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Climbing Volcanoes in Guatemala

Climbing Volcanoes in Guatemala

Erupting Pacaya Volcano, Guatemala.  From Index of Competent Wallpapers

Erupting Pacaya Volcano, Guatemala. From Index of Competent Wallpapers

Since I was a little kid I always wanted to climb a volcano and play with lava.  I thought if I put a beetle in molten rock I would get a really keen fossil.  The reality is a little different.  I did melt my sneakers, though.  I’m so happy I did it then, because I would NEVER do it now!

Here is another action-packed chapter from our book, “Wandering Magical Lands.”  We have climbed many volcanoes over the years, but none more dangerous or more spectacular than Guatemala’s Pacaya, which was in full eruption.

October 9, 2007

During this time I became increasingly interested in climbing the volcanos.  Brooding giants cradle sleepy Antigua.  To the west crouch double-coned Acatenango and fiery Fuego, belching billows of smoke into the blue sky.  Much closer, beautiful Agua rears her majestic summit 12,000 feet above town, her stone grey presence commanding every view.  Slash and burn fires rage out of control on her rugged slopes, sending up billows of dense, black smoke.  But most days, in the predictable way of tropical weather, Agua’s flanks are crystal clear every morning, clouding up in mid-afternoon.

The volcanoes represent a potent distillation of all that is good and all that is terrible in Guatemala.  They are at once distant and exotic, beautiful and dangerous, obvious and complex.  In the back of my mind I knew that the only way to truly know Central America was to see her from the rim of a smouldering caldera.

I resolved to scale Agua at first opportunity, despite frequent reports of renewed guerrilla activity in the area.  It was the nearest–and most likely the safest–volcano in the Central Highlands.  A risk to climb, to be sure, but a reasonable one.

In the meantime, I cut my teeth on the large hill to the north of town, Cerro del Cruz.  The ever conservative tourist board had recommended against climbing even this close to Antigua.  But there is a nice, paved trail, much frequented by mothers with children and high school track teams.  The climb is through open, dry tropical forest, dominated by pines and hardwoods.  The forest floor is scoured clean, with every bit of dead wood and brush collected for cooking and heating.

I spent many hours at the top studying Spanish and marvelling at the sights of Antigua far below, gloriously beautiful in ruins.  Vultures and hawks soared over the town, watching for a meal.  From my vantage point they could be studied at eye level, huge, beautiful beasts floating effortlessly above the rooftops, silhouetted against the looming volcanos.  It was time to climb Agua.

Enter Greg and Shane.

“We’re climbing Pacaya this Saturday–wanna come?”

Pacaya.  Rather distant, a long walk in from the road, and infamous in unsafe Guatemala for the number of assaults committed on its furrowed slopes.  Hand lettered posters screamed from the bulletin boards of Antigua–

“Last weekend our group of ten people and a guide were ambushed and held at gunpoint by five men on Pacaya.  They stripped us, stole all our clothes and equipment, and raped the three women in our group.


“So–you coming?”

“Count me in!” someone said, in a voice that sounded very much like my own.

I agreed to go for several reasons.  I would have climbed Agua alone, despite my active search for a partner or a group to join.  Going with Greg and Shane promised to offer some security, especially in the event of a twisted ankle or similar accident, which would of course be very serious for a lone climber.

As for being attacked, even large groups are helpless against a single man with a gun.

Pacaya is more interesting than Agua.  It is Guatemala’s most active volcano, rising up from one of the most seismically violent regions in the world.  While Agua is silent, Pacaya is anything but.  The thin air at her peak reverberates with the frequent rumblings of deep-hued magma and the hissing of gases released under pressure.

The promise of red-hot lava arcing through the air was just too hard to resist.

Volcanos, along with dinosaurs, played a looming role in my childhood fantasies.  I often imagined pouring lava into a bottle.  Once it cooled and the bottle was removed, you would have an instant sculpture.  Or you could make your own fossils of hapless insects and leaves.  At eight years old, the possibilities presented by molten rocks seemed almost endless.  The lure endured.

The night before we began our climb, around 10 o’clock, an earthquake shook Antigua.  It was as if I had fed a quarter into a Magic Fingers bed.  Seismic activity!  Pacaya would certainly be erupting in the morning.

5:30 AM Saturday.  We set off for Guatemala City, slightly bleary-eyed but full of ambition.

