A Trip To The Top Of A Volcano

Categories: Life Stories

At The TopWe have chosen the sunset tour of Volcan Pacaya, in order to view the dramatic eruptions as darkness falls and it crosses my mind that our bus ride back down this treacherous road will be after dark. Well at least I won’t be able to see on the way back I reassure myself. 

“Taxi, taxi”, the children continued to chant as we began our 2 hour climb up Pacaya.  The taxis were actually horses, short, tough, sure-footed creatures, led up the volcano by the children, whom I realized must make this climb every day. How hard can it be?

The majority of touristas opted for the taxis from the trailhead, or the beginning of the ascent.  Others broke down and climbed on after we walked for 10-15 minutes and the concept of 2 hours began to have more meaning.  “Are you sure you don’t want to ride up?”, urged Captain John well into the first of the two hours, as he ordered one of the empty taxis.

Capt John of m/v Diamond Lil

I was already gasping for breath but determined to climb this volcano on my own two feet.  Our friends and fellow Canadians from Mario’s, Wendy and Graham, on their catamaran “Bravo 2”, who had recommended this excursion and were just a few years older than we are had made it all the way up and my competitive nature was not going to allow me to give in and take the taxi. 

A Distant View

“It’s hard work”, Wendy had assured us, giggling mischeviously, “but well worth the effort”.

The higher we climbed the more annoying the constant “taxi, taxi” chants became.  I was unable to put together enough words in Spanish to say “I want to climb up on my own”.    Actually I was unable to put together any words at all. 

The few remaining climbers, a bunch of backpackers my kids’ age were gaining ground on me.  Stopping periodically to catch my breath, my hot, black jeans clinging to my sweat soaked legs, I fumbled for anything dry to clean my equally soaked, fogged up glasses.  Finally I gave up, took them off and stowed them in my backpack. 

I only needed to see about 4 ft in front of my face, which is about where the ground was due to the steep grade.

By this time the Captain was once again urging me to take the “taxi-taxi” horseback ride the rest of the way up.  I shook my head defiantly, having no breath to answer him and the next time that I heard “taxi, taxi” I snarled an impatient “NO MAS TAXI, TAXI POR FAVOR!” Nobody bothered me again.

The group ahead of me had reached the first rest point, a lovely spot overlooking Lago Amatitlan nestled in the heavily forested hills far below.  Gazing down upon the tranquil scene, high above the clouds in the valleys between the mountains , I had barely stopped to take pictures when the guide motioned me to follow along. He wanted to keep the group together for safety reasons.  I brought up the rear the entire way up and each time I reached a rest stop, the remainder of the group, who seemed younger and younger as time went on, lurched ahead, leaving me, the matriarch of the group without my rest period.

Every so often, even one of them would give in and hail a taxi, renewing my determination to conquer this beast on my own.

About half way up, after the first excruciating hour, the skies opened up in true Guatemalan rain forest style.  Others scrambled for rain gear and ponchos but I welcomed the cold rain, which cooled my skin, even through my thick, black jeans.  Angry bolts of lightening flashed in the distance, thunder roared and the trails below our feet turned to muddy paths as they wove their way up over rocks, around trees and stumps, higher and higher and everywhere we looked little rivers of rainwater were running downhill faster than we were climbing up.

Volcano Pacaya

Part way through the second hour the group fell into a quiet, reflective, almost meditative state and even in my exhaustion a feeling of peace came over me. Single file we climbed in silence, walkers and riders, slipping and sliding.  The air became cooler as we climbed higher and my wet clothes ceased to bring me comfort.  Finally reaching the highest point, we were rewarded with a stunning view of the vast, smoldering landscape of the mighty Pacaya.

After our long uphill struggle we were now faced with a steep downhill climb to this large, bowl shaped basin below.  The taxis were left at the top to await their passengers return, the grade was too steep and the footing too treacherous even for these sure footed beasts of burden. 

As the Captain and I stopped to catch our breath and take in the scene before us, the rest of the pack scrambled down and across the charred, hostile lava field, drawn towards the glowing spectacle in the distance.  The physical agony of the climb was suddenly forgotten as we gazed upon the otherworldly landscape.

Recent Eruption of Pacaya (photographer unknown)

We snaked our way across, stepping carefully from peak to peak of the hard, crusty surface, to lose our footing and put a hand down to break the fall would certainly result in injury.  Our walking sticks were a godsend as we tested each patch of cooled lava before stepping onto it.  We had heard of people accidentally stepping into a soft patch, only to slide into the hot molten lava below. 

At one point the guide circled back to help me navigate a particularly challenging stretch of terrain, holding my arm and showing me the way, step by step.  He congratulated me on walking all the way up, holding my arm high in the air in a victory stance, proclaiming

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