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Published: April 21st 2016
La Boca del Infierno
The Spanish Conquistadors thought the Masaya volcano was the mouth of Hell.
So my Central American adventure continued, after a fun week in Crica I got on a plane and headed north over the boarder to Nicaragua (I could have just stayed on the rafting river) for the next part of my exciting trip. As a lapsed scientist I decided as I’m taking some time off it might be fun to try and do something a bit scientific again and thus I found myself heading off for two weeks work on a Nicaraguan volcano.
I’d found a charity called Earthwatch.org who run many different trips where you can help out with various scientific research projects and a project on the Masaya volcano caught my eye, a chance to get up close and personal with a bit of lava, what is not to like? So the plan was, get yourself to Managua airport in the Earthwatch T-shirt they provided and someone will come and meet you and take you off for two week’s work, OK, might not be everyone’s idea of a holiday but I was rather excited at the chance to be a volcanologist for a while.
On arrival at the airport in the aforementioned T-shirt I waited at arrivals declining
Volcano #1 Monbacho
A stratovolcano covered in cloud forest, the perfect place for a bit of butterfly hunting
all the offers of a taxi, I was just starting to get a little worried after about half an hour as there didn’t seem to be anyone around when out popped two other people in matching T-shirts and being old hands at Earthwatch projects they explained the process and promptly we all went to the bar for a beer as we waited for our pick up. It wasn’t long before we had found a few other volunteers milling about the airport, a mixture of mostly British and Americans, then finally our ride arrived.
The trips are run by the academics who are doing the research, the volunteers help fund their research and they get extra people to help collect results and help with their research. The volunteers get to do cool stuff we wouldn’t normally and go to places normally not accessible to the usual holidaymaker, so everyone wins. I was there for two weeks along with a few other volunteers and some were just there for one, in total there were about 11 volunteers per week.
On my trip the staff were mostly from the Open University in the UK, specialising in, here comes the science bit:
Not for show
In Costa Rica the only ox carts were for the tourists, in Nicaragua they still use them for real work.
the ongoing degassing from the active crater at the Masaya volcano and how it impacts the local environment over time. Following the gases and aerosols into the environment, investigating the processes going on inside the volcano and how these relate to the eruptive activity on the surface. Well I find it very interesting anyway.
After we all piled into the minibus we drove about half an hour north of Managua and headed to the small town of Masaya, my base for the next couple of weeks. Even during the short drive, it was clear that Nicaragua was not as touristy as Costa Rica. Over the last 40 or so years they have certainly had a lot of political and geological issues to deal with and so the country wasn’t quite as advanced as Costa Rica. However, it is a country full of colour and beautiful sights and a large amount of charm, and lovely big volcanos which I could see.
We arrived at the Hotel Regis in Masaya and were greeted by Carlos who owns the hotel, well it is more of a hostel but as we took over the entire place it was rather nice. Rooms were
A lesson into how to hold a butterfly, this is a nice spotty one
allocated and pizza arrived for our introduction talk and the earthquake evacuation procedures…
The introduction talk outlined the work that was going to be undertaken for the trip, there were three main areas: Microgravity and GPS reading on Masaya, Butterfly survey work at a different volcano (Mombacho) and measuring sulphur dioxide emissions from the Masaya, all good stuff. Oh, they also mentioned they were going to make an Open University programme on the trip as well, I think I’ve hit Peak Geek.
The following morning and we had a nice early start of breakfast about 7am ready to get out into the field. As per Crica, the main staple of breakfast was rice and beans, plantain and fruit and it was very tasty, also the Nicaraguan coffee was enough to wake up anyone, even me. Once breakfast was finished we were told the options of field work for the day. There were three main types of work available to the volunteers: helping put up sulphur dioxide plates, measuring microgravity or butterfly recording. For the first day I signed up to have a go at the butterfly hunting.
As the Masaya volcano had been very active just before
And to see the wing span
Another pretty one, however I can't identify this from my guide to the butterflies of Nicaragua they gave us, it's a green and brown one in any case.
we arrived the park the volcano is in was closed to the public and in light of this, the staff decided instead of sampling butterflies on Masaya as they would normally do, they would go to another nearby volcano called Mombacho just in case we couldn’t get into the park. Mombacho is a stratovolcano (conical shape built up by layers of ash and lava) and about 1345m high about 10km from the city of Granada. It is known for the cloud forest that covers the top of the volcano. The volcano last erupted in 1570 so technically it is an active volcano. Luckily at the moment Mombacho is taking a nap and so very safe to visit.
