We were awake just after 5am and got ready just in time to take a “chicken bus” to the nearby town of Escuintla. They are derogatively called chicken buses to indicate that can take anything, even a chicken, on them. They are old US school buses that have been changed a bit, mainly by making the seats much closer and reducing the size of the aisle. I’m pretty sure the aisle, which was about 50cm wide, would be classed as a fire hazard and so illegal in more litigious countries, but it enabled more people to sit down. The 6am to Escuintla terminated in a noisy market area just before 7:30 and I was so glad to get off. Even sitting at the end of the seat, so I could put my legs in the aisle, it had been very uncomfortable. We had to walk for a bit before taking the next bus, one that would take the toll road towards the capital. It was more spacious and we were only in it for 20-30 minutes, although it was enough time to see fellow passengers flinging empty cans and other such things out the window.
We got off at a seemingly random intersection that the driver assured us was the closest to the volcano. We’d foolishly assumed that we were going to be dropped off in a town, but apparently that was 14km down this side road. We knew we were at the right place because as soon as we descended a guy off to be our tour guide for the still-impossible-to-see volcano. Of course we rejected him immediately and set off walking towards the town. About 1km on a macheted Guatemalan by the side of the road (the vast majority of men in the rural area carry machetes as long as my arm) warned us about the road and how far it was to go, but we didn’t seem to have much of an option, so kept going, trying to thumb a lift every time a car went past.
It took about 10 vehicles, although only the 2nd pickup, for us to get our lift when a white pickup stopped. We jumped in the back and he took us past his destination of the first village and into a second before dropping us off. Signs suggested we were still about 5km to the start of the volcano, although the road had lost its paving and was now made of volcanic ash, as it made its way up and up and us glad that we weren’t on bicycles. 5 minutes of walking later, and we were in another pickup that took us the rest of the way so after 2 buses, 2 pickups and about 3 and a half hour we got to the entrance.
When we tried to pay our entrance fees (50 quetzals each) the guy explained to me that we needed a guide (100 quetzals). Having been told by the tourist police that we could climb it alone, we knew they were wrong. I pointed this out and they showed me the official rules, thanks to my teachers in UNAM, I knew that the way the rule was worded it said “All tourists should have a guide” and that anything short of “are obligated to” is most definitely not going to get me to pay 100 quetzals I don’t have to! A 5 minute discussion about this lead to them giving us a card, which said we would have to sign them to accept that they had explained the rules and that we wouldn’t go and do silly things, but then the card they gave us said no such thing and just were just for tourists to say why they were in Guatemala. I guess they don’t have too many tourists disagreeing with them.
After crossing the gate, we had no idea why anyone would possibly need a guide. It was only a 2.5km walk and it was a straight line with places to rest every 1-200m. It felt so different from the climb up Paricutin that Peter was starting to wonder why we were climbing up. Yes, we’d been on a path, very badly defined, the other times, but it had much more of a sense of adventure. The hour to hour and a half it was supposed to take to ascend was ridiculous and we were up in 45 minutes even with a good length snack break.
Near the top were a couple of officials who greeted us. At the entrance, we’d been told that going to the crater wasn’t possible, and I asked those near the top. During a lengthy conversation, they told me it was not only a bad idea but highly inadvisable. The earth around the crater was liable to move around and that if we weren’t careful we could inhale toxic gases due to the volcano being more active. As Peter and I were climbing to see the crater, we decided that inadvisable wasn’t strong enough and, after confirming that it wasn’t forbidden, started up to the crater. His last words were that if anything should happen we should shout and they’d do something.
Even having confirmed that it wasn’t prohibited, the officials stood in front of the path and so we had to go down a different one and come around further along to get back on the path to the summit. As we started to ascend, it got windier and windier and more obvious that the top of the volcano spent most of its time hidden in clouds. Even though we climbed and climbed, it seemed to be elusive as it never got closer. As we got near the top, we had to cross parts where the ground had washed out and so were more careful after the warnings of the landslides. A little later, a dog which was just sat around, followed us to the top of the volcano and we figured he would be our canary – if he collapsed, we would run. As we looked back, we could see one of the guys following behind at a distance, although even though we were crawling in parts he didn’t seem to get any closer.
At the top, there was very minimal visibility and with the strong wind gusting we bunkered down too afraid to get close to the edge of the crater in case we got blown in. To pass the time, we talked about the possible consequences and how bad Guatemalan prisons might be. On the up side, we’d finally be able to say we’d spent a night in a jail cell and we had a good contact in Rafael who we had plans to meet that evening. We might also get a lift back to Antigua and not have to take public transport. After a while, Peter decided, ignoring my shouting at him about how much of an idiotic idea it was, to keep crawling along the ridge so he could stick his head over the crater to get a view. A couple of minutes of crawling followed and then screams of delight and awe as he described the ‘mordor-like rocks’ he could see and sulphur that was covering them. He got his camera out and was snapping away while cackling like a madman. His excitement made me crawl over and, the ‘mordor-like rocks’ were spectacular during the very brief times that the cloud cleared enough for us to see into the crater. The only slight disappointment, was the lack of shiny lava.
As we headed down, we kept stopping in amazement at the views when the clouds cleared briefly before getting engulfed again. Trying to capture that perfect photo was also proving elusive, and our attempts to do do so nearly lead to us slipping a little bit, but eventually we got some we were happy with and then set to running and sliding down the volcano, which is so fun! If you do it right it feels like you’re going so fast and the volcanic dust kicks up behind you, glorious times.
When we got back to the officials, we realised our concerns about them doing anything to us were exaggerated. They gave us evil looks, but nothing more than that. It seemed like they put up the resistance in the first place but didn’t really want to go through the effort of punishing us for it after the event. Peter believed it was partly down to the idea that they couldn’t really get any money out of us, although other than the people pushing guides on us, they never seemed like they wanted our money.
Getting back to Antigua involved a pickup and changing bus 5 times as we tried a shorter option. Even though we took so many buses, it ended up taking about the same amount of time to get back to the tents, where we packed up and gave Rafael a call to let him know we were on the way. We had originally been meaning to cycle to his place, but having spent so long on buses we didn’t have much time and so he offered to drive the 30km and meet us in his pickup truck.
We headed across the cobblestones of Antigua and waited at the petrol station he had mentioned. 20 minutes later he turned up and after loading his truck up we set off towards his house on the outskirts of the city of Guatemala (although everyone calls it Guate). When we arrived, we were introduced to his family and given dinner, then had the chance to machine wash and dry our clothes for the first time in weeks – a true luxury indeed. In the evening Rafael took us on a tour of the city of Guate in his car, and having lived there for so long he could explain the changes. Being night and having been up at 5am I dozed off during the tour to be woken when we arrived home and quickly to bed.
On the volcano