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Hiking Volcan Pacaya

Volume 9: Sun Jun 9, 2002

Volcan Pacaya is the most active volcano in Guatemala. This is a story of my hike to the top.

This past week, I finally "discovered" McDonalds here in Antigua. You may not think that's particularly noteworthy, but it's been a grand game to play. It started a few days after I arrived in Antigua, when I saw some trash on the side of the road. First a cup, prominently labeled with the McDonald's logo. That's what originally clued me in that there might be a McDonald's nearby. Later in the week, I saw a vehicle pull out of a parking area painted up with the McDonald's logo, and a real, live Ronald McDonald inside! I haven't seen a real, live Ronald McDonald since I don't know when! And throughout the week, I'd continue to see more trash from McDonald's.

But it was always perplexing, because I had wandered up and down the streets of Antigua for over a week, and had yet to discover the "secret" location of this mysterious place. About a week after being here, I discovered the location of a Burger King while walking by it. And unless you were actually reading all of the signs for each of the buildings, you could walk right past it without noticing it. It's a very nondescript place with a small sign—about one foot square (and not even any neon or lights to light it up!)—and nothing else that would indicate a Burger King lurks behind that simple facade.

After that discovery, I started paying more attention to those nondescript buildings thinking perhaps I walked past McDonald's a dozen times already and just didn't realize it! And yesterday, while walking from the central square to the marketplace—after two weeks of searching—I finally discovered the secret location of McDonald's. It's in small, red-painted building without any windows, and the only clue that McDonald's lurks behind that simple exterior is a small M, their logo, covering maybe one or two square feet on the side of the building.

At the edge of the crater, mere feet from toxic fumes and certain death

Speaking of the marketplace—it's wonderful. The kind of place where women lose all sense of control and get themselves lost in a labyrinth of mazes, working their way through everything under the sun from fruits and food stands to live chickens and piñatas. The colors, sounds, and FEEL of the place is just wonderful, and I regret there's no better way I can describe such a wonderful place. If you ever find yourself in Antigua, though, a stop at the marketplace is a must.

Also, on this walk from the main square to the marketplace, I noticed a big truck loaded with Coke making a delivery, and an armed guard standing by it protecting the truck and its contents. I never noticed it before, but it seems that all of those trucks delivering bottles of whatever always have armed guards with them that get out to guard the truck and its contents while the delivery is being made. And these guards had REAL guns—not the wussy ones guards of armored cars in the United States have. Who'd have thought Coca-Cola was such a hot commodity? =)

I've had several people ask me about the food in Central America, and Friday afternoon the language school held a 'class' where we got to make ourselves a "typical Guatemalan meal" for dinner. The chicken and I didn't get along too well. I thought I had him pretty much under control—being dead and all—but he still managed to jump out of the pot to attack me, and then a couple of chickens tried to dump a pot of boiling water in my lap. Be careful of those chickens. You may THINK they're harmless when they're dead, but they aren't.

The ground near the top of the crater steamed from the heat and lava lurking just below the surface

Anyhow, for those who want to try a "traditional Guatemalan meal" of your own, I'll include the recipe below:

        6 a 8 libras de pollo (2 pollo de 3 a 4 libras)
        1 libra de miltonmate
        2 libras de tomate verde
        3 chiles pimientos verdes
        1 manojo de cilantro
        1 manojo de cebolla grande verde
        2 libras de arroz (gallo dorado)
        1 barra de mantequilla
        sal al gusto

        El pollo: Se frie el pollo con poco aceite hasta que est� bien
     cocinado, luego se pica el miltomate, chile pimiento, cilantro, la cola
     de la cebolla; seguidamente se licua todo junto (con un poco de agua),
     se le agrega al pollo y se deja cocinar por lo menos 20 a 30 minutos (o
     m�s si es necesario) al final se le agrega sal al gusto (moviendo

        Nota: Esta comida se acompa�a con arroz blanco (o al gusto)
              La cantidad anterior es para 20 a 25 personas aproximadamente

