Where awe-inspiring natural beauty abounds — You just have to make it there alive.
Following weeks spent soaking in the sun along the Caribbean coast we headed inland to the Mayan ruins of Tikal. After spending two nights camping in the jungle, listening to jaguars and howler monkeys throughout the night, we headed to Flores and caught a bus to Antigua by way of Guatemala City – where a local newspaper put the murder rate at an incomprehensible 500 per month. (I don’t recall the exact number, but I know that each day, each newspaper had the vivid, striking image of a lifeless body, mangled and bloody — a practice largely avoided in the rest of the journalism world.) This statistic coupled with my father’s disdain for cities and the fact it was 4 am would make for a short stay in the Guate bus station while we waited for our connection to take us to Antigua, about two hours away.
Arriving in Antigua we spent the morning meandering through the streets of the old Spanish colonial town in search of the most appealing accommodations. The town was incredible — surrounded by volcanoes sporadically spewing clouds of volcanic ash and smoke that would unfurl like a blanket over our small valley. We had only planned on staying a couple nights, but after weeks of sweat, sand, saltwater and mosquitoes the refuge of cool mountain air, comfortable beds in a private room, hot showers and the great company of a couple traveling journalists we ended up staying a week.
We enjoyed our time going to the markets, buying macadamia nuts from a man who included his fat, short butifarra-like finger in the weight, having our Mayan calendars read after dinner at a restaurante típico and frequenting the papusa stand in the plaza of La Merced. But this is not to say there was no excitement.
A popular day-trip out of Antigua is to the Pacaya volcano. So Xavi and I went to a touring shop nearby and booked our trip for the incredible rate of 8 dollars a person. This included a van collecting us from our hostel, driving the 1.5 hours to the base village and a local guide leading us to the lava-leaking apex of the volcano. We were never advised that it would be a strenuous or dangerous journey and being the over-insured and liability-fearing U.S. citizens we are, we assumed it would be a leisurely tour through the jungle with great views of an active volcano. Not entirely the case.
We met our guide, a small but lively local who spoke mostly a native Mayan dialect, but orienteering is universal and in this sense he was most assuredly honorable. Before starting our ascent, we were bombarded by children selling chiseled walking sticks. My dad and I deemed ourselves fit and stable enough to do without, we would later realize this sticks were not solely for the trail walk.
So we began our walk up the trail, a slow steady incline punctuated by several series of switchbacks through the dense Guatemalan jungle. We stopped several times to admire the small breaks in the vegetation where you could catch glimpses of Pacaya and prehistoric volcanic lakes. Absolutely fantastical.
Natural landscapes like those I saw that afternoon are best left to the descriptive devices of poets, I wouldn’t know where to begin.
Eventually we came to the treeline, where thick jungle foliage turned to black, jagged volcanic stone and gritty volcanic sand. From here you could see the giant crater at the top of the mountain – actively emitting volcanic ash while red hot magma actively spilled down into the valley below, dessimating all of the trees and anything else in it’s path. And that steep hill of cooled and crumbled lava was to be part two of our hike.
So while several groups ahead of us made their way up, we were forced to wait while our two heavier set companions negotiated with their haggard and tired horses that did not seem entirely eager to carry them any farther. In the end, they were forced to walk. The horses would be waiting to take them back down to the base and we would be the last brave few among the scorching, skin-searing lava while they ardently struggled up the volcano.
It wasn’t an experience I would define as scary, but walking on stone that seemed to have the structural integrity of Styrofoam above endless rivers of blistering lava was certainly exhilarating. And this is when we learned the real use of the walking sticks. Our guide walked cautiously prodding the stone as parts would give way into the river of glowing redness below it. Upon our return I did a quick google search of “Volcan Pacaya disaster,” “Tourist deaths Pacaya,” and “Tragedy Pacaya.” No direct hits, so I felt secure in my healthy sense of adventure. Take me back to ANTIGUA // Take me back to PANAJACHEL