Volatile Volcanos…Pacaya

My post couldn´t come at a more apt or sad time. I have been meaning to write about my experiences scaling the Guatemalan volcano Pacaya, which looms menacingly over beautiful colonnial Antigua, ever since our ascent on the 22nd May. As we arrived in our hotel in Tegulcigalpa, Honduras´ dilapidated yet charming capital last night, the 28th, we were greeted with news of the very same volcano erupting violently, claiming lives and causing Antigua and Guatemala City to grind to a halt. Link to BBC.

My fate could have been much more than 5 weeks in a cast this time, and I feel very lucky that I had a chance to do what I did, as it is unlikely that the volcano – which already claimed 2 lives a month ago for which visiting like we did was banned right up until our arrival in Antigua – will be a tourist destination any more.

The day of our ascent, a brave few had started out from Panajchel at 4:30 a.m. that morning, having opted out of a lie in and an air conditioned, private bus back to Antigua, in order to take our life in our hands on a Guatemalan public “chicken bus.” Our tour guide, Chad, was less than enthusiastic as he had taken these buses many times before and indeed nearly lost his life in a near collision with an 18 wheel truck during torrential rain. He was filled with scare stories, including one of his friend, who had lost and arm in a Chicken bus crash.

“Chicken buses” are a law unto themselves in Guatemala, itself a pretty lawless country. Although tamer versions can be found right through Central America, if you want the real deal, Guatemala is the place if you fancy a near death experience.

These hell wagons are very old and crunky, hand-me-down American school buses, which had at some point the familar and friendly yellow, now reinvented to look as menacing as possible, pimped out in agressive blacks and reds, emblazoned with flames and naked women; they are the Harley Davidsons of the bus world that look like they just drove straight out of Satan´s seven circles. They are certainly driven like they have, no hairpin bend is too steep, and you certainly don´t need to use your brakes. Need to pick up a passenger from the wayside (there are no official busstops outside the stations, you just chose a spot)? No problem. The process goes a little something like this –

* Apply the already worn out brakes, smooth from years of ferrying small kids too and from prep school, as if Jesus himself was walking accross the road in front of you – don´t worry if you give your passengers whiplash, or fling old ladies into the aisles.
* Your aim at this point isn´t to stop completely, it is to go at the optimal speed. That is, just fast enough that the passenger, most likely another old lady, carrying an impossibly large sack of god knows what, has to struggle to keep up, hobble alongside, huffing and puffing, but not slow enough that you waste precious time moving forward.
* As soon as they have a toe in the door, it is back on the accelerator as fast as you can, grinding the ancient and long abused gears – not to worry if the new passenger is still hanging out the door and clinging on for dear life, you have important places to be!!!

Those important places…? Anywhere but where you currently are. I was given the impression that these buses never stop not even for petrol, instead they endlessly terrorise the roads day and night with their chrome spoilers making their headlights frown menacingly.

You are never quite the same once you survive a Chicken bus ride. If anything is going to snap someone out of suicidal depression, and make them realise how fleeting life is, a trip towards the white light on a Chicken bus certainly is.

Somehow we arrived in Antigua 2 hours earlier than anticipated, which shows just how fast we must have been going. After a leisurely breakfast, we set out mid-morning for Pacaya. Situtated a hour´s drive from central Antigua, the last 5 or 6 kilometres are up a dirt track with crater like pot holes you physically have to drive around as if crossing the moon. The dropping off point is shrouded in clouds and full of hawkers, trying to persuade you to take the lazy route up on horseback. For the first 20 minutes or so of our climb, until a girl allergic to horses started having an asthma attack, they continued to follow us, sticking like lions to the weak zebras lagging behind, hoping to wear them out.

The climb itself lasted around an hour. We stopped at a small gorse covered gathering, no tacky tourist gift shops in sight, only the odd oppertunist sat, sweating and spitting, selling drinks to the infrequent unfit gringos.

This was when I first heard it. In the distance was a sound like someone at a construction site pouring stones from a bucket, but this noise was constant, lasting longer than any depth of bucket could. A constant clitter clatter, clitter clatter. In the mist like clouds we could feel the heat of the sun, and something else, something more primal. Our tour guide began to lead us down through the bushes, the obfuscating candyfloss masses began to clear before me and I saw the path that lay ahead, a narrow, walker-worn path on pitch black volcanic scree. All the time that unearthly noise could be heard, increasingly with every step. Clitter clatter, clitter clatter. Passing a sign which was too perfect a picture oppertunity, we posed beside the words – “DANGER LAVA, HIGH RISK”

Then, before me I could see my group gathering. The heat was increasing, becoming unbearable. Standing beside my travel partners I took in the sights. There was a pile of rocks before us, seeminly arranged in a pile, like tarmac waiting to be spread. Except these rocks, glowing a livid red and orange beneath a black crust, were laying themselves. Creeping forward very slowly, but constantly, tumbling forward, falling over themselves, they created new ground. Clitter clatter, clitter clatter. The pulsating mass seemed alive in chattering, clattering movement, writhing, sometimes spitting out great glowing boulders that thudded to the ground hissing as they hit cooler air. The air all above the heap of stones shimmered like a mirage, the heat was so intense it was necessary to back away after 30 seconds or so, if a giant falling molten rock didn´t make you scarper first, that is.

Although it felt very unsafe, in a country hardly well renowed for its health and safety, most of our group seemed unphased as rocks fell inches from where they had been standing seconds before, jovially holding sticks puncturing fluffy white marshmellows. Our tour guide encouraged us to get as close as we could, my skin actually blistered in the heat, surely this was too close!? The Walkie Talkies at the guides waists were conforting, suggesting someone, somewhere who knew something about volcanos was monitering the sleeping beast for activity.

Before us wasn´t a fast moving river of lava like you´d see on a National Geographic documentary, this was a slow moving slug like flow, spitting and belching forth the new earth. Clitter clatter, clitter clatter. Scrambling higher up the scree however, we could see at a distance, great rivers of lava spewing from the coal black ragged rocks, as the air simmered and wobbled. Looking back, I saw that the small tour group behind us were being kept much further back than we had been, our guide perhaps foregoing our safety for our money, hoping the more blistering the experience the better the tips.

We left quickly, unnerved. Clitter clatter, clitter clatter. It just didn´t feel safe.

To compound our fears, our guide explained on the descent, how just under a month before, a woman doing a visit, like ours, had strayed further up the volcano and had been killed instantly in a small explosion, which threw hundreds of molten rocks up into the air. Her heroic guide, trying to reach her singed body, was also overcome by the flying molten rocks in a second explosion, and he too lost his life. The danger wasn´t really driven home however, until the news that reached us in Honduras yesterday.

It was a rather intense day all in all – a hellcart to the hellmouth, and I survived! But I was lucky, and I feel so relieved that I hadn´t been doing the trip just 5 days later – I might not have been here to tell the tale!! I feel for the families of those killed or lost, and for the many thousands who are displaced and have lost everything. I also feel privilidged that I have had such an amazing experience, and grateful that I was able to do this trip before it became impossible.

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