Oh, come on, don't tell me you thought traditional GUATEMALAN recipes acquired in a SPANISH language school would be in English?! *rolling eyes* =)

One last push to the top of the volcano, but this was the most challenging part of the climb

There's a small mountain near Antigua. Well, techincally, it's called a volcano, but it's a big pile of dirt in the shape of a mountain too. My guidebook says this about the mountain: "Because of its status as the only active volcano near Antigua, Pacaya attracts the most tourists and most bandits. The situation is improving, however, since each group is now accompanied by a security guard (little comfort when he turns out to be prepubescent). Guards or no, a hike up Pacaya still entails risks. Still, travelers now are more likely to be hurt by flaming rocks and sulfurous fog than criminals. Climbers have suffered serious, even fatal injuries when the volcano erupted unexpectedly while they were near the summit. In early 2000, the frisky Pacaya was upgraded to orange alert status."

Some people took time to write messages with the volcanic rock at the base of the crater. The scale is lost in this photo, but the largest letters are probably over 20 feet tall!

I'm reading this, thinking "bandits, flaming rocks, sulfurous fog—this is a place I've GOT to visit!" =) So Saturday afternoon, I found myself on my way to Pacaya. We started off fairly late in the afternoon so we'd arrive at the summit near sunset. Supposedly, the lava can be seen better when it gets dark. Then we'd hike down the mountain using flashlights to see our way. The shuttle drove us up the beautiful, scenic roads to the trailhead, and we were on our way.

I sit and rest at the edge of Volcan Pacaya, Guatemala's most dangerous and active volcano

The hike is pretty strenuous, about two hours (one way), rising up a pretty steep grade of thousands of feet. It started in the forests where we could see our destination in breaks through the trees, billowing clouds of toxic fumes on a mountain totally devoid of all life. Finally, the trees gave way to a sign saying that beyond that point, you could die from toxic fumes or from flaming rocks falling out of the sky, but to go ahead and continue the 30 minute hike to the top of the volcano if that sort of stuff didn't bother you.

This 30 minutes is the hardest part of the hike, since the nice, solid ground we had been walking on turned into dune-like sand where two steps up invariably lead to sliding one step back down. Near the top, you could see steam actually rising from the ground—which was also noticeably warmer than the air temperature.

We hike back down from the top

And, at long last, I reached the summit! It was exhilarating. The cloud layer was far below us, and you could see what seemed like hundreds of miles in every direction. We'd walk up to the huge, billowing, toxic clouds of smoke to peer into the crater, but the clouds were too thick to see anything that was actually inside of the crater. We were hoping for a good wind gust to blow the smoke away long enough to see bubbling lava or something, but it was not meant to be. I've never seen actual, bubbling lava before, so that was a bit of a letdown. And there weren't any flaming rocks falling out of the sky, which was also kind of a disappointment. (Oh, the stories I could have told then.... *sigh*)

...and we watch the sun set

Then we started trudging back down the mountain—more like skiing, actually. Like I said, the material was much like a big sand dune, except with much larger grains of sand, so we "skied" down the mountain, then emptied our shoes of all the rocks that got inside of them when we reached the base. At this point, I noticed another volcano in the distance with LAVA pouring down the side! We couldn't see it before when it was light out, but now that dusk was fast fading into night, the glowing, red lava was quite visible on the other mountain. It was a small consolation for not seeing any lava on "my" volcano, but a thrill nonetheless. =)

Then we pulled out our flashlights and continued down the mountain. It wasn't until we nearly reached the shuttles that it finally started to rain with flashes of lightening and thunder filling the skies. The pretty, scenic ride up the mountain became a terrifying ride down narrow, windy, wet roads with fogged up windows. It was great! =) And, at long last, at about 10:00 at night, we finally made it back to Antigua, safe and sound.

And that's where I'll end my latest installment of Ryan’s Great Adventures. Farewell!

— Ryan

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