Stepping over a dead boa constrictor with flies buzzing around it wasn’t what I had in mind when I hired a guy named Carlos to take us to see Volcán Masaya, a national park in Nicaragua where you can drive right up to the crater of an active volcano. But when we piled into his Toyota Corolla on a sizzling hot morning in late February, Carlos wanted us to see much more than just the smoldering volcano.
“I’m going to take you to a farm and then we’re going to visit a mask maker, before we hit the craft market, Laguna Apoyo and the volcano,” he said, before we’d even had a chance to test his air conditioning or fasten our seatbelts.
We wanted to see the craft market in Masaya, Laguna Apoyo and the volcano but I wasn’t sure about the rest of it. That uncertainty grew when we pulled up in front of what seemed to be a dilapidated farm as a host of mangy looking dogs serenaded us with howls and barks. A young man in a dirty, pale-blue T-shirt led us into some caged enclosures to look at iguanas and Carlos asked me if I’d ever eaten one. I have not.
I didn’t but I’d seen Andrew Zimmern feast on iguana, porcupine and other exotic delicacies while filming his Nicaragua episode back in 2009 and was curious where he went. Carlos said that there was only one restaurant that had retained a permit to cook iguanas and it was in Masaya, near where we were going.
Carlos and the farmhand showed us some turtles, lizards and bunnies before leading us into a caged enclosure to see some boa constrictors. I assumed they would be inside cages but as we stepped inside the enclosure, we nearly tripped over a dead boa, whose carcass was a target for swarms of dozens of hungry winged creatures.
“When did he die?” I asked Carlos.
“Hard to say,” he said as the farmhand began poking a stick under some empty shelving units behind us. “But there are four other boas in here, don’t worry.”
“Four other boas?” my wife said, grabbing our little boys, ages 3 and 5. “Where?”
“They could be anywhere in here,” Carlos said.
And with that, we were ready to exit, but the farmhand seized a massive boa by the neck and we couldn’t help but stop to stare at the darn thing. It was hissing and coiling itself around the guy’s arms, clearly pissed off. For all we knew, it probably killed the dead boa in the corner, so after a few minutes we beat a retreat back to the car.
The visit to the mask maker felt safer and, to me, more interesting. I’m usually leery of these types of stops on a tour because typically the point is to bring you to a place where you will hopefully buy something, securing a commission for your guide in the process. The whole spectacle makes me feel like a piece of meat on a hook in a slaughterhouse, but in this case, it was just an old man sitting in the courtyard of his home with no shirt on making colorful, painted masks with his own hands. He made no attempt to sell us anything and seemed please to have us wandering around his home, snapping photos and asking ignorant questions.
The craft market at Masaya, built in 1891 and refurbished in 1997, is the best place to buy handicrafts and souvenirs in Nicaragua. There are dozens of vendors and if you enjoy haggling, this is the place for you. I sparred with a 4-foot-tall woman who called me “my love” and “my dear” over a painting I wanted but ended up paying very close to her original asking price because she correctly sensed that I really wanted the thing and used that advantage to crush me like a bug.
After a delicious lunch and a dip in the Laguna de Apoyo, a terrific swimming hole near Masaya, Carlos told us about his U.S. immigration woes. When he was 12, his mother arranged to send him to the U.S. by purchasing fake identity documents to make it appear as though he was the child of a Nicaraguan woman who had a better chance of getting a U.S. tourist visa than she did. At 22, he paid an unscrupulous immigration attorney $10,000 to try to legalize his status but it didn’t work and he eventually returned to Nicaragua. Now, at 40, he felt like his chance to live in the States had come and gone.
The Masaya volcano has to be one of just a handful in the world where you can drive right up to its craters. The volcano has erupted 18 times since the early 16th Century with the last major eruption going down in 1772, but there was some volcanic activity in April of last year that forced the closure of the park for several weeks. Prior to 1529, locals threw virgins and children into the volcano as sacrifices, and during the Somoza dictatorship in the ’70s, dissidents were also supposedly tossed into the volcano.
We hiked around the Santiago crater and although I appreciated the view and the novelty of standing right on the age of the smoldering volcano, I felt dizzy after a half hour and couldn’t help but assume that in the U.S., tourists wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the crater of an active volcano.
On the way back to the hotel, Carlos regaled us with stories about tourists he’s guided and I asked him if he wanted to see tourism boom in Nicaragua.
“We want more tourists,” he said. “But not at the expense of our culture and our traditions. We’ve got to keep what we have.”
[Photo/video credits: Dave Seminara]