Sunday, October 30, 2005


Yesterday we climbed one of Guatemala's three active volcanoes. Volcan Pacaya is an easy drive from Antigua, where we stayed overnight. We got up at sunrise (more or less) and hopped on a crummy micro-bus that stalled out twice on the road up to San Francisco, the tiny town halfway up the mountain that is home to the National Park entrance. We were lucky to have a small group that was able to get prepared quickly and keep up a decent pace -- you never know with tour groups if you're going to have the whiner that slows down the whole group.

The climb was only two hours or so: The first hour is through the forest at the base of the mountain. Then you emerge onto the barren fields of volcanic rock, which is cool at first, but eventually turns into slogging up a field of pulverized lava rock. It was not unlike walking up a beach that happens to be at a 30-degree slant for half an hour or so.

The reward was the opportunity to choke on toxic sulphuric gas in gale-force winds and near-zero visibility at the summit. Despite those conditions, it was very cool to look down into the crater and see the glow of molten lava at the bottom, and to see the fields of twisted knots that are actaully hardened lava from the last eruption. I'd love to share them with you, but our staff photographer was having some technical difficulties, so all extant pictures are on old-fashioned 35mm-wide strips of color negative film, and are thus not yet available for viewing. At least they weren't deguerrotypes.

The whole thing was one of those things you could never do in America, as the guide allowed us to peer right over the edge of the crater where you could feel the heat of the lava fifty feet down and suck in the fumes as if you were sticking your head in the oven. As if that level of safety-obliviousness weren't enough, the guide helped some of our fellow hikers frame a better shot for their "us on top of a volcano" photo by kicking in several feet worth of the crust at the very rim of the crater. This not only demonstrated a certain devil-may-care attitude toward preserving the attraction that is his bread and butter, but also a certain devil-may-care attitude toward the lives of the people standing on the lip of the crater a few feet away as he chipped away large chunks of the wall holding them up. I guess he's not responsible for paying the National Park liability premiums.

Also part of the reward for the slog up was the trip back down those same ash-covered slopes, which was not unlike skiing or walking on the moon. We ran down the mountain at full speed, taking giant leaps with each landing cushioned by the fluffiest rocks you can imagine. I imagine this is what skiing was like back in the days before rope-tow lifts -- an hour of hiking up for three minutes of racing down, but still worth it.


EEK! said...

Fluffy rocks! I love that.

Cilicious said...

Have you been to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park? It is a fairly dodgy setup, downright unAmerican in its lack of safety. :)
Loved your description as well as your other posts about life in Guatemala.