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Volcán Masaya is not a normal cone-shaped volcano but rather a low, gaping wound of six smoking craters and a constantly glowing lava field. The whole effect is so frightening that the Spanish took to calling this volcano the "gates of hell" and the local Chorotegas tribe christened it the "mountain that burns" and made human sacrifices there in the hope that doing so might avert more eruptions. In colonial times, the crater was home to an old woman the Indians valued as a fortune teller and the Spanish regarded as a witch, not the least because she advised the Indians to go to war with them. A cross can still be seen today where a Franciscan friar attempted an exorcism with the idea of keeping the gates of hell closed and the mountain quiet -- to little avail. Another friar was convinced the lava was molten gold and organized an expedition to retrieve some -- to no avail. It is easily the most accessible live volcano in Nicaragua because a road leads directly to its chasm, a mere 30 minutes from Managua city center (note that the red-hot lava is not so easy to see anymore, as the west side has been closed because of unstable ground). This park is also an unforgettable experience. It is at once intriguing and terrifying, especially when you learn that in 2000, it hurled a large, flaming boulder that destroyed a nearby car in the parking lot. In the same lot today, the attendants advise you to park facing downhill so as to make a quick getaway -- very reassuring.

The park consists of several volcanoes and craters and is easy to explore, with a 20km (12-mile) system of hiking trails, many of which can be done independently. The self-guided trail Sendero los Coyotes is a 6km (3.7-mile) walk from the visitor center and runs through lava pits to a lake. The terrain is a surreal mixture of moonscape and shrubbery, including orchids and sacuanjoche flowers. Lizards; raccoons; deer; and, as the trail name implies, coyote are some of the wildlife that can be seen. The Santiago Crater is home to a curious species of parakeets that seem immune to the pit's noxious fumes; the crater is best viewed from the parking lot at the edge, and in the afternoon, you can see these amazing birds known locally as chocoyos flying happily amidst the noxious gases and entering their tiny nest burrows in the internal rock face. These burrows are some 3m long (9 3/4 ft.) and lead to a chamber where the bird lays its eggs. Elsewhere, El Comalito is a small, smoking hillock and Tzinancanostoc a series of lava tunnels famous for its resident bats. Both can be visited only with a guide along the Coyote trek. On some treks, you may have to change direction because of the fumes, and you'll need to get a gas mask to see the lava holes up close. Your best chance of seeing red-hot lava is by taking a night tour. Most travel operators offer 1-day excursions to the park from Managua, Granada, or Masaya. To get there independently, you must travel 6km (3 3/4 miles) north of Masaya on the main highway. There are plenty of buses that will drop you off at the entrance, but be warned, it is a hot, shade-less walk to the cliff edge.

A visitor center, where you can get a good map and brochure of the site, and nature museum are 2km (1 1/4 miles) from the main entrance. Make sure to buy your tour tickets at the visitor center before you rendezvous with your guide at the crater.