None of us knew exactly how to get to Pacaya, but Greg had gotten instructions from a friend, and it felt good to leave the details of planning up to someone else for a change.  I should have known better.

An hour later we stepped off the bus into utter chaos.  We stood hump- shouldered in black, billowing clouds of exhaust in the roughest part of town, wondering how to find a bus south to Amatitlán and Pacaya.

As so often happens in Central America, it was more a case of the bus finding us.

We stepped out of the smoke and grime of the city into a sardine can of humanity.  Three adults and two children–five of us all together–shared my school-bus-size seat.  People stood the length of the aisle, packed so densely I couldn’t raise my arm to scratch my nose.  Four perched on the bottom step of the back door, each finding a single handhold somewhere and swinging wildly in the breeze.  My feet rested unsteadily on a burlap bag that occasionally heaved and once or twice snorted.  My knees touched my chin.  And things were getting worse.

The plywood board that served as our seat suddenly lurched and fell between its supports, and the five of us slowly, inexorably, sunk to the floor–or rather, to the unlucky parcels stored underneath.  There was no getting back up.  We were so jammed in that the space created above was instantly filled by the people leaning over us from the aisles.

There was no room for my feet.  I pointed my toes downward to fit them in front of me.  My legs alternated between numbness and “pins and needles.”  I felt like one of those pranksters of the ’50’s, crowded into the bottom of a phone booth.

Filling buses grossly over capacity is dangerous, of course–and technically illegal in Guatemala.  As we passed a police barracks, a cry came out from the front, and everyone standing slowly sank to a crouch, en masse, until the checkpoint and the danger of detection had passed.  Very pregnant women with toddlers on their backs and heavy bundles on their heads giggled as they duckwalked in place.  We all watched the police watch us, a great game.

It says a great deal about the Guatemalan spirit that even under such uncomfortable conditions, everyone manages to laugh, there are no short tempers, no one complains.  And there is always room for one more.

There is a fraternity among bus drivers, of course.  They know everyone, and honk and wave enthusiastically at fellow drivers and pretty women.  Drivers are stars.

But the real personality of the bus is, for lack of a better term, the driver’s assistant.  Usually a young man about 20, the assistant keeps the whole show on the road.  He leans out the front or rear door, singing instructions, packing ’em in.  No person or cargo is refused.  If it can’t be squeezed through the door, the assistant will manage to wrestle the article to the top of the bus–no matter what its weight.  Two hundred pound net bags of avocados, live chickens wrapped in banana leaves, furniture–there’s always room.

All these transactions occur with nary a stop, while the bus is in motion.  You may be barreling along a bumpy dirt road when suddenly a foot will appear in your open window.  The assistant will climb from the roof of the moving bus, along the side, and swing in through the front door, over the heads of the people clinging to a foothold on the steps.

Once well underway, another impossible task awaits the young man.  You don’t pay beforehand in second-class Guatemalan buses.  There are no tickets.  There is no time for that.  You pay en route.  It’s the assistant’s job to swim against the tide in this solid sea of humanity, in a careening bus, missing no one, handling fistfuls of money, and making change.  In months of bus travel, I never saw the assistant miss a fare.

I had the impression that a large number of young boys want to grow up to be the bus driver’s assistant someday.  Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised.

The assistant communicates with the driver through a complex series of sing-song yelps and whistles which help guide the bus around the tightest corners in crowded market streets without mishap.  But, at first glance anyway, the assistant must fend for himself.  It often seemed certain that we had taken off and left the young man calling fares on the corner.  Then suddenly I would see him fly through the door or climb down from the roof.  It’s an incredibly dangerous, wonderfully exhilarating life.

In sat plastered against the window, looking for a clue as to where we were.  I couldn’t even see Greg and Shane, much less communicate with them.  I started wishing I had taken a more active role in the planning of this trip.

Not surprisingly, I suppose, we overshot our mark by many miles.  We ended up in Esquintla–a fine town, I suppose, but nowhere near Pacaya.  We got off, boarded a second bus, and tried again.  In the reverse direction the driver knew where we were to get off.

Forty-five minutes later we found ourselves standing at the end of a long dirt road, our luggage at our feet, with no volcano in sight.  It’s a humbling feeling to see your bus pull away, its roar diminishing as it grows smaller in the distance, and have absolutely no idea where you are.  All that is left is the certainty that you are very far from everything.

