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Published: July 26th 2006
Don't Step There!
This is the coolest vent I found on Vulcan Pacaya. The heat rising out of the Earth there was intense!
My journey back to Guatemala went as smoothly as I had hoped. The border crossing was quick and painless and we made quick work of the same winding roads that had taken me most of the day to negotiate in the slow colectivo vans a week before. The journey was not without delays, because the driving style in Guatemala, as in most of the countries in the region, lends itself to frequent and disastrous wrecks, one of which halted our forward progress for nearly an hour - We were, of course, much better off than the driver of the mangled truck that was being pulled out of the jungle-filled ravine as we passed by. We were brought to a standstill again, this time for over an hour, when we reached the crowded streets of downtown Guatemala City where we had arrived just in time to experience rush-hour. Guatemala City is a notoriously dangerous place if you believe what all of the travel guides and residents say, but, from behind the false protection of the fogged up windows of the van, the rainy streets didn’t look all that bad! One of the people I was sharing the shuttle with was a lady
The Streets of Antigua
The cobblestone streets and the charming colonial architecture have earned Antigua a spot on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
from Mexico who worked as a restorer at several of the archaeological sites there. Naturally, we had a lot to talk about, so we shared our experiences from throughout the Mayan world while we slowly made our way to Antigua - Many of her favorite sites ended up being some of my favorites as well and for many of the same reasons. We arrived in Antigua amid a light rain and we went our separate ways in search of a place to stay.
Antigua was one of the most beautifully situated colonial cities I have seen on this trip. It was located in a picturesque valley surrounded by three large volcanoes, which dominated the horizon when they were not shrouded by mist and clouds. The volcanoes certainly were a nice touch, but they were also partially responsible for Antigua’s turbulent history. Originally founded in the mid-1500’s, Antigua served as the colonial capitol of the region for many years, but a massive earthquake leveled the city and most of its grand colonial structures back in 1773, forcing the capitol to be moved to its current location in present day Guatemala City. Antigua was rebuilt and it managed to retain its
colonial charm. Its cobblestone streets are lined with multicolored homes and businesses and churches and ruins - Several of the structures that were destroyed by the quake have been preserved as monuments to Antigua’s former glory and as a reminder of its seismically sensitive past. Antigua is now designated as a Guatemalan National Monument and as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city was so completely full of foreign tourists, fine dining and top-end shopping that it was hard to tell I was even in Guatemala, but it was still a wonderful place to visit and relax for a while - I had a lot of fun there! Also, Antigua has a large student population who go there from all over the world to learn Spanish, but end up learning how to party instead, which added a college-like atmosphere to the city. My main reason for going straight to Antigua was to purchase my plane ticket home - I wanted to check prices in one of the travel agents there to see if I could do better than the exorbitant prices I was finding online. I went into a recommended ticket discounter that was near my hostel and in broken
The Fountain in Parque Central
This fountain is the centerpiece for the shady main plaza in Antigua.
Spanish I did my best to explain to the agent what I was looking for. She sat with a very patient, smiling face and listened and then she answered in slow, well spoken Spanish - The conversation was painful for both of us, but I managed fairly well until I got stuck on something important she was saying at which point the agent started talking in perfect English. We both laughed about my bad Spanish and I thanked her for allowing me to get as far as I could before jumping in. I was intending on flying out of Belize City, but the travel agent found me a direct ticket back home to Atlanta from Guatemala City for considerably less money than the multi-stop journey from Belize City. The direct flight was certainly much more convenient and a lot quicker, but it required a massive change in plans that would require me to miss a few additional things that I wanted to see in Belize - I told the lady that I would have to think about it overnight and I left. Overnight turned into three nights, because I was unaware that it was Friday and that they would be
There are several ruins scattered about Antigua, which serve as a reminder of Antigua's grand, but turbulent past.
closed for the next two days - The day of the week doesn’t really matter much when you are on the road! I set off to explore the town…
I spent all of Saturday walking along the rain-soaked, cobblestone streets admiring the beautiful architecture and parks of the downtown area. I walked through several of the tourist shops, admiring the lovely handicrafts and the overpriced jade, and I ate a few great meals, including a nice curry at a small Chinese restaurant. Throughout the day I ran into several people I had previously met on my trip, including the large church group from the Cockscomb Basin in Belize and the ruin restorer from Mexico. That evening, back at the hostel, I gathered with a large group of people who were staying there and enjoyed a giant barbeque dinner at a big table made up of small bar tables that had been pushed together - It was a lot of fun and the food was great! I went to bed at a reasonable hour, even though the party continued, because the following morning was going to be an early one.
