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Usually, when I visit my family in Guatemala City, the first thing everyone asks is When do you want your tamale? or Have you heard the latest with your cousin? But once in a while, family gossip isn’t the hot topic. In the fall of 2006, my family couldn’t stop talking about Pacaya – a volcano between Guatemala City and Antigua. It was active, they said. A bunch of them were going to climb it. Did I want to come along? Heck to the yeah.

The Pacaya Volcano has been erupting for the past 23,000 years – its most recent active phase beginning in 1965. It is 2552 vertical meters of volcanic rock, ash, and bubbling lava. Climbing the Pacaya volcano has become a very popular tourist attraction for thrill seekers and nature lovers alike. But don’t let the presence of other human beings spoil your ascent into the clouds – climbing an active volcano is an experience that will remind you just how small and alone you really are.

My cousins and I woke early, geared up, and drove to the base of the volcano site; a dusty cement hacienda flanked by stray dogs, horses and chickens, where we hired a tour guide for 50 quetzales (~7 USD) to take us up to the top of the volcano.

 

Our guide was slim and wiry – 70 if he was a day – and while we (a group of 24-30 year old city slickers) huffed and puffed up the cement path, then dirt trails littered with gnarled tree stumps and slippery rocks, our guide simply strode, barely seeming to take a breath. My cousin wheezed, held onto tree stumps to catch her breath, and finally gave up and hired a horse. We clumped along beside her – hearts screaming and lungs heaving, soldiering ahead on our trek.

Snapping twigs and powdery sprays of pebbles. Stray dogs humbly following the party. When the rain began, we zipped up our ponchos and breathed in the fresh, bracing mountain air. A wooden gate signaled a new part of our journey – the grassy terrain streaked with blackened skid marks from flowing lava that had long since dried out.

 

Further and further up, until – after seemingly endless tracts of dirt, rocks, and gnarled tree stumps, we tentatively explored what seemed to be a prehistoric landscape –  its face scarred by the claws of terrible lizards.

Lava was here!

One of my cousins pointed out that the last time she’d been up the volcano, the skid marks hadn’t existed. The volcano is especially active right now, she said. We gingerly avoided the streaks – as if lava follows a set course of destruction. Further up, we met men selling cotton candy, potato chips, pop corn and Gatorade, as well as dogs curled up in the dust to nap.

 

Further and further on, a frisky pup with white feet joined our party. We reached a thick ooze of clouds… or smoke? Walls of crumbled, black dried lava barred our path so we had to climb. Our septuagenarian guide, fresh as a daisy, simply glode over the lava while we whippersnappers wheezed. Higher, higher, until the ground turned to black silt and the rocks became lodged beneath our sneakers.

 

Closer and closer to the top …

 

The clouds began to part. Around us, swelling green hills overlooking the landscape from a plane’s window.

 

Ahead of us, over more dump-truck piles of dried lava, in a valley dozens of meters below, there was lava that glowed red as it sluiced through the terrain, sizzling twigs in its path. Earlier groups of tourists were camped out, watching the burning lava as winter-weary travelers watch a fire. We joined them. Drank our Gatorade. Caught our breath. Vowed to work out more often. Our guide stood beside us, gazing down at the lava for, no doubt, the nth time that day.


The trip down – sliding through the black volcanic ash – was begun in the dusk. We greeted cows chewing the parts of the landscape that remained green and hit the dirt path when it was already dark. Bouncing flashlights lit the way and my clumsy feet seemed addicted to stumbling over the many, many rocks and snapping branches. The stray dogs followed yet again – white paws seeming to glow in the darkness.

Back down, safe on the ground … the volcano was hidden by dark and by clouds so we couldn’t even see how far we’d come.

 

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