Perhaps this would be a little more difficult than we thought.

The base of the volcano, we soon learned, is 15 kilometers–10 miles–from the main road.  This became clear only after climbing what we assumed were the volcano’s flanks for over an hour.

I honestly didn’t see how we could climb and get back to Antigua the same day.  Fine.  I had warm clothes.  In my pack was squashed pizza and fruit and water.  If we had to spend the night on Pacaya, I was set.  Greg and Shane, on the other hand, had no food, finally bought some water along the way, and were dressed in tee-shirts–perfect for the lowlands but less than adequate on cold and windy volcanic peaks.

Fifteen kilometers in.  Fifteen more out, it was safe to assume.  With a volcano in between.  We resolved to hitchhike.

Greg and I had never hitched in our lives.  Shane was an expert.  I soon learned all it took was some wild waving by the side of the road.  Every truck–and there were only trucks on this steep, rough road–stopped for us.  I became adept at jumping into the bed of moving trucks as soon as we were waved aboard.  I sat on old tires and greasy rags, and got incredibly filthy.  But in short order we set foot in San Vincent Pacaya, the last village before the ascent.

Doubled-over Mayans balancing hundred-pound stacks of wood on their backs waved politely as we started up the trail.

The jungle became denser and wetter as we climbed upwards, until we entered a true cloud forest.  Stunted trees held aloft cool-growing orchid species springing from the dripping moss.

“What’s that?” Greg asked, his head lifted high.

A low roar rolled down the mountain, rising in pitch as it swept over us like a storm.


But I knew better.  “It’s the mountain” I told him.

Here the trail led up a small gully.  As we wound our way through this narrow streambed, perhaps four feet wide and five deep, my mind flashed to the many assaults that had taken place on this mountain.  Had one occurred here?  In this narrow gorge it would have been easy to wait in ambush for unsuspecting travelers, funnelled like sheep through a paddock.

Shane and Greg had the same thought.  Invincible 20 year olds, they described the high kicks and karate moves they would execute to dispatch any and all banditos to come our way.

I decided my heroic move would be to politely hand over the twenty quetzal note in my pocket, along with anything else they wanted, and hope for the best.  My only deceit was to hide a small amount of money–enough for a cheap hotel and the bus back to Antigua, under my hairpiece.  One of the few benefits of being hairless, my hairpiece provided a secret compartment which would likely go undetected by thieves even if I was stripped naked.  It’s one travel tip you’ll never see in the guidebooks.

Just as these thoughts passed through my mind, we rounded another bend in our serpentine route and came face to face with a group of eight Guatemaltecos armed with a two foot machetes.  My blood ran cold.  Although none were over five and a half feet tall, they looked poor and rough, and, I thought, more than a little desperate.  A machete adds eighteen inches to anyone’s height.  I started reaching for my 20 Q note.

The men, all eight, lined up single file along the wall of the gully and smiled, motioning for us to pass.  As we approached, they set down their deadly looking machetes and shook our hands.  “Where are you from?”  “Are you going to the top?”  Do you like Guatemala?”  We each received eight blessings–“May you travel well,” “May God watch over you”–and they were gone.  I felt a little foolish for expecting the worst.

After the twists and turns of the gully, it was something of a shock to emerge suddenly above the tree line into a desolate area of charred grasses and blackened trunks.  Trees of some kind had grown here in the past, but continuous eruptions and subsequent fires had burnt them some distance back from Pacaya’s lofty cinder cone.  Emerald green grass, watered by frequent mists, shone in brilliant contrast with the black, charred areas touched by fire and the grey cinders of the volcano.

Now that we were above the cloud forest, the low rumblings and muffled explosions intensified.  It was eerie to realize that these sounds were coming from within, and not from above, the earth.  There was action beneath our feet.  Pacaya was erupting.

We passed over a rise, studded with the burnt and twisted trees of a German expressionist movie, and a dark, steep-sided cinder cone came into view between the scudding clouds.   At the rim of the caldera itself loomed the gaping mouth of hell.

Adding to the overwhelming impression of other-worldliness and great height, fleeting mists raced up one side of the mountain, stretched like fingers threatening to clutch the pinnacle, and the plunged over the precipice and down the south flank.  And far above, intermittently visible through the clouds, Pacaya noisily spouted a more or less continuous fountain of glistening red magma.  Spew shot up hundreds of feet.  Wicked rumbles shook the ground, and escaping gases hissed like a suddenly uncorked bottle of warm champagne.

