Nicaragua – The Land of Lakes And Volcanoes By Annabel Illingworth

As I creep up to the edge of the Masaya Volcano, my heart is pounding. It’s not the sulphur fumes – although those will hit me later – but the sheer scale of the crater. Only a small wall separates visitors from a thousand-foot drop and as I peer over, pungent smoke swirls and fogs up the depths. Surely this sort of thing is the preserve of scientists, loaded up with more equipment and protective clothing than their body mass?

Humbled and thoroughly overwhelmed, I am transfixed. Then the smoke clears, to reveal a lake of bright orange lava bubbling merrily away. It’s such a contrast to our digital world – so raw and primordial. Legend has it that centuries ago, maidens and children were sacrificed in the ‘‘Mouth of Hell’’ to appease a witch in the earth or, some say, to stave off drought. As excursions go, this lies beyond bucket-list territory – it’s literally and metaphorically breathtaking.

Nicaragua is one of a handful of countries possessing lava lakes, the others being in Hawaii, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Antarctica and Vanuatu. Masaya has the added benefit of being easily accessible by car (parked pointing downhill, if one obeys the signs). The spectacle is even better at night, with a blaze of fire set against the midnight sky.

Nicaragua’s other volcanoes are somewhat tamer but equally worth a visit. Mombacho, near the charming colonial city of Granada, is covered in cloud forest, rich in exotic flora and fauna, and offers a panoramic view over the islets on the lake. In a two-hour walk, it’s commonplace to see howler monkeys, glasswing butterflies, sloths hanging in the misty vines, and a colourful array of orchids.

Not for the faint-hearted, Cerro Negro’s jet black slopes have the ideal incline to hurtle down on a wooden sled, reaching speeds of up to 30mph. The formidable combination of lunar landscape and adrenaline rush sees millennials flocking to try ash-boarding, kitted up in boiler suits and goggles. As the mercury soared above 40 degrees Celsius in March, my travel companions and I were advised to give the adventure a miss. When I say, ‘‘Shame,’’ I can’t decide if it’s ironic or genuine.

The pleasure was bona fide, nevertheless, when we jumped in the pool of the magnificent Santa Emilia waterfall to find it blissfully warm. As was the water on the shore of the vast Lake Nicaragua and the brackish, if a little choppy, crater lake at Apoyo. Consummate wild swimmers should keep bathing clothes close to hand at all times, as opportunities are abundant and thoroughly rewarding.

No trip to Nicaragua would be complete, however, without a foray into its colonial cities. Bright and bold colours cover almost every exterior wall, or else striking and meaningful street art. The revolutionary Sandanista era may over but it’s certainly not forgotten in Leon, with its gigantic cathedral and idealistic murals.

There exists in Nicaragua a deep sense of culture, ranging from poetry by the revered Ruben Dario to the magical trees of life in the capital, Managua, and far more in between. Cigar lovers can experience Nicaragua from afar – Doña Elba would be my recommendation – but for those who prefer their smoky delights more earthly, it’s pretty hard to beat Central America’s land of lakes and volcanoes.