedo Plaza lookout point, the only one currently open due to security precautions. The path is flanked by the trees of a dry tropical forest inhabited by coyotes, raccoons, iguanas, deer, bats and singing chocoyo birds. Those staying in their cars can drive up to the edge of the crater.

The Oviedo Plaza is an ample space with a surrealistic landscape offering a view of an enigmatic and imposing crater. The lava stone cráter, called “Santiago,” spans 500 meters and releases immense columns of smoke that seems to touch the sky. At the bottom, 300 meters down, the grandiose spectacle of lava and magma is in constant motion. Due to the dioxide and sulfur gases the lava lake emits, and also to keep the crowds moving, visitors are only allowed to remain at the edge for 15 minutes. But those 15 minutes are unforgettable.

The Spanish conquistadores were so terrified when they discovered the volcano that they named it “The Mouth of Hell.” To exorcize the devil within, they erected the Bobadilla Cross, named for Spanish missionary Francisco de Bobadilla. A replica of the cross remains in the same place, although its site, surrounded by eroding slopes, can only be observed from afar.

The Santiago crater is one of seven active volcanoes in Nicaragua, where 18 erruptions have been recorded since1520, including major ones in 1772 and 1820.