Nearing the crater took some doing.  The cone was composed of cinders like those used to make railroad grades–irregular and glossy, and exceedingly sharp.  Even the slightest spill would result in a bloody scrape.  An all out tumble on this mountain, so far from hospitals and transportation, would be serious.

To add to the difficulty, the cone is agonizingly steep.  The trail first leads across a barren and narrow ridge, where clouds are sucked across a knife-sharp edge by icy winds.  It then plunges into a deep bowl cratered by newly solidified projectiles just spit from the caldera above.

I struggled zig-zagging, switch backing, one step forward, two back, on the dusty cone itself.  I felt as though I was fighting my way up the down escalator.  My legs ached.  The longer I rested, the harder it was to get started again.  Better to keep moving.  There was no place to catch my breath anyway–the incline was too acute, and any contemplation of the vertiginous depths spreading away at my feet led to light headedness.

All the while the eruptions grew louder and more ominous.  Scarlet magma hurled high into the air from the belching crater a hundred yards away and fell heavily to the ground on the south face of the volcano.  The ground shook and heaved.

What we didn’t realize at the time was that there are two trails to the top of Pacaya–the right way and the route we had chosen.  Although volcanos are anything but predicable, if you spiral up to the left from the base of Pacaya’s cinder cone, you can generally watch the eruptions in relative safety.  Most of the flying debris is shot to the south.  Not being privy to this rather important piece of information, we took the right hand path–and slogged unerringly to the southern quadrant.

At first it seemed we were in relatively little danger.  The eruptions shot up with some regularity to the height of a tall tree, huge, irregular blobs of lava landing safely a couple of hundred feet away.

I ached all over, but was full of wonder at the spectacle before me.  Just one more scramble up the last ridge, perhaps 25 feet, and I would be standing on the rim.  All fear of danger, of choking in a belch of poisonous gases, of tripping into the glowing furnace at my feet, gave way to the exhilaration of realizing a lifelong dream.  I was where few people would ever be, doing what few would ever do.  I was in communion with the earth.

Never trust a volcano.

The huge lava spews I had been courting with such daredevil ease were mere hiccups.  Half way up the last rise the ground began to rumble beneath my feet.  The cinders on which I balanced, far above the abyss, began to slide.  And then came a deafening FOOOSH!

I looked up to see one half of the sky covered with scarlet shards.  With a sick feeling I watched the molten schrapnel soar higher, in a spectacular fan shaped arc.  I was directly in its path, underneath the hurling wall of death.  I stared with a mixture of horror and fascination.

Still the lava climbed, in hideous slow motion.  On the slippery, barren slope there was no place to run, no place to hide.  So I did the next best thing–I rolled up like an armadillo.  The more I spread out, the more likely I was to get hit.  I ripped off my sweatshirt, bunched it up, and held it over my head.  I prepared for the worst.

The plume expanded above me for one last moment, and then began its downward curve.  Just as the jagged cinders–some weighing as much as 100 pounds–reached the peak of their projection, a wall of mist swept across my view, obscuring all in thick, white clouds.  I could hear the first rocks falling back into the crater, and then on the top of the ridge.  They landed with a dull thud, still soft, still pliable.  The clammy mist made me feel ill, as if I had fever and cold sweats at once.

Now I could see the airborne avalanche streaking through the clouds.  Dark forms appeared from out of the whiteness and crashed to the ground, as if a giant’s boots were plodding steadily closer.  I closed my eyes as the mountain shook beneath me.

And then the giant stepped over.

I could hear boulders hitting the ground at my side, and then down the slope.  I was pelted with smaller rocks–pebbles–which being lighter and blown higher, had solidified.  The rain of ash stopped.  Slowly I looked up.

Surrounding me in all directions lay huge chunks of hissing lava, shiny black and smoking.  Fifty feet along the slope, away from the direction of the eruption, I was surprised to see two horror-stricken faces.  Shane and Greg had been just barely outside the “fallout zone,” and had watched the boulders falling from the sky seemingly on top of me.  In the heat of the action I had totally forgotten about them.

I took my first breath since the initial eruption.