I was up before five o’clock the next morning
Iglesia y Convento de la Recoleccion
These ruins were just outside of town and served as an amazing reminder of just how powerful Mother Nature can be.
and by six I was standing at the prearranged meeting point on the Antigua’s main square. The city was still asleep and, with the exception of several people who were headed to an early morning church service, I was the only person on the streets. After another ten minutes, several more people showed up that were headed out on the same tour I was going on and we stood there talking as we waited for our ride. None of us knew how big the group was going to be on our tour and all of us were hoping for a small group, but, when our very late ride showed up, we found out that our hopes would not come to fruition - We boarded the old yellow school bus, filled to capacity, and we headed for Volcan Pacaya. Mt. Pacaya was the only active volcano in Guatemala and, being within two hours of Antigua, was one of the most popular climbs around (the size of our group confirmed that!) Due to several violent crimes against tourists on the mountain in past years, visitors are strongly discouraged from making the climb independently, which means the easiest way to see the mountain
The Lonely Arch
This well preserved arch stood at the former entrance to this once grand church.
is with a guide. The groups that I saw on the mountain were all quite large, ours included, and we were all accompanied by a security guard (the heavily armed guards actually walked up independently, but their presence was still known). I decided not to let the large crowd I was in ruin the trip and I found out that if I stayed at the front of the pack, next to the guide, I could still listen to his descriptions without many problems - The people in the back of the group didn’t pay the guide any attention anyway. Due to the constant danger of poisonous gas, lava bombs and steam explosions, we were not going to climb all the way to the summit, which was a little disappointing, but our guide assured us that where we were going would still be an exciting experience. As we headed up the forested slopes of the mountain we began hearing the volcano’s thunderous roar, like the labored breathing of a giant, primordial beast, and the ground beneath our feet rumbled with each fiery breath. We passed several overlooks that afforded us wonderful views of the surrounding countryside, including a beautiful, cloud shrouded
The Sky is Falling, or is it the Roof?
The interior of the church was littered with large chunks of stone and brick that used to be the roof.
glance of a few of the other volcanoes in the area, but it was some time before we got to see the smoldering mass of Pacaya’s summit rising above the forest. The rumbling got stronger as we made our way up the mountain and, just before we emerged from the trees, we got our first close-up view of the peak and its enormous plume of smoke and steam towering into the stratosphere. We stopped for a while to admire the view and our guide explained to us some of the dangers we could encounter as we climbed higher up the mountain and how important it was for us to stay together as a group. We emerged out of the forest into a large, hilly pasture of green grass and black volcanic soil. There were several cows grazing nearby and in the distance, at the base of some small, sun-soaked, green peaks at the other end of the valley, there was a group of horses. In the distance we could see large fields of freshly cooled lava flows and our guide pointed out a large river of lava pouring down the upper slopes from the cauldron above. The early morning sunlight
The New Skylight
This is one of the only intact roofs at the Iglesia y Convento de la Recoleccion.
was hitting the peak so brilliantly that the flowing lava took on a black appearance, the red glow apparently unable to penetrate the black crust forming on its surface - Our guide told us that if we were there at night we would see the mountain’s many flows glowing a brilliant red, but, sadly, he also said that there were no night time trips that he knew of. We passed a few men that were wearing hardhats and respirators, but our guide assured us that we wouldn’t need the extra safety equipment and we continued up. We reached a ridge overlooking a small valley filled with recent lava flows. In places the lava was still pouring out of small openings in the newly formed rock and the transparent heat waves rose from its surface, distorting the valley’s features and setting the whole landscape into a rapidly swaying, dance-like motion. At the head of the small valley there was a higher area of recent lava and there were several large vents there as well, but there were also people walking around on its hot surface! I remember looking at those people up on the lava flow and briefly thinking that they
The few remaining decorations at the ruins served as a reminder to the former glory of the structure.
must be crazy, but I quickly let that thought pass and I started hoping our guide would lead us up there as well. As if reading my mind and the minds of my fellow tour members, our guide gathered us all into a group and we headed up the ridge towards the head of the valley and our walk on the hot lava. I would be willing to bet that everyone who has ever visited a live volcano was there with hopes of seeing lava up close with their own eyes and to feel its intense heat on their faces. This was my second visit to a live volcano in a year, the first being at Volcano National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii. In Hawaii I did get my first glimpse of lava and being a night visit it was spectacular, but due to a massive instability with the newly formed land surrounding the lava, we were unable to get very close and were forced to watch the red glow as the lava poured into the sea, from a distance - Closeness was not going to be a problem on Pacaya! We walked out on to the hot
Early Morning on the Streets of Antigua
The streets were empty during the early morning hours when I was waiting for my ride to Pacaya.
