Lisa versus the volcano

Antigua Travel Blog

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within a few feet of the flow
*This is a copy of a posting I put on myspace while on my trip to Guatemala and Honduras, November 07:

It is 10:30 am here and I just finished breakfast - feeling lazy so thought I'd post about my volcano experience yesterday. So I have done tours in both Costa Rica and Belize and they were pretty disneyfied - everything felt pretty safe and organized. But this is Guatemala and things are different here.....

I signed up for a hiking tour up volcano pacaya, about an hour and a half's drive from antigua. My buddy Chris came along and as soon as we were picked up I knew that this tour would be different. The "guide" came to the hostal, but she only spoke spanish, so we just kind of blindly followed her to the central park - yes, there is a central park here - where we boarded a rickety bus.
I hiked the volcano 2 different days; this is what I saw the second time around
The bus took us at full speed around these crazy, winding mountain roads, barely missing people and animals walking along the roads. We passed through small dusty towns with trash on the roadsides, roosters crossing the road, and kids biking right next to the highways. The most "guatemalan" part of the ride was the billboard sign we saw that was an anti-lynching ad - complete with a huge rope noose. Apparently, according to the peace corps guys we met, the smaller towns here have little security or police so they just dole out their own justice. They told us that they have seen public whippings for stealing in the town square and if you are suspected of kidnapping or murder, you get lynched, and the small police force does not get involved.

Anyway, the road up to the trailhead for the hike turned from concrete to dirt, and the bus strained as it made it's climb higher into the moutains.
with the flash turned off
All I could think was that I hoped the brakes worked on the way down! We finally pulled off into this makeshift little town, following this colt that was sprinting in front of the bus the whole way. Immediately we were descended upon by little guatemalan children hawking walking sticks for five quetzales - I haggled with them and we ended up getting two for one.

And thus began the hike! Let me just say first that at no point in this "tour" were we asked to give our names or sign waivers. They just did this half hearted head count - I guess if you lose a tourist or two ít's not a big deal! So this hike immediately became completely vertical - which was tougher than I thought for this sea level girl. They did follow us with a herd of horses for the gringos who couldn't make it the whole way - including a couple colts who just kind of followed along.
stunning


Well, long story short, this ended up being the most amazing, crazy, and dangerous thing I have ever done! We made it to the summit in a shroud of mist - you had about maybe 6 feet of trail with sheer drop offs on either side, all obscured by this fog. I have to say I was glad I couldn't see exactly how far up we were at this point! And then we descended into this valley of the newest lava flow..... Oh man - it was the most incredible thing I have ever seen. We walked over dried lava flows that were still somewhat warm in spots from steam vents below over to stand next to real, honest to god, red hot magma! It actually got really hot, like you were standing next to a huge bonfire - which is I guess kind of what we were doing, but on a grander scale.
you can't do this in hawaii!
I have this great photo of me kneeling within 3 feet of an actual lava flow - Chris took his photo in the same spot while lighting his walking stick on fire by touching it into the flow itself. It was crazy! All of us kept saying how you could never do this in the US or other first world countries - the legal implications would be too great. Only in Guatemala! I certainly wasn't able to get this close to the flow in Costa rica at Volcano Arenal. Just before leaving we saw this awesome sight - this massive downhill flow of lava streaming down the mountain. It was literally the width of a river. Words can't even describe it.

And the hike back? Little scary - most of the group took off and it was just me, Chris, this french guy, and this older british lady who was having a hard time making it from the dried lava flow to the hiking trail.
sunset, pacaya volcano
At one point the rest of the group, including the guides, were far in the distance and I got kind of worried that this was going to become the volcano hike version of "Open Water".

We finally caught up to the rest of the group, got the brit lady on a horse, and hiked the 1 and a half hours down in the dark. Yep, this was a sunset hike and the way down was well into nightfall. Some of us had flashlights, but Chris' one crapped out on us early on, so we paired up with some Swedes who just kind of swung their lights in sweeping motions back and forth so we all got precious seconds of actually seeing the trail. Nothing like hiking down a volcano, through cloud forest, in pitch black.

When we got back to the base where we started we bought a couple of cervesas to bring on the bus.
view from the summit
I bought some marshmallows but was at first surrounded by a pack of starving dogs, and then was engulfed by about ten little kids shouting at me in spanish for my sweets. It was pretty overwhelming, so I ended up just kind of tossing the marshmallows at them and running away. Those guatemalan kids are big time hustlers! But they have a tough existence, so you can understand why. It is very humbling to see such poverty and simple living. And most guatemalans, I have learned, are genuinely very friendly. It's just that some are so desperate.

Oh, and probably the most notable difference from this tour with others I have done elsewhere in Central america was that for the whole hike we had an armed escort the whole way - the guy had this huge rifle.
got this silhouette shot by chance
Apparently in the past villagers would rob hikers without an escort. We also had a police escort out of the towns to the highway - tourist vans used to be a big target for robberies. Definitely a first for me.

All in all, the most incredible and exhilarating experience of my life so far. If you ever find yourself in Guatemala, hiking up Volcano Pacaya is a must.

Buenos dias! Don't know where I'm headed next. Word on the street is that one of the original Buena Vista Social Club players is performing at a bar tonight, so not sure if I'm going to stay in antigua or move on......
kfree27 says:
Looks like an amazing trip! Is there a particular travel agency you can recommend in Antigua? There are a ton and it's hard to decide.
Posted on: Dec 06, 2007
screamingflea says:
Hello - thanks for the heads up, I'll definately check out Pacaya! Sounds like you had a great time!
Posted on: Nov 30, 2007
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within a few feet of the flow
within a few feet of the flow
I hiked the volcano 2 different da…
I hiked the volcano 2 different d…
with the flash turned off
with the flash turned off
stunning
stunning
you cant do this in hawaii!
you can't do this in hawaii!
sunset, pacaya volcano
sunset, pacaya volcano
view from the summit
view from the summit
got this silhouette shot by chance
got this silhouette shot by chance
Antigua
photo by: monky