On a beautiful Saturday morning sometime in 2010, I ignored good judgement and scrambled to the peak of an active volcano that loomed over Antigua, Guatemala.
This wasn’t my idea.
Since my purpose in Guatemala City was to help retain my international company’s UPS account, I presumed that accidentally tumbling to my death into the pit of an active volcano would end up in my unblemished HR file. However, my flabby American co-workers had already arranged the excursion, so my invitation was merely as a tag-along. Their outing, however, had the potential of becoming a better memory than my current plan of getting drunk in the hotel bar and singing karaoke to strangers, so I accepted their offer.
As our rented driver navigated our rented van along the winding road between the Barcelo hotel and the base of the Pacaya on that early Saturday morning, I became eager as I pictured the photos I could post to social media afterwards that would exploit an adventurous persona. Wouldn’t my friends be surprised and envious to see me standing against a safety rail donned in a thermal suit and helmet as a small pool of lava glowed fifty yards behind me. It would be a welcome change from my typical my-cat-is-better-than-your-cat or I’m-posting-this-selfie-so-please-tell-me-I’m-pretty status updates.
Unaccustomed to third-world tourist attractions, my Americanized mind imagined the “fun” of this journey would probably entail some sort of travel in a mechanized lift such as an aerial tram, escalator, and/or ski lift, so I had every intention of accompanying my pictures with embellishments such as, “Oh em jee. I can’t believe the air conditioning in our tram was broken the whole way to the top. El oh el,” or “OUCH (sad face) the ski lift seat gave me a splinter!” to make the expedition seem more treacherous.
When we de-boarded the van at the base of the volcano, we found ourselves in a dismal and inconsequential village that time, fashion, and hygiene forgot. Where were the bright-colored logos and banners? Where was the cartoonish Pacaya Volcano mascot? Where could I buy souvenirs and/or t-shirts to prove I pretended to do something cool? All I saw were trees, dirt, and rusted tin roof shacks. This didn’t appear like a legitimate tourist attraction, so I became a little concerned that I was in the process of being sold into the Guatemalan sex slave industry because of my office pranks. I was put at ease,though, when a co-worker approached with an amusingly short (yet regularly proportioned), dark-skinned fellow (whom I mentally referred to as The Pocket Guide) and introduced him as our guide. I admit that I was mildly disappointed that my career in sex slavery would have to wait another day.
The Pocket Guide led us into the dense forest at the edge of his village, three of us on foot and two on the back of a rented mule. The soundtrack to our journey through rich forest, clear pastures, and then more forest comprised of popular American numbers of the privileged such as “Are we there yet,” “Good God, it’s so steep,” “The altitude is horrible. I can barely breath,” and “I’m going to be so sore tomorrow.”
And then, the forest cleared, displaying a barren ground of gray lava rock for as far as I could see. From where we stood, we finally saw the peak of the volcano in the distance. It was beautiful and odd and splendid. I pulled out my camera and fired off a few shots, expecting this to be the end of our disappointing tour, yet The Pocket Guide said, “Okay. Let’s go,” with a horrendous accent and directed us onto the rocky earth. Before I could say, “Wait. You want me to climb on THAT,” the two woman dismounted their mules and the group ventured onward.
Traversing upon a dangerously fragile bed of lava rock seemed unAmerican, not in the sense that I was committing patriotic treason but because I couldn’t imagine anywhere in our 50 states where a foolish and inexperienced weekend warrior was allowed to prance along unsafe terrain without required safety equipment, proof of certification, and/or liability waivers. As we ascended the steep incline, The Pocket Guide cautioned us with tales such as the time just two weeks prior when some girl had to be airlifted to safety because she broke her leg after a spill. I scrambled carefully, the image of being alone and slung up in a Guatemalan hospital while sipping limonada con soda through a paper straw as I pondered how to find the girl with the broken leg so I know who to sue encouraged me to climb responsibly.
We clambered for so long, I almost forgot the purpose of our excursion, but a gush of warm air glided through the hazy terrain, signaling that we were approaching the summit. When the sky cleared again, I saw my first pool of lava glowing in a gully fifty feet away and oddly absent of any sort of railing to keep people at a safe distance. How else could they prevent stupid Americans from catching fire after getting too close? As the ground leveled, I began seeing this dangerous neon orange substance peeking through the jagged mounds of rock around me everywhere; some of them called for our attention with a sudden hiss through the cracks. That moment in my life, on this lava and rock playground, was exciting, but I am mostly grateful for it when I recall standing among the unbearable heat next to a slow rolling river of lava, my legs feeling as if they were donned in socks of fire, and looking over the mountain’s edge, down onto a miniature world over eight thousand feet below and feeling beautifully insignificant. Understanding that my chance of an unfortunate demise was drastically elevated made me respect the Pacaya, but it didn’t stop me from seeing what would happen if I tossed an empty water bottle into the magma (it melted – big deal).
After our exploration, we began our descent. On the way down, one of the mule girls stepped upon a fragile mound of volcanic rock that gave way under her abundant weight. She flopped headfirst down the steep and craggy slope, the momentum of her fall tossing her feet over her head. I reacted with laughter, but by the third roll, while I watched her right sneaker shoot from her foot as if launched by a cannon, I realized the seriousness of the situation. Thankfully, she staggered away with a swollen ankle and a few unflattering abrasions. As two of us acted as her human crutches for the rest of the journey down, I battled the urge to inform her that there was a 20% chance this wouldn’t have happened if she had just gotten drunk with me at the hotel like I had planned, like an average American.
Despite the clumsy episode, we remained in high spirits on the trip back to the hotel. Why? Because we had just climbed to the summit of the Pacaya volcano and mocked death by standing at the lip of a cliff over eight thousand feet high as a river of lava flowed silently beside us. To celebrate, we made an unexpected stop at the midway point to a roadside shack overlooking Guatemala City that served flautas that were grilled on a rusty wire rack over a pit of simmering coals. We admired the view, drank Gallo beer, ate flautas, and retold the day’s events from one another’s perspective. The next day, however, my stomach cramped so bad, I thought I was going to die.
So if you travel to distant lands, enjoy the volcanoes, but beware the roadside flautas.