surface, carefully following in the footsteps of our guide and doing our best not to break through the unstable surface. It felt like we were walking on Styrofoam and in places the ground gave way beneath our feet as if we were, but we kept on going, drawn by a desire to feel the searing heat and see the lava as it emerged from the bowels of the Earth. The surface we were walking across was very rugged and we had to watch our step to avoid getting one of our feet caught in one of the many steaming cracks. The further out onto the lava we went the hotter it got until we could not keep both feet on the ground without melting the soles of our shoes, forcing us to do what I called the ‘hot lava dance’, which was simply hopping from one foot to the other, giving each sole a brief moment to cool before switching feet. We came over a small rise and ran into a traffic jam and as we all positioned ourselves to see the cause we got our first glimpse of the red glow of the lava and it was right at
Volcanoes in the Clouds
This is one of the more impressive views that we were blessed with during our climb of Pacaya - The cloud hid the volcanos for most of the day.
our feet! The heat rising from the glowing red vent was so intense that nobody could stand it long, so the line moved rather quickly past it. We all got to see the lava beneath our feet and feel the unimaginable heat on our faces at that first vent and we continued to find several more areas where the molten rock was open to the surface as we pressed further out onto the cooling flow. We played on the hot lava for nearly twenty minutes, but eventually the fumes rising out of the ground accompanied by the smell of burning rubber from the soles of some peoples’ shoes forced us to make a speedy retreat back to stable ground and cleaner air. I stopped at the most impressive vent and took some more pictures, but the heat quickly killed the batteries in my camera and I was forced to put it away before it melted in my hands. As I was getting one last look down into the vent someone got the bright idea to throw a piece of rubber, which had fallen off the sole of their shoe, down into the vent. The rubber exploded into a flaming inferno
Standing on the Edge
This is our guide as he talked to one of his friends overlooking the small valley of lava.
and the heat rising out of the vent flung the sparks into the air with the intensity of a blowtorch, sprinkling the small, burning embers all over me; luckily I wasn’t hurt -The rubber’s reaction reminded me of a night back in college when we decided to see what would happen when we put a piece of pizza into a sixteen-hundred degree oven that we were using to heat-treat some parts for our racecar! Our walk across the lava was over without any problems and, while it was probably not the smartest thing I had done in a while, it was a lot of fun! Our walk back down the mountain and our subsequent return to Antigua were uneventful. The rain hit in earnest later that day, but it stayed clear long enough to give us a spectacular trip.
The following morning I stopped into the travel agency and purchased my ticket home and then I reserved a seat on a bus heading to Flores in the Peten region of northern Guatemala for the following morning. For the first time I had a firm date for the end of my current journey and it was somewhat depressing, but at
Earth's Exhaust Pipe
This is the impressive tower of steam and poisonous gas that was coming out of Pacaya's Crater - I wonder how many cars this is equivalent to?
the same time I was excited to see my family again and I knew that I still had three weeks left to play. I had originally planned on heading to Lago Atitlan for a few days before heading up to the Peten and then back into Belize, but my new plans forced me to head straight up to the remote reaches of the Mayan jungles, since most of what I still wanted to see was up there, and then work my way back down to the lake. The shuttle picked me up early the following morning and, after a quick and uneventful drive, we pulled up to the first-class bus station in Guatemala City and I sat down in the lounge to wait for my bus. The bus’s interior was comfortably decorated in the style of a 1970s American diner, complete with fake wood paneling and an orange and yellow color scheme - I could have been in a Waffle House back home, only breakfast proved to be elusive! The journey to Flores took me back down the familiar road to Rio Dulce, passing the ruins of Quirigua on the way, and then north into the heavily deforested remains of
Shadows of my fellow tour members cast on the surreal surface of the cooled lava.
