Guatemala, December 2008

(This is part of our journal for this period.  We landed in the Yucatan and traveled by bus across Mexico to Puebla, Oxaca, across the border into Guatemala, then finally to el Salvador.  The journey took about 6 weeks.  We flew out of Guatemala.)

To Volcan Pacaya from Antigua, Guatemala December 13th, 2008

Guatemala is full of surprises, mostly because people don’t tell you everything you need to know, or you don’t read the real fine print which could be written vertically in very small letters in hard to see colors. Today we are going to Volcan Pacaya, an active volcano with a flowing lava field.

It started out innocently enough. The van arrived at 3:50 PM, 50 minutes late. There were 12 of us in the zocalo (central park) waiting and wondering. One couple was looking for green van, another a tan one, a third had been told what color to look for, although we’d all bought are tickets from the same agency. Peg and I were told the van would be green- it was. When it arrived the driver hopped out, calling out names from a list. There was one that sounded right so we gave him our ticket, the one that said ‘no refunds for any reason,’ and ‘the van can arrive anywhere from 15 minutes before to 15 minutes after the scheduled time,” with no address on the receipt. So I said it was 50 minutes late but that depends on how you measure it. Could be an hour, could be 35 minutes.

On our way one of our fellow travelers said he was told the trip took an hour each way, another said one hour twenty minutes. We were told two hours each way, two hours to the top. “Two hours to the top” should have was a hint about what was to come but we didn’t notice. About an hour and a half later, after driving on some steep mountain roads, skirting the outskirts of Guatemala (the Guatemalans drop ‘City’), we could see the smoking peak of Volcan Pacaya, the plume rising lazily in the cool mountain air. We could see three other volcanoes, one with a plume.

On the last leg of the trip the van was climbing a steep and narrow road. We were behind a stuffed chicken bus. I saw a woman’s back smashed against the window of the rear emergency door, which opened as I looked on. A young man climbed out of the bus onto the ladder leading to the roof, closing the door as the bus zoomed around the curves, our van in close pursuit; the term ‘tail-gaiting’ does exist here, apparently, or if it does, there are no enforced laws to discourage the behavior. Then the bus veered down a steep one lane road so we can only assume that the young man made it just fine.

When the van stopped at the entrance we were surrounded by young boys hawking walking sticks; this turned out to be hint two. I must have heard “Walking steek, meester?” 150 times in the first 10 seconds. It was so loud the driver closed the windows that the kids were poking their heads into. He then opened the van’s sliding door, pushing the kids back. When we bought the tickets for the journey we were told there would be a $5 charge to get in the park but we hadn’t heard the part about paying the ‘conductor’ but that’s what he said we had to do now, and we all did. This was hint three, since he gave us no time to check things out. The entrance fee included the guide, which no one had mentioned to us. Let’s call this hint four.

Our guide introduced himself as Antonio. He gave us hint five, and the most important: hire a horse. For q120, about $14, you would get a round trip on the smallish horses that stood around, their presumed owners sitting comfortably in the saddle. No one took him up- why would we want a horse or a walking stick or one of the flashlights the kids were offering – and off we went. This was nearly a major mistake.

We found out why right away. The first section after leaving the base is very steep, very very steep, a 45 degree angle or so. Peg had to stop after at most five minutes of climbing. Everyone was puffing heavily except the guide who again strongly suggested we get on a horse, but Peg was adamant that she would walk up this hill and I was game so it was onward and upward. Antonio said it would level out in another 5 minutes, and then go up and down, and a woman in our group said this bit was the hardest; they were both mostly correct.

The men on their horses were right behind us as we mushed on, saying ‘taxi horse,’ or ‘horse no cansado (tired)’ about every 15 seconds. ‘Caballo no cansado’ and ‘buen precio’ became common calls.. Sometimes they got ahead of us to position themselves where the trail was steep, especially if we were in cinder fields, since the bad footing made the steep slopes even harder to climb.

We lagged behind when I could not maneuver to keep some people behind us. Antonio stopped to rest about every 20 minutes or so, especially after particularly steep climbs, which must have numbered about a dozen. In the meantime he assigned Angelito to us, whose job was to make sure we did not make a wrong turn. Angelito was no more than 8 years old and never said a word, and never seemed to labor.

