Our current time zone: GMT +8 (We're home in Singapore!)

Friday, January 15, 2010

Hot Rocks!

From Brazil, we took our first ever flight in South America on Taca Airlines - only to leave the continent. Actually it was a 3-in-1 flight that took us from Rio de Janeiro back to Lima, then to San Salvador and finally to Guatemala City, changing planes at each stop. It got a bit nerve-wrecking in mid-journey when our flight departing Lima was delayed, causing us to miss our connection in San Salvador to Guatemala. Or so we thought. We were incredibly relieved to find our plane still waiting at the gate for passengers who had been delayed by their previous flights.

Didn't we just spend six leisurely months wandering around South America? So why the rush to get to Guatemala on time?

We had given ourselves only 3 days to visit Guatemala before our flight back to the USA on Christmas Eve: 1 day to get to Vulcan Pacaya, 1 day to scale the volcano, 1 day to get back to the airport for our flight to Miami. We wanted to complete all our air travel before the super peak Christmas-to-New-Year period.

We had first heard about scaling Pacaya from a German traveler whom we had dinner with in Colombia sometime in August. Her tales about leaping across a river of glowing lava (which, as we discovered later on the trek, was probably an exaggeration) and watching other tourists' Crocs sandals melt before her eyes convinced us not to give Guatemala a miss - if only to scale this active volcano.

Pacaya may be about 23,000 years old but is very much still alive and kicking. And erupting. It may not be spewing its red hot molten guts too often nowadays, but the volcano still coughs up the occasional lungful of ash, plentiful enough to shower the nearest city, Antigua, in black dust.

Having discovered how my body reacts to climbing a mountain while in Peru last year, I was understandably nervous about climbing yet another one, be it snow-capped or on fire. I trawled online reviews and climbers' accounts of their Pacaya experience. Many related how difficult the climb was despite them being young and having an above-average level of fitness.

For one, the thick layer of ash blanketing the path made taking each step akin to walking in quicksand. One step forward, 2 steps back.

Secondly, climbers who chose to stay for views of sunset atop the peak spoke of how tricky and dangerous the descent in the dark was.

Next, I read about how some people lost their footing and had either ripped their skin open on the sharp lava rocks or suffered third-degree burns from landing on the burning ground. Gulp.

Then, it didn't help that our hosts in Guatemala City - just before they saw us off on a van to Antigua (the most popular base for trips up Pacaya) - mentioned that previous guests have had their shoes torn to shreds on the trek.

So I formulated a simple battle plan: rent walking sticks for the hike to help me keep my balance on the soft ash and sharp rocks; choose a morning ascent and complete the descent before sundown; and set aside money for new shoes.

I was relieved to hear that tired trekkers could hire "horse taxis" to help them scale the mountain. But given my dubious horse-riding skills on the trek in Peru and on our horse-riding excursion in Mendoza, I was highly aware how uncomfortably butt-aching a four-legged cab ride up and down the volcano would be. Besides, it's really wimpy to have an animal plod about on your behalf while everyone else is walking up, isn't it? Oh my pride, my pride.

On the very morning that we left Guatemala City for Antigua, our van driver advised us to choose the afternoon ascent over the morning climb, as the glow of the lava was more prominent after sundown. I was really not prepared to be told at 10am that I would be climbing a volcano at 2pm that same day!

We went anyway.

I had to admit, it was a beautiful day to be outdoors.

Perfect day for a walk in the park. Or on an active volcano.

The path started out gradual and fairly firm to touch, but quickly transformed into slippery ash-covered slopes. I found it easier to bound lightly across the powdery surface, moving quickly down the path before giving the loosely-packed dirt a chance to crumble under my weight.

A note of warning to those attempting the hike: taking the road less traveled here is not a good idea. Stick to the well-beaten path. A couple of smarty-pants hikers decided to take shortcuts across the slopes where no one else was treading. Their foolish attempts sent large loose rocks hurtling downhill and would have hit unsuspecting climbers quite painfully if not for other alert tourists and guides who yelled "watch out!", just in time for the human targets to jump out of the way of the oncoming rocks.

Can't make it up on your own? Hire a horse-taxi. (Wimp!)

My personal mule service carrying our pack and water-bottles so that I could climb unhindered. I only needed to carry my own camera.

As we neared the summit, we could feel the ground burning up through the soles of our shoes. Treading cautiously along the banks of the lava rivers, the heat on my feet became unbearable, forcing me to back away from the glowing rock. Amazingly, our shoes held up despite the intense heat. I think Nike and Adidas deserve some credit here for their volcano-proof soles.

It was incredibly surreal being so close to molten lava and watching the viscous red ribbon of glowing liquid rock snake through the cracks in the craggy black face of the mountain. If you got close enough to peer through the crevices, you could see flames licking hungrily at the air (and errant fingers) near the surface.

Happy to have made it to the summit. Happier still to be standing side by side with lava rivers!

A must-do on the volcano - roast marshmallows over the hot rock! Honestly, the best marshmallow I've ever tasted. Some people made popcorn too!

Watching sunset atop the peak was a magical experience.

Worth the climb. Totally worth the climb.

Then, the sea of tourists parted as the fire goddesses appeared - a couple of tourists in our group who performed a fire dance before the setting sun.

Head and pois lowered in a respectful commencement to the dance

An offering to the sun, sky, clouds and mountains

Hula-ing with finesse

A dance fit for the gods

Lights out!

Fire-mountains, a fiery sunset, lava rivers, flame-toasted marshmallows, fire goddesses performing an enthralling dance offering - our first volcano experience could not have been more complete.

Fire in the sky

Oh, the descent back to our waiting van was a piece of cake too. We just had to buy a torch to combat the darkness. Duh!


Eliany said...

Lovin' the last pic big time! I'm speechless...

Soon-Hong said...

Great views! Thanks, Yi Lin!

Celine Tan said...

Hot stuff! The vid of the lava is AMAZING. Are your faces black from the soot or are u two just really really tanned from your travels? The pix are awesome as usual and I am envious as usual of your amazing experience. Only hope that one day I can see fire goddesses and that crazy volcano-top view. Oh my shoes kinda melted when I climbed Mt Etna in Sicily but it was nothing like this! There was no flowing hot lava though there was some sulphuric smoke. It was a baby climb compared to yours. Great stuff, guys!

Yi Lin said...

Thanks all. Yes, the views were spectacular. I'm so glad we flew into Guatemala just for this experience. Totally worth it.

Celine: Kudos to Dan for the vid. We were lucky that the fire-twirling people happened to be in our group. I'm envious too cos you've been to Sicily! Hopefully we'll have a chance to travel together to more awesome places someday. As for our black faces - we didn't notice how dirty we looked till you said so! Gosh. Well, we were really tanned from all that beach in Brazil but definitely not black. Must be the soot!

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