Walking the Mouth of Hell

Walking the Mouth of Hell

warning signI ended up with the yellow hard hat but what I really needed were safety goggles. My eyes watered from the cinders in the air. Heat rose from the black porous rocks that lined the uphill path and within minutes my jeans were damp with sweat. The smells of sulphur, rotten egg, brimstone, eddied in the strong wind.

We were climbing the marked paths around the multiple calderas of the still-active Masaya Volcano, 23 kilometers from Managua. The area is a well-preserved Nicaraguan national park–the country’s first–that includes Volcán Nindirí, which last erupted in 1670, and Volcán Masaya, which blew in 1772. The relatively new Santiago Crater was formed between the other two in 1852. Moon Guides has more about the volcano here.

park entrance Masaya

Masaya is a well laid out national park

Masaya crater

Steam billows from the Santiago crater, which experienced a partial eruption in April 2012

At the top of the first rise, we turned and tried to catch our breaths, heat wafting up from the path that wasn’t so much of a path as it was a long series of steps cut into the sides of the craters. The visitor’s center only a few kilometers from the park entrance had offered an informative series of rooms about geology, tectonic plates, Central America’s volcanoes and other scary things cloaked in science, where we’d learned that the Masaya volcano occasionally belched out the type of magma that hardened into lava bombs upon exit. The steps we climbed were bound by lumber and these big lava chunks.


Bubbly black lava rock was everywhere

We found the relatively small San Francisco crater at the top of the path. San Francisco was long dormant and the big bowl in the ground was now covered in grass and scrubby shrubs, with the occasional yellow flower poking through. As I looked over the stunning landscape with the crater at my back, the wind threatened to whip the camera out of my hand.


The San Francisco crater looks like a green bowl

Nearly a mile away, we could see the smoking Santiago caldera. Above it was the cross placed there in 1529 by Father Francisco Bobadilla to exorcise the demons he believed lived within. The Spanish explorer Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo called the smoking volcano the “mouth of hell.” He had himself and another man, Friar Blas del Castillo, lowered into the caldera thinking to find gold there. He didn’t find gold but probably spent the next two days blowing ash out of his nose and wondering why his ear wax had turned black.

cross above volcano

The cross high above the volcano dates from 1529. The walkway to it is closed due to landslides.

Mother Earth has a sense of humor, I thought to myself as I watched steam billow out of the Santiago crater. It was a unique sight. Powerful and a little scary. We watched the steam drift, getting thicker and thicker, until it obscured the far side of the crater’s lip.

When we’d first driven up to the main viewing area, along a curving road that led up from the visitor center and the guard who handed out the hard hats, we’d been able to see maybe a third of the edge but now most was hidden behind a white cloud. All parking was facing out, in case an evacuation was in order. The wall built at a low point in the crater’s lip barely came to our knees but any rush of vertigo was lost in the stunning view.


In case the lava bombs start falling and we have to know which way to run

We started back down, our shoes crunching on the black lava gravel. We were heated by the rocks but cooled by the wind. I started thinking about some of the other odd places I’d been and the risks I’d taken and the choices I’d made.

drop off edge

The Santiago crater is 1640 feet wide and 656 feet deep. I didn’t measure it.

volcano plain

Looking out over the plain at the craters left by the inactive volcanoes


Older signs are scratched and damaged by eruptions

Masaya volcano

An incredible, majestic view

An active volcano is an unexpected thing, a sign that the solid earth is alive and moving to its own inner music. We can’t control it, which means there are risks along the lava path. But when you reach the top, inspiration and power are there for the sharing.

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Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.


A Nicaragua Christmas: The Treasures of Alter Eco

A Nicaragua Christmas: The Treasures of Alter Eco

Advertising in Managua, Nicaragua, can be hit-or-miss so I wasn’t quite sure what I’d find when I walked into Alter Eco, which bills itself as an alianza hecho a mano. This “alliance” is actually a cluster of artist shops and studios near the big art and antiques store Mama Delfina.

The displays and inventory would be at home in New York or London or Mexico City. Here are some of the treasures I discovered.

cotton clothing

This charming clothing and accessories boutique has a Laura-Ashley-meets-Chanel vibe. Simple cotton and linen pieces kept to a pink, rust, and gray palette.


Visitors to the boutique are immediately drawn in by the charming wall decor featuring trees, birds and 3-D blossoms

boutique ceiling

Silver “raindrops” fall from the tree branches and blossoms on the ceiling


Accessories included locally-sourced jewelry and lizard clutches and belts


The ceramics studio had a beautiful selection of Mexican talavera

Talavera pottery pops against a yellow wall at Alter Eco

The place to go for customized tequila shot glasses!

Talavera plaque reading “God Bless This Home.” My wish for you this holiday season.

A Nicaragua Christmas: Shopping at Mama Delfina’s

Managua, Nicaragua, is full of surprises including the beautiful art and antique store, Mama Delfina’s.  Housed in a large white Spanish colonial building with an open courtyard and beautiful old brickwork, the place is a treasure trove of handmade holiday gifts and decorations, carefully curated to offer a collection of best locally-produced items.