Peten’s southern jungles in eastern Guatemala. I finally found food at a roadside vendor when we were all escorted off of the bus at one of the many military checkpoints along the way, which meant that I didn’t have to arrive in Flores hungry. My bus dropped me off on the side of the road outside of Santa Elena where a small minivan was waiting to take me across the causeway to the island that Flores was built on, but, before we could leave, they told me that we had to wait for another half an hour for the other bus that was coming. While we waited we talked in broken Spanish and English about the usual stuff, but one of the men in the van got excited when he found out that I wanted to put a group together for an El Mirador trek. Being the rainy season, I wasn’t sure that I would be able to get any intrest due to the extremely harsh reputation of the forest that time of year, but I managed to have the trip organized before I even made it into Flores! The man in the van knew of a local guide that
This was one of the larger vents we found, but it was difficult to get close to this one without melting our shoes.
had one other person signed up for the El Mirador trek and after some discussions on a cell phone and a face to face meeting on the side of the road, everything was set. The people in the van dropped me off at the hostel in town and I dropped off my bags and went to pay for the trek. I managed to talk another person in the hostel to go along as well, which made us a group of three and lowered the price significantly. I was set to leave in three days for my first, real foray into the jungle. I spent the rest of that day exploring the sleepy town of Flores and enjoying the fun atmosphere of the island’s only hostel and the stunning scenery of Lake Peten Itza.
Early the following morning I walked down towards the lake shore to catch my five-thirty shuttle to one of the most famous and best restored of the ancient Mayan cities, the jungle shrouded ruins of Tikal. Tikal was one of the most important and largest of the Mayan cities during the Classic Period, remaining important until the time of its collapsed around 900 AD. Over the
A River of Stone
The lava flows cooled quickly in places leaving behind some interesting features in the rock.
years following Tikal’s collapse, the jungle reclaimed the land and the grand structures fell into ruin and the once great city became nothing more than a memory, hidden away from the rest of the world in a tomb of forbidding, ancient forest. Though the ruins were mentioned a few times by Spanish missionaries, Tikal wasn’t officially rediscovered until 1848, after being hidden beneath the forest’s canopy for nearly nine-hundred years, and archaeological exploration didn’t start until 1881. Now many of the most impressive structures at Tikal have been excavated and restored and the forest has been selectively cleared around them, but the park still retains a wonderful jungle setting and wildlife is everywhere. We arrived at the first security gate for the park early and had to wait for twenty minutes before we were allowed to continue down the road towards the ruins. The drive to the visitor center was uneventful, but we did see a few Peten turkeys along the way - The driver told us that he had seen two big cats in the last month on that drive, including a jaguar! I grabbed some breakfast at one of the food stalls at the entrance and then headed
My Favorite Vent
This was the vent that tried to melt my camera and catch me on fire, so naturally it was my favorite.
into the forest, hoping to see some of the more famous structures before the crowds arrived. I headed straight to the Grand Plaza and the most famous structures at Tikal, Temples I and II. Along the way I passed a few partially restored structures, including a largish pyramid that I climbed, and several large jungle covered mounds. I heard rustling in the trees and, after a little searching, I located a small group of spider monkeys playing above me - I ended up spotting no less than ten groups of the comical spider monkeys while I explored the site, but, oddly enough, another one of my friends from the hostel didn’t see a single monkey all day! I emerged from the forest into a small clearing and I got my first glimpse of Temple I, but from behind it. After a little searching for the proper trail, including a few dead ends, I found myself standing beneath the massive edifices of Temples I and II on the Grand Plaza. I had a brief moment of disappointment when I found out that I had to climb up an unsightly set of wooden stairs off to the side of Temple II to
This is what happens when I think too much now - It was constant when I was in university.
get to the top even though the restored stone stairs were in perfect condition, but I suspected that would be the case before I got to Tikal, so I didn’t let it bother me too much - They said that the stone stairs were too dangerous to use, but the slimy wooden ones couldn’t have been much safer. I climbed to the top of the Northern Acropolis and took a seat on a nice step overlooking the plaza and I ate my breakfast while I took in the spectacular view of Temples I and II against a backdrop of ruined structures and dense tropical jungle and I watched the early morning activities of the green parrots as they flew in pairs from one tree to the next, some flying right past my little perch on top of the structure - The shrill sound of the parrots’ squawking echoed through the canopy, and intensified the already overwhelming chorus of the jungle. The crowds started pouring into the plaza and I decided it was time to move on to the next area I wanted to visit and on the way down the large staircase of the acropolis I found a nicely preserved
Hills of Green and Black
The sun was shining on these hills making them glow an intense green, which was a big contrast to the black volcanic soil.
mask next to the stairs (it had a strange resemblance to Gonzo from the Muppets). I walked past a small toucan that was sticking its head out of its nest in the knot of a tree and then I left the plaza and headed back into the forest. I took a quick look at the overgrown mass of Temple III and then I headed towards El Mundo Perdido, or The Lost World, passing the Plaza of Seven Temples on the way. There were two climbable pyramids in the lost world group and I headed to the one that didn’t have anybody on it first, passing through a massive cloud of voracious mosquitoes on the way. I made my way up the Temple of Three Rooms first, but there wasn’t a lot to see up there - I did find a cool little exposed ledge that led around to the back of the temple, which was fun to play on. I headed back down the stairs and walked across to the east side of the plaza and the large pyramid there and I started the formidable climb to its summit. The pyramid is thought to be a pre-Classic structure and archaeological
Temple I is possibly the most famous structure at Tikal and it was wonderful to finally see it with my own eyes.