After a quick stop at the local supermarket to buy lunch, our team headed off to Mombacho. We arrived at the bottom of the volcano and you really wouldn’t have any idea that it was a volcano, it just seems like a normal mountain. Once parked up we were given a talk on the sampling we were going to be doing that day, basically it involved walking around and trying to spot as many different butterflies as we possibly could, in other
Good advice to be found on the top of the Mombacho volcano
words a lovely walk through the forest and a bit of a hunt. Of course we had to master the butterfly nets first, not as easy as you might think, they move a lot faster than you would think. Still I think it would improve your tennis swing. I opted to use my camera and take as many pictures as I could. We were also taught how to pick up butterflies without damaging them, again, not as easy as it looks.
After an hour or two walking around the base of the volcano we hitched a lift up to the summit on the lorries the tourists use to get up to the top of the volcano. The roads were rather steep and the trip a bit scary at times, but it did beat walking. At the summit we took another trail and carried on with the butterfly sampling in the cloud forest, within a few hours we had already noted over 40 different species, when you consider the UK has about 59 species of butterflies I am sure you will agree it was a good morning’s work. We continued walking around the crater at the top and even found
some signs of volcanic activity in a few small fumaroles on the side of the volcano and once we had enjoyed the views we headed back down the volcano.
On the way back to Masaya we had a bit of tourist time and stopped off at the Apoyo Lagoon to enjoy the view. It is one of the cleanest lakes in the country, so if you fancy a swim, go to Apoyo. Another example of volcanic activity in Nicaragua, the result of an explosion 23,000 years ago, the resulting 6km crater filled up with water, but is considered a sleeping volcano, ssh, don’t wake it.
Heading back to Masaya it was time for a cool shower, a cold beer (it was rather hot in Nicaragua) and some local cuisine for our dinner and also a more in depth talk about the project we were assisting on. That was to be the pattern for most days, work, dinner, talk and then sleep. Most people were wiped out after all the activity and it was lights out by 10pm most nights.
The next day I volunteered myself for a new activity on Masaya volcano, pitched as ‘not for people
Created 23,000 years ago by a volcanic explosion and it is considered a sleeping volcano. So if you take a swim, you can blame any rogue bubbles on volcanic activity.
who are scared of heights and don’t enjoy a good climb’, I decided it might be fun and I knew I’d get a good walk out of it. So three of us headed off to the Masaya volcano with the team who were doing gravity readings, it was our first trip to the volcano and we were all very excited to see the lava lake that had opened up in the previous months. Before we got to the crater (Masaya, a shield volcano has four craters: San Fernando, Santiago – the active one, Nindiri and San Pedro) we first had to make a few stops on the way to the top of the volcano for the gravity team to make some measurements. But it gave the volcanologists a chance to explain how the volcano was formed and the different eruptions that had taken place over the years. Then finally we headed up to the crater, as I had previously mentioned the park was closed to the public so we had the whole place to ourselves with unlimited access, it was fantastic. We all peered over the crater’s edge and stared in awe at the bubbling lava below, it was incredible
Mombacho from a distance
I'd just been to the top of that, cheated by getting a bus up though
to see and the noise makes it seem like the volcano is breathing, you could totally believe dragons could live down in the crater.
Excitement over, well for now, my group headed off to start the photographic mapping of the volcano, the idea was we walk 10m, take some pictures and then walk another 10m, take some pictures etc. Then some fancy software would take all the pictures and stitch them together to make a 3-D model of the volcano. I was on photo duty and must have taken about 800 photos that day, a record even for me. We started off on the edge of the Santiago crater (the active crater) and headed up the side to take photos of the Nindiri and San Pedro craters next door. The first bit of the climb was a little tricky as it was a bit slippy on the scoria (the small rocks from the volcano) and some of the drops were a little bit steep, but since we were stopping every 10m it wasn’t very hard work, the only problem was it was a bit windy.
Masaya is classified as a ‘persistently degassing volcano’ which I think you can
Our private volcano
Masaya volcano was closed to non-volcanologists (and currently is at time of going to press) due to the high level of activity, professionals only.
work out what that means, we were lucky this year as it wasn’t as gassy as previous years. The volcanologists believed this was due to the lava lake being visible this year, so luckily it wasn’t too wiffy. Still at some point when you are in the ‘Kill Zone’ it is necessary to put on your gas mask and in 35C heat while climbing, it wasn’t too comfortable, still one must makes sacrifices for the sake of science.
