July 14: Masaya Volcano National Park, Masaya, Nicaragua
Lots of unnecessary risk. That's what I love about the national parks in Nicaragua. Like the opportunity to walk up to the rim of a smoldering volcano, inhale a lungful or two of sulfur, and, checking your footholds and handholds, lean over an edge of crumbling lava debris and eyeball some glowing orange lava.
No guard rails, or "Beware" signs, or power-mad park rangers. Just mucho peligroso. Imagine the thrill of inspecting Old Faithful's blowhole just before it spews. An attraction like that would bring in some big eco-bucks. (U.S. National Park Service, take note.)
Of course, if you're the poorest country in Central America, you probably don't have a lot of extra cash lying around for park infrastructure. Wrong. The fact is that since Masaya Volcano National Park was established in 1979, it's become the Grand Canyon of the land of Nicas. Any school kid worth his national navy-blue uniform has been bused up to the rim for lava leering. School kids, families, international travelers, virgin sacrifices--more than 1,000 per day in dry season. At 20 cordobas each ($2.50) it adds up. That means a modern, well-equipped visitors center. That means nice khaki uniforms for the park personnel.
And don't forget the semiautomatic weapons. Yes. Every ranger is carrying one. Why? "Su proteccion." Our protection? To protect us from the toothless old ladies selling mangoes on the rim? From the wildlife? We have seen one skunk and two magpies so far, but no cheetahs or howler monkeys. No ladrones, either, the Nica equivalent of scum-sucking dirt-ball thieves.
But maybe the ghost of Somoza. Or Satan. When the first Europeans viewed Masaya in the 1500s, a Spanish priest proclaimed this "the mouth of Hell." Padre Francisco Bobadilla (Father Frank or Bob--historians aren't clear on this point) planted a large cross at the rim to exorcise the devil. After three eruptions in three centuries, the cross still stands. Satan is still stewing. And the Spanish are gone (mostly).
Maybe in a country as fatalistic as this, it's always better to be prepared for the worst. After a three-mile hike to the rim in 85-degree heat, Tanner and I buy a mango from the mango lady, who has a Russian-made semiautomatic propped up in the corner of her stand. The mango is like little sweet slices of tropical heaven. No sign of Satan or Somoza or the CIA coming over Masaya's rim. Eco-tourism with a hint of danger. Something to remind you of your mortality. Your place in the food chain. Might just be the angle to bring back old Nicaragua. Viva Sandino. Viva los dolares. Viva Masaya.
Next: The Bosawas rainforest
Other info on travel in Central America
| Notes of an accidental eco-tourist
Postcards from Central America. Our correspondent
rambles in search of answers to the eco-tourism myth.