MASAYA, Nicaragua -- Under billowing white clouds in a chunk of God's country, Nicaraguans sit at the rim of an ancient volcano in moments of solitude and escape from the political bickering and despair of the cities below.
Sometimes joined by tourists, they straddle a safety wall, huddle in couples or small clusters and gaze, sometimes for hours, at the volcano's smoky, rock-strewn bowels.
"It is time to forget our pain, at least for a while," said Jose Rivas, a waiter who said he often brings his wife and children here.
Beginning the process of healing the wounds of the 10-year civil war that ended this year, Nicaraguans have much pain.
The economy is in a shambles, and there is still bloodshed in rural areas as demobilized soldiers and former insurgents, who once fought over ideology, now fight over plots of land.
Though only 14 miles from the bustling capital, Managua, a mile from a military camp and a mile from a firing range, the volcano is light years away in spirit.
Its crater is 1,870 feet in diameter and 591 feet deep. Its sides are colored in rich earth tones with occasional layers of midnight black.
Emerald-green parakeets make their home in the crater and spend much of their time darting in and out of the abyss.
Indians native to the area used to call the volcano Popogatepe, or the mountain that burns. The Spanish conquistadors called it Boca del Infierno, or Mouth of Hell.
Young women were once sacrificed to appease the volcano, and, more recently, political enemies of the state were thrown to their deaths into its gaping mouth.
Now, surrounded by a hardened lava flow on which there is deep growth of green grass, thistle, ferns and plum-colored flowers, it is known as Volcan Masaya and has been designated a national park.
Yet the area is never crowded because buses, by which most Nicaraguans travel, come no closer than the start of the winding, TC 2-mile road that snakes its way to the summit.
Three students from the University of Central America who recently hiked to the volcano declared the area a chunk of paradise.
"It is a wonderful place of peace and quiet in a country that has suffered so much from politics, earthquakes and poverty," said Mercy Saballos. She recently returned to Nicaragua after living in California for four years to escape the rigors of life under the Marxist Sandinistas.
Long before Europeans set foot here, people worshiped the active volcano in the form of stone gods such as those represented by two weathered figures that still stand on a hill.
Believing the volcano's eruptions were a sign of its displeasure with them, the Indians regularly offered human sacrifices to it.
Anastasio Somoza, the U.S.-backed dictator who was overthrown by the Sandinistas in 1979, is said to have had enemies taken to the volcano and thrown in.
Legend has it that when the Spaniards saw the bubbly molten core they became convinced they were at the doorway to hell and erected a cross to exorcise the devil. A crude wooden cross still stands on a peak overlooking the crater.
In 1538, a friar named Blas del Castillo, moved by the prospect that the lava was actually molten gold, cast aside superstition and organized an expedition to the crater floor.
At considerable peril, he had himself lowered through the toxic fumes and close enough to scoop up a bucket of the oozing fluid. He became the object of scorn and derision when the lava cooled into worthless black rock.
Lava flowed from the volcano in 1670 and formed the expanse of jagged rock that now extends to the Pan American Highway near the entrance to the national park.
In 1772 the volcano erupted again, this time sending a mighty flow of molten rock one quarter-mile to Masaya Lagoon, a deep fresh water barrier that cooled the lava and protected the area that is now the city of Masaya.
The Santiago crater was formed in 1852. It smokes continuously, and scientists say the lava pool rises every 25 years or so, producing a spectacular sight.
The last surge of lava was in 1965. It formed the coffee-colored platform at the bottom of the crater.
The presence of an open well with lava permanently in its base is believed to be unique on the continent.
Unique or not, Volcan Masaya, with its sweeping panorama, cool rushes of fresh mountain air, periodic rock slides and moments of stark silence is perhaps best-loved as an oasis in the midst of urban sprawl and reminders of war.