We continued around the crater rims and managed to make good progress on the photo mapping, it was loads of fun and the views of the volcano were absolutely fantastic, not to mention the private geology tuition I was getting along the way, I absolutely loved it. Mapping done we turned around and walked back to our starting point and enjoyed a bit of a run down a scoria slope, by this point I was covered in volcanic dust, it was a look I was certainly carrying off well. We joined the rest of the team for another look into the lava lake and got very excited as it seemed to be getting larger and there were lots of Stromboli spurts
Lava and the Poro Poro tree
The lava flow from the 1772 eruption
occurring (I kid you not). Finally, we had to drag ourselves away and head back for a much needed shower and the group headed out for dinner in the town square.
Up early again the next morning and this time I was going to give using the Gravimeters a go. These innocuous white boxes measure the microgravity around the volcano allowing the volcanologists to work out what the magma lake underneath the volcano is up to, if it is rising or falling and how big it is. To take a microgravity measurement isn’t quite as easy as expected, first thing you have to do is get the balance of the machine correct, this involves putting the meter on a metal plate and then trying to get it level by lots of jiggery pokery. The first time I tried for about 10 minutes and then gave up but then I finally got the hang of it and managed to get readings. Most people had some trouble at first but in the end everyone managed to get readings, once you got a reading you had to adjust for tides and do a few more calculations to get the final measurement. The
Apparently the Spanish thought the lava lake of Masaya might be a lake of molten gold, pity the poor man who had to test out the theory.
experts said there wasn’t much change from previous years so the magma hadn’t moved much but we are yet to get the final analysis.
We proceeded to stop at various stations around the volcano and get lots of measurements and of course took any opportunity to stare down into the lava lake, it was very hypnotic. Some of us broke up the day by talking a walk to visit the ‘Bat Cave’, an old lava tube formed during one of the eruptions and now inhabited by, your guessed it, bats. Due to the park being closed to the public the bats had moved to the mouth of the cave, I think they were enjoying the peace and quiet.
That evening we were treated to a talk by a British guy from Leicester (once twinned with Masaya as they both make shoes!) who had moved to Masaya some years before, he gave a very interesting insight to the local politics and how the country works. It seems the President’s wife is very influential in the country and it was due to her good grace we were still allowed access to the park to do our work. We even made
I'm heading up there, in the name of science
Going up the ash slopes was quite hard, coming down was a lot of fun, a bit like running in powder snow.
the local paper the next day with a story about how we were working on the volcano with Rosario’s blessing. Seems our academics were minor celebrities in the world of geology. I was also amazed at the amount of diplomacy that the volcanologists have to undertake, but then not totally unexpected as they are guests working in someone else’s country.
So the rest of the week followed a similar pattern, up early, off to Masaya, do some work, stare at the lava, more work, stare at the lava some more, home, shower, beer, dinner and a talk. I did some more photographic work around the San Fernando crater and by that day the winds were so strong, we had to crouch down half the time, but we got to get up close and personal with the vultures that perch on the rim of the crater ominously waiting for one of us to lose our footing..
The trip wasn’t all work and we could take some time out at the weekend, a few of us decided to take a weekend trip to see a little of the country and so with the help of a local tour company (known
Now that's what I call pesistent degassing
The noxious gases seep out from the Santiago crater.
to the team as one of them was a park ranger in Masaya before) we took a trip to a town called Leon. We headed out on Saturday morning, I hadn’t even bought a guide book and so I wasn’t sure where we were going, out first stop was to take a look at Managua, the capital. We drove into the city and were greeted by the many ‘Trees of Life’ along the road. These metal trees covered in lights are the bright idea of Rosario, the First Lady. I don’t want to comment on if they are a good idea or not, but at $33k a pop and the need for an armed guard at the bottom of each one, I wouldn’t want to say if it is money well spent. The plus point is the presence of all the armed guards means crime has dropped in the areas where the trees are, so that is good at least. We stopped to look at the ruined cathedral in the Plaza de la Revolucion, which was damaged in the huge 1972 earthquake which ruined so much of Managua and then went to the lake front to the Paseo Xolotian park.
You aren't meant to park in certain areas as in 2001 a volcano bomb (a rock) hit a car after an explosion.
A somewhat odd place, now surrounded by metal trees, there is an old passenger plane parked there so the locals who can’t afford to fly can experience what it is like to sit on a plane and also a model of how old Nicaragua looked before the earthquake.