evidence found during excavations suggest that the pyramid’s earlier constructions may date back to as early as 700 BC, which would make it the oldest structure found, to date, at Tikal. The top of the pyramid was above the surrounding canopy and the views were spectacular - The rolling sea of green that was the forest canopy stretched as far as my eyes could see, occasionally broken by a tall tree or the towering temples and roof combs of the other large structures at Tikal. From my elevated position I watched the birds fly from tree to tree in the canopy bellow, occasionally coming up to where I was standing to say hello. I noticed that a keel-billed toucan kept returning to the same small tree at the back of the pyramid, which made me think it had a nest there, so I headed down the stairs and I walked around to where the tree was. Sure enough, the nest was there, as was the toucan, and I moved around to get a better view for a picture. The ankle-high grass was still wet with the cool, early morning dew, but it did nothing to mask the painful fire that
A View from my Stony Perch
This is where I sat eating breakfast and watching the parrots play.
seemed to be spreading across my feet and up my legs. I didn’t have time to take my picture, though the toucan was posing and smiling for the camera, because when I looked down I noticed a blanket of big black ants that were covering my feet and spreading up my pant legs. The maniacal dance of flailing arms and legs that ensued succeeded in getting rid of my painful adversaries, but the damage was done and my feet were throbbing - That is why some people say not to wear sandals in the jungle, but I am stubborn! I had made the mistake of not studying the ground closely enough as I positioned myself for the toucan picture, I had scanned for snakes and other large animals, but, after closer inspection, I discovered that I had missed the fact that the spot that I had errantly wandered to was in the middle of an eight foot wide column of black ants that started at the base of the pyramid and disappeared into the forest at the edge of the clearing - I know, how on Earth could somebody miss that? I had not given up on the picture, but
This beautiful mask was located under a palm-thatched roof on the northern side of the plaza. I think it resembles Gonzo from the Muppets.
a few straggling ants that had made it up my pant leg started gnawing on my calf and I decided it wasn’t worth it and I made my retreat. I headed down another narrow jungle trail to the base of Temple IV and, after passing a group of archaeologists that were doing some excavations at the base of the structure, I found the stairs to the top. The temple on top of the pyramid had been mostly restored, but the pyramid itself was still a massive jungle covered mound and the only way up was a rickety set of wooden stairs winding their way up the forested slope. The stairs were all different sizes and installed at different angles, so I had to watch my step, which made the climb very adventurous, in fact, I don’t think the original stone stairs to the top, had they been restored, would have been as much fun! I reached the top of the stairs and walked out onto the platform at the base of the temple and took my seat beneath the scaffolding that was being used for restoration work - I had finally made it to the secret rebel base that was
The Toucan in the Knot
Everyone was staring up into the tree, so I did too. It took me a little while to see the bird though.
nearly destroyed by the Deathstar “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away”. Tikal was the filming location for the rebel base in ‘Star Wars’ and the footage was actually filmed from the top of Temple IV, sadly, the Millennium Falcon was nowhere to be found. I sat on top of the pyramid for nearly an hour and I could only smile when I realized that nearly everybody that was up there was also excited about the ‘Star Wars’ connection - I thought I was just strange! The intense sunshine drove me from the top of Temple IV and I headed down another jungle trail amid the now familiar sound of the howler monkeys thundering through the canopy. I spent the next several hours exploring the smaller parts of the park that I had skipped earlier, including the well restored Temple V and a few areas that were well off of the beaten track. I spent ten minutes trying to coax a large tarantula out of its hole at Group G, but I failed and then I made the long walk out to the Temple of the Inscriptions. An afternoon thunderstorm rolled in and cooled the forest off
El Mundo Perdido
This is the large pyramid in the Lost World group. It is thought to be the oldest structure at Tikal.
substantially as I headed to the northern complexes of P, M, and H, where I finished my day of exploration. In the parking lot, I ran into a few friends from the hostel, who were going to be headed out to El Mirador the following day via helicopter, and then we pointed the shuttle back towards Flores, bringing an end to my long awaited visit to the grand ruins of Tikal.
Back in Flores, I started getting everything ready for my trek to El Mirador, but I will save that story for next time.
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