Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Hiking Guatemala's Active Volcanoes


ANTIGUA, Guatemala – A loud “thunk, thunk” fills the air as two more chunks of molten lava are thrown hundreds of feet into the sky. They quickly change from a searing orange glow at their apex to a blackened, obsidian blob as they cool slightly before landing with a thud at the base of the summit cone. They shatter upon impact, skittering along the hardening crust sounding like tinkling shards of broken glass.

This is followed immediately by a chorus of “oohs” and “aahs” from a group of mesmerized tourists standing barely a dozen yards from where brand-new earth is being pumped out of a pair of smokestacks on the summit of Pacaya, the most active and most easily climbed of the 37 volcanoes that form the backbone of Guatemala.

This is a typical day atop the 8,367-foot volcano located on the outskirts of the capital of Guatemala City, as the cones are constantly lobbing up rocks with a sound like that of tennis balls being ejected from an automatic ball launcher. Or better yet, like fireworks being set off at the best Fourth of July display you’ve ever imagined.

We’re standing virtually within spitting distance from where these potentially deadly grenades are landing, and yet there is nothing other than your own fear – and “suggestions” from the two “guias,” or guides – to keep us from inching closer, tempting the volcano to unleash an especially large belch that might turn one of us into tomorrow’s headline. No ropes, no fences, no warning signs and no lawyers handing out business cards. Talk about your shock and awe. You can’t do this at Yellowstone!

The day is a perfect climax to a trip that has taken me up all three of Guatemala’s currently active volcanoes as well as to the highest point in Central America. Barely two weeks before, I was beginning to doubt I’d get to climb any of them. My first scheduled climb – an overnighter on Fuego near the former Spanish colonial capital of Antigua – was canceled at the last minute, I find out via email, because of currently dangerous activity in the hulking, steaming crater atop the 12,346-foot volcano.

So I quickly change itineraries – something you learn to do on the fly in a Third World country – and call Patrick Vercoutere of Adrenalina Tours in Quetzaltenango to find out if I can instead climb Santa Maria to get a look at its currently active shoulder cone of Santiaguito, which erupts with a huge plume of ash every 35 or 40 minutes.

“Sure,” he says, quickly switching from Spanish to English, both of which he speaks with a Belgian accent. “We’re climbing tonight at midnight under a full moon. We’ll be on the summit for sunrise.”

The only problem is that it’s Good Friday and I’m in Antigua, a good six hours by chicken bus from Quetzaltenango, or Xela (pronounced Shay-la), as the country’s second-largest city is known. And it being Semana Santa, or Easter Week, I get only halfway there when the buses – those brightly painted, antiquated school buses that are the only means of transportation for most of Guatemala’s population of 13 million – stop running for the day. I’m left to negotiate with the collectivos, – owners of pickup trucks and mini-vans who cattle stranded passengers up and down the Pan-American Highway that runs north-south along the spine of this rugged, mountainous country.

I get lucky in that I snag myself a seat in a comfortable mini-van and avoid having to hang off the tailgate of a pickup truck for three hours like some of the other stranded travelers, most of whom are gringo backpackers like myself.

Along with me are Andrew, 20, and Galen, 18, brothers from Northboro, Mass., who live in Xela, where they are learning Spanish and playing in their own little jazz band. They invite me back to their apartment for the weekend, which is a miraculous stroke of luck considering I’ve only been to Xela once in my life and I have no idea where I’m going. When you’re traveling alone, you never turn down hospitality, even if it comes from a couple of kids half your age and even if it means you’re sleeping outside in a hammock in March at 8,000 feet in a part of the country that even the Guatemalans affectionately refer to as Alaska! And I couldn’t beat the “rent” – three liters of Gallo, which is the national beer of Guatemala despite its rather unpleasant taste.


At 12,375 feet, Santa Maria is described in one tour book as a “moderate” hike, but I guarantee the authors never made the climb. It’s a relentless four-hour death march to the summit, but the instant I top out under the shimmering light of a full moon, I am treated to an eruption from Santiaguito’s crater several hundred feet down Santa Maria’s western flank. A huge rumble is followed by a big belch as Santiaguito lets out a puff of gas and ash that billows into the pre-dawn sky and roils like a mushroom cloud. Amazing.

