Note: Best read while listening to "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King: soundtrack.
As kids, we all grow up drawing pictures of mountains. Rolling hills in front of cone-shaped snow covered peaks. I'm not sure if it's a guy thing, or just a Matt thing, but I remember usually drawing one of the peaks with its top blown off, and red-hot lava shooting out. Always seemed a lot more interesting if there was imminent danger for the villagers in the area. I remember the first time I heard the story of Pompeii, learning in science class how volcanoes were formed, understanding what was sitting just beneath the earth's crust, and realizing what could happen if all the factors were right.
When I heard about the possibility of hiking a live volcano in Guatemala, I was pumped.
My alarm went off at 5:30 - I had arrived in Antigua the day before and signed up for a hike up "Pacaya" - one of two or three active volcanoes in the area. Antigua, by the way is beautiful. It´s a decent sized little city, but it has a quaintness about it that is pretty charming. Very few buildings are more than two stories, there aren´t any gaudy signs for McDonalds or Burger King and the streets are all cobblestone. It was a stark change from Guatemala City.
The bus picked us up in front of the hostel at 6:00. After boarding about 11 passengers, we headed out of the city. It took about an hour and a half or so - Antigua is surrounded by mountains, and the sun was just coming up. A quick aside: bus drivers in Central America are really not very good. I'm convinced most of them simply forget they have passengers - you know when you're driving by yourself, you drive a little faster, and lean into corners a little more because you know they're coming. When you have someone with you, you're a lot more conscious. These guys - not so much. There's a reason there are handles all over the insides of these things.
Near the little town outside the park area called "San Francisco", we saw some major poverty. People living in shanties made out of sheet metal and cinderblocks, rocks and plastic tarps. I read in the guide book that about 70% of Guatemala is below the poverty line. I'd say pretty much about 90% of the people in the area around Pacaya are at that point. It was heartbreaking.
We pulled up to the park entrance and paid a $2.50 entry fee. The little structure had some pictures of past eruptions which were pretty cool. Our guide showed up about 10 minutes later, machete strapped to his belt, and we were on our way. The hike was a pretty good one - a pretty defined trail, but a decent incline. I'd like to think I'm in decent shape, but truth be told, I haven't really worked out for a good bit, and walking around cities is a lot different than hiking a mountain. Still, I was doing better than most in the group. We stopped about every 10 minutes for everyone to catch their breath. I'm not sure what the elevation was, but you could definitely notice a difference. About the first 45 minutes of the hike was through trees - not a lot different than hiking in Colorado. Saw some interesting terraced farmland, a lake or two, and some great views of the surrounding volcanoes, "Agua" and "Fuego".
About 5 minutes later, we passed through a fence, and the ground changed. The trail we had been walking on had been your run of the mill brown topsoil. It now turned dark and a little more sandy. There was even a little crunch to it when stepped on. A few yards further up, I looked up and to my right - about 200 yards away was the end of a cooled lava flow. It was awesome. I guess I really didn't have overt expectations, but the picture in my mind didn't look like this. When you see lava flow on TV, it's in streams which are relatively flat and almost gelatinous. I guess I kind of expected a cooled lava flow to look like a cement truck had lost its payload down a hill. It definitely wasn't the case. This looked more like a landslide of giant chunks of unrefined coal. It was really, really rocky and jagged. The end of this flow was a bit taller than I was. I of course reached out and touched it. The smaller chunks were really, really light, but very strong, and sharp. It was so very cool.
We walked around it for a bit and eventually moved to a point where you could get a view of the paths of the flows coming down from the mountain. The black cone of Pacaya stood tall behind the scene. Apparently the flows we were looking at were the result of an eruption just a month and a half ago. There were blackened trees and grass all along the edges of the lava.
We took a break to explore on our own. I really, really wanted to start climbing the rock. However, I really didn't know if 1) we were able to, or 2) if it was safe. I assumed we were going to, but what the hell do I know about cooled lava? I kept picking up little chunks of it and taking a bunch of pictures. About 10 minutes later, the guide gathered us together and asked us to follow him up the rock. Yes! We started climbing toward the cone. It was awesome.
The footing was really unstable in places, and super-solid in others. Imagine if someone had dropped about a million black cinderblocks on top of each other. At times it sounded almost hollow when you stepped. It gave that weird creaking sound like when you step on snow that's strong enough to bear your weight - that odd hollow straining sound that makes you think you're going to go right through. Then your next step is on solid, hard stable rock. Then back. We got far enough up that when you looked around, all you could see was the black. It was other-worldly. I took a couple looks back to make sure Gollum wasn't behind me. I was having a grand time.
This also started me thinking - there must not be a lot of lawyers in Guatemala.
I was right behind our guide (who, by the way must be in the best shape of anyone in the world. I hadn't seen him breath hard the whole time. He'd picked up a walking stick along the way and was just smiling to himself as he went along. He was part mountain goat). We reached a little crest in the rock. Now when you looked toward the cone, you could see heat waves rising up from the black. One would easily chalk this up to the black rock absorbing the heat of the sun and radiating it back up. However, it was frickin 8:30 in the morning, and the temp outside at this elevation was like 55 degrees. You could feel it getting warmer from below.
Every now and then we'd pass some white patches in the rock which turned out to be sulphur pockets. You could smell it in the air. The heat got more intense as we continued. We stopped again and let everyone gather. Our guide went on ahead and told us to stay here. He disappeared over a little ridge. At this point in the trip, he had little argument from anyone. To be honest, as I went along I had this fear in my head that one wrong step or one rock giving way would lead to a trip into hell. It was a really strange sensation.
About 60 seconds later we hear "Mi amigos!, Lava rojo!" I felt a wave of excitement. I hauled ass to where the voice came from. We found the guide and looked where he was pointing. There, tucked away in a deep crevice was the red glow of molten rock. The heat was awesome. After years of avoiding it in video games and watching it in movies, I was actually seeing lava. It wasn't flowing or streaming, but there it was nonetheless, tucked in under a bunch of black and white rocks. A few of us gathered around it.
With a smile, the guide dropped his walking stick into the red. Now to say it caught on fire would be a gross understatement. As soon as that stick made the slightest contact, it burst into flames. I almost shat myself. We all jumped back. This also got me thinking - If you've ever seen a move where people are running next to lava, or jumping over it... No. Complete bull crap. The heat from the smallest little pocket of this stuff is indescribable. I couldn't imagine what a real flow would have been like. I checked to make sure my shoes hadn't started melting.
We were still about 300 yards from the actual cone, which rose at least another 500 meters up. Every so often, some rocks would start falling down the cone. It made you nervous. Does a lava spout sound like falling rocks? Do rocks fall before lava spouts?
We started back down after that, much to the joy of the majority of our group. I think I would have liked to have gone on a little further, but to be honest, I don't know how much more. When you see a stick do that, it makes it pretty real.
The hike down was much easier, and gave some great views of a massive lava slide down the other side of the mountain. It also gave some time for reflection. When you see something like that, you can't help but feel small. God through nature has a way of humbling you in ways you hadn't even thought of. The idea of being around when the lava or the ash was coming down the hill is truly frightening. What would you do? I can easily say it was one of the coolest things I've ever done. And, I'm sure that Pacaya isn't even one of the better volcano hikes in Central America. Still, it was absolutely amazing. I hope you all get a chance to do it some day.