The backbone of the Guatemala interior is a range of volcanic mountains that run the entire length of the country diagonally from Mexico to El Salvador. Of the 33 volcanic peaks, three are still active, adding some color and excitement to the landscape. This is impressive in a country the size of Tennessee.
Volcanoes surround Antigua. Each day as I walked down the coble stone streets to school, I found it impossible not to glance up and stare at the peaks. Sometimes shrouded by clouds, other times majestic cones reaching into the clear blue sky; they are the image of childhood drawings of exactly how a volcano would appear. Just looking at them brought back memories of grade school science projects of erupting volcanoes containing baking soda and other long forgotten chemicals used to create a lava flow, filling the classroom with ooh’s and ah’s. As impressive as that was, it is still hard to grasp the magnitude of a volcano until one is standing at the base of these powerful expressions of nature, tempted by the Sirens to come explore.
Close to Antigua is the volcano Pacaya, one of three active cones in Guatemala. So when the opportunity came to go climb it, I jumped. In the past years, the slopes of Pacaya have been the scene of bloody shoot-outs between bandits, tourists and security guards hired to protect tourists. To climb without a guide is an invitation for problems, so I joined a group of eight that was organized by a travel agency in Antigua. Generally, I don’t like groups in nature, but given the history of Pacaya, it was a small compromise that actually was comforting. Leaving Antigua at 6.30 AM, we set out for the trailhead. Here we met our guide and paid our park entry fee of $2, which probably pays for the numerous police we saw along the trail. The start of the trail was a sidewalk that went straight up. I guess they never heard of switchbacks. I thought, whoa, this is going to be more work then I expected. I was totally unaware (my fault) that the summit reached 8, 420 feet. It didn’t seem possible -- my perceptions of Guatemala were of jungle and coastlines, not tall volcanic mountains. We followed our guide through trees and brush as he pointed out and explained the various plants and animals along the way. Eventually, we left the tree line and walked across the lunar-like landscape created from more recent eruptions. Loose black scree made the last going a test of determination, with two steps forward, one back. From time to time, I would slip and touch the ground to catch myself; it surprised me to feel the heat coming from within the heart of the mountain. If I looked closely, I could see the steam of moisture rising from the ground as it evaporated into the sky.
After 3 1/2 hours, our group of eight reunited at the lip of the crater. From this vantage point, you could see parts of the sprawling Guatemala City, and the volcanic peaks of de Agua, Acatenango and de Fuego. Standing on the lip allowed me to look right into the throat of the volcano, a black hole at the bottom of a large opening of yellowish brown earth that steamed in the sunlight. I pushed out of my mind images of a sudden eruption and headlines back home of a Nebraskan lost in a volcanic eruption. When the wind blew, I could smell an odor that brought memories of chemistry class, it had to be sulfuric acid. After a few photos and a snack, we scrambled past other climbers on their way to pay homage to the volcano god. The wind began to gather speed as we headed down the mountain, picking up small stones, sandblasting the side of my face like a wall being prepared to be painted. Eventually, we loaded up into the minibus that brought us to the trail-head and headed for home. After 5 minutes, someone realized that we were missing a person, and we didn’t make any sacrifices to the volcano, so we turned around and headed back to find a bewildered climber, stunned that we had left him. He was traveling alone, so there was no one to report him missing. The driver didn’t count heads, but I guess for a $7 tour you can’t expect too much.
A few days later, as I was preparing to leave Antigua, a man pointed to the horizon as I walked past him. I turned my head to see a huge cloud rising from one of the volcanic peaks. An eruption was happening right before my eyes, with a dark cloud rising up and penetrating the white clouds higher above. ¨Wow, ¨ I said out-loud, ¨that’s cool.¨ Even more surprising was how little attention most people paid to the eruption. I guess it had become a part of everyday life living at the base of a volcano. But for me, it brought the old science project to life, and once again I ooh’ed and ah’ed.
I spent a week with my Spanish teacher, Vicki, 35. I’m not sure if I entertained her or tortured her with my Spanish, but she patiently worked with me throughout. Teaching Spanish is a good job in Guatemala, given that 75% of the people live below the poverty line. She earned $25 a week, working 8 hours a day, and 6 days a week. Living at home with her parents, this was enough to provide for a simple life for her and her son. Vicki had this to say, ´Be kind to the people of Guatemala when they come to America, it is easy to exploit them in hard labor, and they only want a fair opportunity. Adios! More to come from Guatemala.