The Santiaguito crater was formed by a huge explosion in 1902 – the third-largest eruption in the Western Hemisphere in the 20th Century. Ash traveled as far north as San Francisco, but in Guatemala, the government was busy denying that the eruption had even occurred – despite the fact peasants working the many coffee fincas on the Pacific slope were standing chest deep in ash! Seems that Santiaguito was formed at the worst possible moment – right in the middle of President Manuel Estrada Cabrera’s Feast of the Goddess Minerva, whom he had just made the patron saint of the country’s so-called progress.

Coffee prices were down at the turn of the century and Estrada Cabrera had invited diplomats from all over the globe to attend the festival as a guise for eliciting investment capital from abroad. He couldn’t afford to have something as uncontrollable as an eruption discouraging foreign investment, so he simply denied its existence. Ultimately, the ruse failed, and the investors went home, taking their money with them.

Sunrise on Santa Maria is spectacular, except it unmasks all the graffiti and trash that unfortunately marks the summits of most of Guatemala’s volcanoes, many of which are considered sacred and still used by the native Mayans as ritual sites. Santa Maria is no exception; as the sun rose, so did a dozen or so chanting Mayans, who had apparently carried out a ritual the night before that involved a live goat, or so indicated the horns on the charred carcass in one of the many fire pits.

Among the volcanoes that stand out against the pink sky is Tajumulco to the north, at 13,846 feet the highest point in Central America. Tajumulco is not currently active, but was a hike not to be passed up, if for no other reason than for the challenge of getting there and back on Easter Sunday via the chicken bus. Two of my new-found friends from Xela joined me and the day was perfectly sublime until we got lost on the way down and got caught in a violent thunderstorm. If not for a pair of young boys we had seen that morning riding a horse who got us back on trail, we might have been standing where a huge lightning bolt struck the ground a few moments later. To our amazement, the bolt left a red, glowing sphere of energy where it had struck, before violently exploding a millisecond later, throwing debris and smoke into the air. Turns out it’s called “ball lightning,” and it’s usually about the size of a grapefruit. This one was bigger than a beach ball!

Moments later, another bolt of lightning streaks horizontally across the sky seemingly just a few feet above our heads. Instantly, the thunder follows, not in its classic boom, but in a frenzied crack giving chase to its source, as if it were tearing a hole through the sky as it went. It’s the first time I’ve ever heard thunder in complete Dolby SurroundSound!

Through a series of minor miracles, we catch the last bus of the day – twice – and make it back to Xela before nightfall. We stop at the neighborhood tienda to celebrate our good fortune with three more Gallos. Suddenly, they don’t taste so bad.


The following weekend, Fuego has calmed down enough to be climbed and I meet my guide, Rafael, in Antigua. We’re driven up this washboard of a dirt road to the trailhead, only to find the chicken bus already there. Seems there’s no place too remote in Guatemala for the chicken bus. We start up through corn fields and I become worried almost immediately when I see sweat dripping from Rafael’s nose and he’s breathing heavily. I mean, shouldn’t I be the one doing that? But Rafael soon hits his stride as we climb to the summit of Acatenango, at 13,041 feet the third-highest volcano in Guatemala. The summit crater looks like a moonscape; the volcanic dirt is so dark it looks genuinely cobalt in the glint of the midday sun.

Starting down the other side into the col between Acatenango and Fuego – whose summit is already hidden in the clouds that roll up from the Pacific each afternoon – we literally begin to ski down the steep slope. My boots are quickly full of miniature pieces of lava that rub mercilessly again my feet and when we stop for lunch on a rocky outcropping, I dump a cupful of rocks out of each one.

Suddenly, I’m stopped in mid-sandwich by a loud explosion, followed by a rumbling and what sounds like a rock slide. Fuego is awake, somewhere off in the clouds in front of us. It’s an ominous sound that would be repeated throughout the afternoon and into the evening. After lunch, it’s time for the day’s second run, and we ski down to a beautiful, pine-forested glade between the two peaks, where we camp for the night.

In the morning, it takes little more than a half hour of steady climbing to reach the shoulder of Fuego, giving us our first view of the heavy plume of smoke that has been pouring from its caldera since 1999. We drop our packs and sneak a few hundred yards closer to where Rafael normally turns his clients around. But things seem quiet and I want to get closer. Much closer.