Shaken but relieved, I rushed away from the crater, and was surprised to hear Greg and Shane laughing.  Only then did I realize I was still holding my sweatshirt over my head–small protection against suitcase-size projectiles of flying basalt.

My immediate concern was to reach a safer spot.  Already another huge spume had shot up.  Luckily, as I could see from glimpses through the fog, the largest rocks were falling farther to the south.

The trick now was to avoid the still rubbery lava at my feet.  The crusty skin encasing the molten interior had cooled sufficiently to turn a glossy black, making the hot boulders virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the mountain.  I slipped in my scramble down the mountain, but avoided reaching for hand holds for fear of being burnt.  My sneakers grew hot.  I melted off what little tread I had left.

The three of us slid back into the huge grey bowl, and slowly made our way up the rim to the other side.  All the while the intensity of the eruptions increased, until the path we had cut across the crumbling cone was now impassable.  The spot where I had stood a minute before was under constant bombardment from the volcano’s flying debris.

We watched the eruption from the top of the ridge.  The ground was warm to the touch under its dusting of ashes.  But unless there was a massive explosion, we would be relatively safe here.

Unfortunately, shaken as we were by our close call, we had no time to rest.  The bus ride, the walk up from the main road, finding the trail, climbing the volcano–all had taken hours.  Now, if we were going to catch the last bus to Guatemala City, we would have to retrace our steps in half the time.

Greg and Shane fairly flew down the mountain, with the agility and fearlessness of twenty year olds.  I picked my way as best I could, battling against my innate awkwardness and lack of balance.  I feared a twisted ankle more than a group of bandits.  I had food and water, and warm clothes.  I could spend the night on the volcano if necessary.  Greg and Shane were shivering in tee shirts, and had had no food all day except for the pastries they grabbed while we waited for the bus in Guate.

Even with my exhausted knees wobbling beneath me, we made good time, and eventually reached the tiny village of San Francisco.  Almost immediately we were able to flag down a flatbed truck.  Even before the driver could give us the nod we had jumped in the back.  I sank comfortably into a greasy old tire.

We drove downhill for some time, content to be both resting and heading in the right direction.  But was it?  Nothing looked familiar.  Could there be more than one road down?

Suddenly we glimpsed Lake Amatitlán, which we certainly hadn’t passed on the way up.

“San Vincente de Pacaya?” we asked the driver, pounding on the roof of his cab to get his attention.

“No, señores.  San Palin!”

How they ever keep all those saints straight is beyond me.

We jumped off the truck and retraced out steps, climbing back up the dusty slope.  Our unfortunate choice of rides had probably cost us our last chance to get home that night.

Dirty, discouraged, and hungry, we plopped down in the dust and divided up the spoils from my stash–a few slices of pizza, squashed brownies, and warm water.  Greg had carried my pack, as well as his, all day.  I’m athletic enough, but slow, and he wanted to give me the chance to keep up.

We rose painfully, every joint aching, and resumed our climb.  After fifteen minutes of dusty, uphill going through low forest we heard a coffee truck, full of beans and pickers, coming by in our direction.  I found an empty space on the loose back bumper, and hung on for dear life as we flew up and down the steep incline and around hairpin turns.

Coffee berries exude a sap that turns black on contact, and I added several more stains and smudges to my outfit.  By this point I was thankful and a little surprised that the coffee pickers would share space with us.  We were that filthy.

After what seemed like an eternity bouncing up and down on a broken and swinging bumper, we finally reached the main crossroads.  Hopping to the ground I asked a group of people nearby if the last bus had past by yet.  Wordlessly they pointed, and as if by miracle, the very bus we needed–our last chance to get home that night–materialized in the distance.

We had arrived with two minutes to spare.

Dan and Omar

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1 comment to Climbing Volcanoes in Guatemala

  • Have you ever considered publishing an e-book or guest authoring on other websites? I have a blog centered on the same subjects you discuss and would love to have you share some stories/information. I know my subscribers would enjoy your work. If you’re even remotely interested, feel free to shoot me an email.

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A sample text widget

Etiam pulvinar consectetur dolor sed malesuada. Ut convallis euismod dolor nec pretium. Nunc ut tristique massa.

Nam sodales mi vitae dolor ullamcorper et vulputate enim accumsan. Morbi orci magna, tincidunt vitae molestie nec, molestie at mi. Nulla nulla lorem, suscipit in posuere in, interdum non magna.