After about 45 minutes we passed the 2000 meter sign; that’s about 6500′ in altitude. Antonio said the peak was at 2800 meters, but the lava flow we’d come to see was at 2400 meters. He said it would be about 20 minutes before we would get our first view of it, and another 20-30 minutes before we arrived at our destination.

The ‘taxis’ we still watching us, like vultures at a cadaver,. Peg wanted me to tell them she thought it evil of them to prey upon us laboring tourists. But I did not want to create ill will and instead said she did not like horses, in the hopes they would stop annoying us; we might need a ride at some point. It made no difference as the hawking continued.

We enjoyed some fabulous views when resting in clearings. When the price got down to q20, we knew we were getting close. Just a few minutes later, an hour after we left, we got our first view of the lava. A thin red stream flowed from near the cone. As we took in the view the caballeros led their horses on their return journey; six had come so far for naught.

The final march of about a mile uphill the whole way took about 30 minutes, winding through a now cold lava field formed in 2000. The lava had formed a wide variety of forms. Antonio warned us to walk carefully. If you fell the rough rock caused a nasty wound. He was at this location in 2000 when there was a significant eruption. Rocks, steam and gas spew forth. No one was injured, largely because the wind was blowing away from the group he was leading. After that even more tourists came, hoping for more spectacular sights. ‘Crazy,’ he said, but I wasn’t sure if he meant the tourists or himself. Perhaps it was us he was referring to.

When we finally arrived, you could feel the heat of the lava. Large cinders spewed forth from the edges of the flow, cooling as they bounded down the slope. The mass edged almost imperceptibly, silently downwards. In the distance two volcanoes stood silhouetted against the pending sunset, the plume on one clearly visible. We stayed there about a ½ hour, maybe 45 minutes.

Peg ordered a horse for the ride down; her knees would not take the downhill portion. Antonio called his buddy Arturo, waiting at the base, while I snapped portraits of women who traveled without partners and joked with Antonio about cooking hot dogs and marshmallows with long sticks so the 600F degree plus lava wouldn’t singe hair and skin.

Angelito was assigned to identify Arturo for us; he stayed with us the rest of the time. Peg climbed on Canela (Cinnamon), who hesitated at the first hill but then moved steadily thereafter. Soon the sun fell. Arturo offered me the choice of being in front or behind. I thought it wiser to avoid the business end of a horse so it was the former for me. Soon it was pitch black, for the moon had not yet risen. The flashlight was strong enough except for the few occasions Antonio directed it elsewhere.

Somewhere along the way we’d been joined by Juan Carlos leading his horse. Peg had been interviewing him while I tried to stay in one piece. I only landed on my butt twice on the way down. One near fall I landed on my hands and bounced right back to my feet. Juan Carlos noted how well I’d recovered from the latest near fall, saying I was very strong (‘muy fuerte’). I said most of the time, in fact, I carried Peg down from mountainsides, but since it was dark, I could not do it this time. There were other jokes back and forth, and some discussion of the fact that Carlos’ wife, an American, was 16 when they married; Antonio said Juan Carlos was a bit impulsive. Also during the extensive interview Peg conducted in Spanish with little help from me, Juan Carlos told us that the biggest expense of a horse was its original purchase. His purchase price was $1300! He told us that a typical horse could do this trip once a day for about 8 years (less if used more often) before they had to do something else.

By this time we’d caught up with another horse, so I was at the business end of one of these critters for almost half the journey. I could barely see the animal. His handler wore a white blouse so I could see her, though. I passed her during the last two hundred meters. This was the steepest part and the horses slowed to a crawl as they made their way along the concrete path.

We said goodbye to our friendly caballero and his horse, Peg tipped Angelito (still completely silent), and offered him some crackers, which attracted a crowd of other hungry kids his age. We climbed aboard the van, looking for the next surprise to come our way. In the meantime, however, we were thankful to be in one piece and wondering only how much our legs would hurt the next day, and coming to an understanding of why the tour vendors provided so little advice and information about this rather arduous journey- it would be a revenue killer!

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