Suddenly, a golondrina, a type of swallow, whizzes past me in a blur, and instantly I’m transformed into Bilbo Baggins, and the golondrina becomes the thrush that shows the hobbit the secret tunnel leading deep into Smaug’s mountain. I cautiously creep closer and closer, hoping not to wake the dragon and evoke his wrath. Gollum! I suddenly wish we had rings to make us invisible, like the one Bilbo wore enabling him to sneak unseen into Smaug’s lair. We climb higher – higher than Rafael has ever dared before – and eventually get within a good stone’s throw of the fuming crater. Too close, Rafael warns. Now, not only can we see the dragon’s breath, we can smell its foul, sulfurous odor, emanating from cracks in the earth beneath our feet.

We know that if the dragon awakes now as it did so many times the day before, we are easy prey, so we quietly and stealthily backtrack our way off the mountain. It’s not a shiny cup like Bilbo stole, but I pick up a volcanic rock and slip it into my pocket as proof of my courage – or foolhardiness. Fortunately, it’s not missed by the dragon, which, thankfully, slept through it all, unaware of our presence. As we make our way back to our packs, a faint murmur rumbles from the mountain, probably just Smaug dreaming about a nice meal of dwarves or elves. We complete a difficult descent in record time and the dragon never stirs.

Maybe we were wearing magic rings after all!


Safety is the No. 1 concern when climbing volcanoes in Guatemala, but it’s seldom the volcanoes you have to worry about. It’s the bandits. They see you go up the volcano and they lie in wait for you to come down. Nowhere was this worse than on Pacaya. Because of its proximity to Guatemala City and its gangs, and that it’s the easiest hike for the average, out-of-shape gringo tourist, Pacaya had become notorious for crime by the time the peace accords were signed in 1996, officially ending Guatemala’s 36-year civil war that claimed more than 200,000 lives.

“I used to climb Pacaya a lot when I first came here,” said Colorado native Tammy Ridenour, owner of Maya Expeditions, one of the many eco-tour operators in the country. “But then it got real nasty up there,” she said. “There were robberies and even rapes. The year after the peace accords – 1997 – was particularly bad.”

There were even rumors of disreputable local guides being in cahoots with the bandits, leading their own groups into ambushes and then abandoning them. But things have changed a lot, and while every guide book warns travelers not to hike any volcano alone, robberies now are almost unheard of.

“There have been no robberies on the volcanoes that I have heard of in at least two years,” said Rafael, who was also my guia on Pacaya.

A big reason, Ridenour said, is that the Guatemalan government finally has realized the value of the tourist dollar, and thanks to pressure from local residents, turned Pacaya into a national park, with certified guides and a small visitor’s center – little more than a cement block building – at the trailhead.

“It’s much safer now,” said Ridenour of Pacaya, “and the police are a lot more helpful. They won’t even take a bribe now, that’s how much corruption has been curbed.”

As for myself, I wasn’t sure Pacaya was going to be as exciting as Fuego, even though it’s been in constant eruption since 1965. I figured if the average couch-potato could make the climb, this would be little more than a pre-packaged “McHike,” catering to so many of those camera-toting, sun-blocked pseudo-tourists that get carted around on air-conditioned buses and “interact” with nature by looking at it mostly through tinted glass. “That was nice,” I imagine them saying as they return to their gated, four-star resorts to sip margaritas by the pool. Yanquis, the locals call them. You know them better as Americans.

I picture a day at the zoo, not the safari I was hoping for. Boy, was I wrong. Yes, the climb up Pacaya is as easy as advertised, but its popularity is not so much in the effort as in the reward. Watching the two smokestacks rain down fiery new earth while you can feel the heat of the volcano on your face makes Pacaya not a mere zoo, but a safari where you actually get out and pet the lions!

After we eat lunch, numbed into an unfazable trance by the raw beauty unfolding at our feet, Pacaya burps up a couple of particularly dangerous fireballs and our guias finally yell, “Vamonos,” and with hesitation we begin to head back down. On the way, we pass a group of ascending tourists who as yet have no idea what awaits them.

As we near the parking lot, Pacaya lets out a roar that can be heard for miles. I look back at the rim expecting to see tourists scurrying for cover. But there they are, still standing side by side, snapping away.

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