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Published: January 11th 2009
The ground was starting to get hot, as warm as a freshly baked loaf to the touch.
We were getting close.
James and I were near the summit of Volcano Pacaya - a smoking giant in the south corner of Guatemala. We had seen it puffing away from a distance in the mini-van from Antigua, the wind carrying its smoke clouds northwards over the dirty sprawl that is Guatemala city.
It looked cool enough from there, but on the upper reaches of the active volcano, blurry heatwaves shimmered up off the ground. At our feet between jagged volcanic rocks were fiery holes. The distinct smell of rubber wafted through the air (cheap runners! but not our trusty boots). We looked down into the earth as though peering into the depths of hell. Pretty impressive - cameras were clicking away - but the breathtaking best was around the corner.
Lava. Not just a blob of lava, but a river of red hot magma oozing down the mountainside. Surprisingly (well to me anyway, perhaps not to a volcanologist) the lava emerged not from the crater but from a side vein. It was like a tongue of glowing red toothpaste being
squeezed out of a tube, thick and fiercely hot. James threw a stick onto the lava flow, it didn´t dip below the surface or bob as a stick would on water, it stuck there until it caught fire and burned itself out.
The heat was so intense, we were less than a couple of metres away, so close that we had to keep moving and turning around for fear our legs would catch fire!
The sight of the lava - glowing so red it was almost neon orange - gave me such an adrenaline rush that I completely forget the exhaustion of getting there.
Although a relatively small peak at 2552m, it was pretty tough going. The two hour ascent had begun gently enough, first on a path through a forest trail. Nice and easy so far, I thought. But then a walk in the park became a struggle up volcanic ash. We slid down the slopes almost as much as we stepped up them, our boots and trousers getting covered in a layer of thich grey dust. Slipping up the ash was like trudging up a sand dune. Just to climb a few metres used up
a greal deal of energy and determination. Fortunately I´m pretty stubborn and I refused to be defeated!
Since leaving the forest lower down, the whole area was eerily absent of any wildlife, no trees or insects or animals, with the excpetion of some bony horses (touted as 'taxis' by pubescent entrepreneurs) for those too weary to make it all the way on their feet. The horses didn´t actually go the full distance, their hooves couldn't negotiate the ground once brittle rockballs took over from the ash half way up.
The route was now steeper and more difficult thanks to these snooker ball sized rocks, precariously stacked like crunchy Ferrero Roches. More than once they gave way under our feet or larger rocks came tumbling down, dislodged by climbers ahead of us. I lost my footing and instinctively reached out my hands. The rocks were coarse and had metallicy splinters stickling out on the surface. Ouch. I pulled my sleeves over my hands and plodded on. It continued like this until we caught our first sighting of the red stuff.
We stayed until the sun started to set. With the last glimpse of the landscape before we were
A right pain to walk on
enveloped by night, we saw out old friend Volcano Fuego fire off in the distance, its smoking crater puffing like a steam train´s chimney in the twilight.
Going down was no mean feat either. Descending through the darkness, we managed to somehow lose our guide so James took the lead and we meandered off on a torch lit detour. Whether by sheer luck or, as James insists, due to a great sense of direction, James guided us (or stumbled upon, I reckon!) the correct path homeward bound.
Volcano Pacaya was our first adventure of 2009, on New Years day no less, and what a way to start the year, by walking on fire! To be honest, I never though it possible to get so close to lava, nevermind close enough to roast marshmellows on it. We didn´t need to journey to the centre of the earth, the centre of the earth rose to meet us instead.
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