Next we headed out of the city, quickly stopping at a view point to enjoy the splendour of the mighty Momotombo, another stratovolcano on the shores of Lake Managua. Momotombo was being very active that week and a few small eruptions had been taking place but at that point it was looking nice and peaceful. We then made our way to ‘Leon Viejo’ (Old Leon), the ‘Pompeii of the Americas’ according to some sources. Old Leon was a Colonial Spanish town built in 1524 in the shadow of Momotombo. The Spanish only managed to stay there until 1610 when all the volcanic activity and earthquakes got too much for the Spanish and they abandoned to the town and moved about 20 miles north to the location of Leon today. The old city was covered in ash and forgotten until it was discovered in 1967. The ruins give a good outline of
The Santiago crater wall
The active crater of Masaya, it is a persistently degassing volcano, try saying that after a few drinks
how the Spanish built the colonial towns but I have to say I think I was most excited to discover that maracas grow on trees, the green cricket ball like fruits stick to the tree, drop off and then are hollowed out and cooked to make maracas, who knew!
We arrived in new Leon for lunch in the market square and got to explore the cathedral, recently whitewashed on the roof and they allow you up for a look as long as you take your shoes off. It gave great views over the other volcanoes surrounding the town. Before we headed to the Pacific for beers at sunset we were first taken to the Museum of Myths and Legends in Leon. Based in a converted jail, where lots of bad things happened, this was the craziest museum I think I’ve been to. An old lady made models to represent the many Nicaraguan myths and legends and needed a place to put them, so the powers that be suggested the jail of all places. There could not be a more inappropriate place for these models but it made for an interesting hour. As you move from room to room our
Looking towards the Nindiri crater
There are three main craters, Santiago, Nindiri and San Pedro, I walked them all.
guide would explain the myths to us, as for the models, all I can say is look at the pictures and you will understand. Suffice to say it wasn’t easy to keep a straight face as the guide would be telling you about the myths and then say ‘don’t forget, this room used to be the toilets’. Still, if you are ever in Leon, I would recommend a visit, it had to be seen to be believed. Still highly amused we headed to the coast to watch the sunset and enjoy a cold beer before heading back to Leon for dinner.
After a good night’s sleep in a lovely little hostel in Leon it was back to the coast for a boat trip through a mangrove swamp. Everyone else on the boat seemed very interested in bird spotting but I just sat back and enjoyed the ride. We stopped off for a drink at the most beautiful secluded beach and turtle sanctuary, if you ever visit Nicaragua I might tell you where it is. After lunch there was time for a quick dip in the Pacific and then we started on the drive back to Masaya. Everyone was a
little sleepy in the bus but I was taking in the view while enjoying the Sandinista versions of Abba songs and then I spotted that Momotombo had just gone boom!!!
You can imagine how exciting it was to see a volcano that had just erupted and being in a van full of volcanologists we stopped the bus and got out for a look. The volcanologists didn’t look at all worried (we were far enough away) and gave us a good description of what we were witnessing. The end to a perfect weekend away, it seems luck was with us on this trip, they never normally get such volcanic action on the trips. We arrived back in Masaya to a hero’s welcome, well, perhaps more a geeks welcome as we all discussed the witnessed eruption.
Monday morning and it was back to work (I do think it was the best job I’ve ever had) and it was pretty much more of the same, dust, heat, rocks, gravimeters, vultures and lava. More talks in the evening and by this point I was feeling like an amateur volcanologist although I need a fancy hat to be a fully-fledged one, they all
The Nindiri crater
It had some cool rock formations
had cool hats and one even had a Pith helmet. We were even allowed to visit the volcano at night one day. A colony of Parakeets live in the Santiago crater and we got to see them return at dusk and once the sun goes down the volcano becomes absolutely spectacular. The glow from the lava lake is amazing, I can understand why the Spanish thought Masaya was the mouth of Hell. The whole crater glows with an amazing light, truly an awesome sight and we were very lucky to be allowed to see it.
Of course another highlight of the week was my appearance on Venezuelan TV, I don’t think many people can say they have been on Venezuelan TV but I now have and they described us as ‘Expert Volcanologists’ so who am I to argue with that? We were quietly going about our business doing some GPS measurements when the local Nicaraguan Geologists (Ineter) came over with a film crew from Venezuela and asked to film us. By this point of the trip I had given up trying to tame my hair so if you want to check out the mess, the report starts about 11mins
The San Pedro crater
You can just see the lava dike on the right of the picture (looks like a vein of lava)
in on the clip (I’m not sure how long it will be on the site http://videos.telesurtv.net/video/512631/telesur-noticias-512631 ) you might also notice the big orange box (the GPS) I was playing around with was switched off, but I don’t think they noticed. Ah, fame at last.
And so our work there was done, in the two weeks I managed to explore most of the volcano, it was fantastic fun with excellent people and of course I learnt so much. A fantastic trip if you have an interest in volcanoes and don’t mind getting a bit hot and dusty, we were so lucky with the activity and being allowed access to the park, all thanks to the diplomatic skills of the staff involved. Volcanoes are cool!
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