While the original Delfina, whose picture is above the cash register, looked on with stiff-necked amusement, the staff graciously let me roam around and take pictures. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I did!

Mama Delfina entrance

An old picture of Delfina and a painting of the store hang above the antique blue counter

artwork at Mama Delfina

The store features beautiful displays of painted boxes, frames, wooden angels and handmade paper goods

Silver frames

Some of the frames are of intricately punched metal, a technique that in Mexico is called repujado

Christmas ornaments

All the Christmas ornaments at Mama Delfina’s are one-of-a-kind


Each painted box was a mini-masterpiece of abstract art. Loved the wonderful tablescapes throughout the store.


The store is arranged as a series of vignettes showcasing art and antiques.

textile bags on display

The store carries a line of bags made from a loomed woven fabric that was prohibited during the Samoza regime but is now being reproduced in Nicaragua

archways of art

A beautiful vignette of art, holiday items, and antiques

art on wall

The store chooses and displays art with a practiced eye

The Mary/Mujer Paradox

Madonna statueDecember is a big month for Mary, the mother of Jesus. On 8 December Catholics celebrate the Immaculate Conception, the day She became pregnant with the son of God without benefit of sex. On 12 December there is the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe to commemorate the day She appeared to the humble San Juan Diego in Mexico. And of course on 25 December we celebrate the day She gave birth in Bethlehem to Her son Jesus.

The feast day of the Immaculate Conception of Mary is a major event in Nicaragua, with celebrations dating to colonial times. My neighborhood, like so many others, enjoyed about 40 hours of intermittent fireworks (which reduced the dog to jelly), late-night festivites the evening before and a Mardi Gras-like celebration at the church up the road on the actual feast day.

The build-up to the weekend was as big a deal as for Thanksgiving in the US. For weeks the newspapers reported preparations across the country. Major stores ran related ads. Billboards and banners strung across telephone poles repeated words like joy, purity, conception, virgin, sainted.

The news reports were detailed—guardians of the tradition were interviewed, one chuch had a special “washing” of the silver before the big day, in many parishes the faithful carried the church’s statue of Mary in local pilgrimages, others planned concerts or novenas, the capital’s cathedral would feature a statue of la Santísima Virgen de la Purísima that is three meters tall and weighs two tons. The faithful call known as La Gritería was everywhere: What causes so much joy? The conception of Mary!

I grew up with Catholic ritual and love the traditions and symbolism. But this weekend, as the fireworks boomed, I found it hard to reconcile a fixation on feminine purity with the high rates of violence against women in Nicaragua.

And along the same lines, I can’t help but link violence rates with the societal attitude that brings us the sex position of the week in the newspaper. Once a week, there’s a “tasteful” drawing of a couple doing it, with tips for getting it right.

Femicide rates in Nicaragua have exploded in the past ten years. Univision reported recently that there were 29 cases of femicide in 2000 and 89 in 2010. While this may be less than on a bad week in Chicago, this is a significant trend for the relatively small Nicaraguan population.

Newspaper La Prensa reported in August that 48 women were murdered in Nicaragua during the first half of 2012, including two under 12, while some 96,000 women are in a “vulnerable state.” Of the 48 murdered, eight were raped before getting killed and 14 were known to the National Police to be victims of abuse, according to a report by the non-governmental organization Red de Mujeres contra la Violencia. The organization also noted that 78% of violence against women occurs in their homes and females between 18 and 45 years account for 61.25% of all assault victims.

I’m a little worried about what will be in the newspaper in the coming week. Univision reported that the special prosecutor for Women in Nicaragua, Deborah Gradinson, said that gender violence is multiplied by three when there are major celebrations.

So Mary’s on a pedestal as the woman who never had sex, real women are available to be kicked around, and new ideas for the sex beforehand are right here in the paper.

What causes so much joy? The conception of Mary!

Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.

Crafting a Christmas at the Mercado

This is the year my Christmas won’t be Made in China. Instead of the usual commercial shiny things we all know and love, I’m aiming for a simpler reminder of what the holiday is all about. Decorations, cards, and gifts will reflect skill, art, and natural materials instead of glossy plastic and machined perfection.  My sources will be local craftsman, a few boutique stores, and several charities.

A stroll through the mercado de artesanias in Masaya, Nicaragua last weekend was the starting point.

typical market scene

Just a typical aisle in the market which is located in an old colonial building with plenty of light and a restaurant on one side.

woven textiles

Most of the textiles in the mercado are from Guatemala. We saw scarves, table runners, and placemats but only a few larger pieces.

The terracotta pots on top look like smiling faces. Or maybe the Kool-Aid jug guy.
I had a sizzling pollo a la plancha after a day of hard shopping and it was delicious. Washed it down with a local beer and was ready to spend a little more!
Pottery plate

This beautiful plate is typical of the colors and motifs found in Nicaraguan pottery.

If you are having Christmas in Mexico this year, check out my post on favorite markets in Mexico City and have a wonderful time!

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