MASAYA: Centuries ago the native Central American people terrified of a witch, that they believed to live deep in the earth, used to sacrifice children and young women to Nicaragua’s Masaya volcano. Today that crater in southwest of the capital Managua is an international tourist magnet where photo-snapping visitors scramble among sulfurous fumes to get views of its bubbling lava that itself is a rare sight. A Nicaraguan geographer and environmentalist Jaime Incer said that the only volcanoes in the world to boast lakes of incandescent magma are Masaya, Hawaii’s Kilauea and Nyiragongo in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A French visitor filming and photographing the scene which has happened every 20 to 25 years since 1902 said “It’s something extraordinary, unique in the world,” said Noheli Pravia. The red-hot liquid performs an agitated ballet for the spectators, with a cloud of white smoke filling the active crater. Masaya volcano is located in the most populated part of Nicaragua’s Pacific coastal stretch and is inside a nature reserve of some 50 square kilometers (20 square miles) where vast fields of petrified lava contrast with the white flowers of frangipanis. The 400-meter (1,300-foot) high volcano was formed 5,000 years ago and its activity has intensified in the past six months. An Austrian nurse Mijaela Cuba said about the waves of lava, “This is the first time I’ve seen something like this. It’s really impressive”. She was one of 4,000 tourists whom the Nicaraguan government had given permission to edge up close to the crater’s edge in the past two weeks. Each visit is limited to just a few minutes because of the risk from the toxic gases. In the walls of the crater that go down hundreds of meters the only signs of life are green parrots and bats. Masaya has erupted twice in recorded history, once in 1670 and another time in 1772, scaring the Spanish conquistadors. The first governor of the region Pedrarias Davila wrote to the king of Spain in 1525, “It is a maw of fire that never ceases to burn”. One monk Francisco de Bobadilla even considered it to be the gate to hell and erected a big cross on the edge of the crater. The pre-Columbian people who inhabited the area believed that a subterranean witch that they named Chalchihuehe lived inside it and they sacrificed young innocent lives to try to appease her. According to Incer the risk now is that if the lava keeps rising higher inside the volcano each time it appears then a new eruption could occur within the next 150 years similar to the one in 1772, when it reached as far 30 kilometers away. Today 30 kilometers away from the volano stands Nicaragua’s international airport.