Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Guatemala City--Day 4

After doing some work this morning, I went back to the travel desk in the hotel and spoke with the same girl from the day before. She looked for things for me to do for the afternoon and suggested that I go to the Pacaya Volcano which is just outside Antigua, where I was the day before. Great, I said, I’m up for seeing a really cool volcano. I opted not to do a city tour of Guatemala City or go to a Museum because I thought it would be nice to see my surroundings. So I booked my return ticket to and from the hotel and waited for my shuttle to come.

My shuttle came relatively on time this time (only 20 minutes late!) and we were off, back to Antigua where the tour started. The driver dropped me off where I was the day before and I had two or so hours to wander around again. It was actually really nice because I was able to go to a part of the city where I didn’t go the day before. I wandered into a restaurant and ordered some soup and *bottled* water, and ate a nice lunch while I waited for my tour to being at 1 o’clock.
At 1 o’clock, I went back to the tourist office in Antigua and was picked up by a lady by foot, who brought me over to another tour company and found that I actually had companions to talk to. One man, Chris, was an elderly man who worked for a travel agency in Alaska. He was really excited when I told him about the Marrs and what I knew of Alaska and he raved about Talkeetna and how I could go river rafting, being the “free spirited and adventurous person (I) was.” Wow! I came off as free-spirited and adventurous! That’s more like it!

Chris and I talked all throughout our trip up the mountain to see the volcano, which was about an hour long. We had to wind down these streets going out of Antigua and through really beautiful countryside. We started our climb up the mountain side in the shuttle bus and not soon thereafter, the entire shuttle bus filled with dusk and dirt. It was blowing up from the door (which I guess wasn’t sealed properly or shut) and filling up the entire shuttle. It got to a ridiculous point where it was really hard to breathe and you couldn’t keep your eyes open. People were opening the windows to let in fresh air but unfortunately that was just adding more dust to the problem. Finally the shuttle stopped and the driver checked on the door and sealed it properly. Off we went, climbing the mountain very slowly.

We came to several small villages on our way up, and I was surprised to see how many people were actually living near the volcano. We ended up in the bigger of the small towns and got out. The driver told us where to buy our tickets for the ascent and where the restrooms were, etc. and then we met our guide. He was a very happy and smiley guy, who seemed really excited to see us. He started by laying out some ground rules (we’re all in this together, we all hike together, it will take us about two hours to get to the top…) What?!?! What do you mean TWO HOURS to get to the top? We’re all in this together?! What is this supposed to mean? I looked around at all my companions and they seemed to know what was going on. This is when I realized that what I thought was a “let’s drive to the pretty volcano and take some pictures” really meant “let’s hike to the TOP of the volcano and back in the hot afternoon.” Oh man, I was in trouble.

We started hiking. And when I mean hiking, I mean that most of the group set off at a fast past and powered there way up to the first of our “group stops.” Within (literally) two minutes, I thought for sure that I was going to die. Honestly. I haven’t breathed that hard in a long time, let alone hiked. Last time I went hiking on like a really hike was in New Zealand, where I got myself into a similar situation. While the rest of the group went off, myself and a couple from Italy were bringing up the rear. Behind me though were two men on two horses (“los taxis”) that were there to help anybody up the mountain if they wanted. I didn’t need a horse! I could do it! I was being stubborn and thought I would see how long I could go without needing a horse to safe me.

We got up a little ways more and stopped for about three minutes to take in the view. This is when I decided I would find out my fate. I asked the guide how steep the rest would it be? Would it be the same as this or “mas tranquile.” He smiled and said, it goes up and down and the end bit is REALLY steep. It will get hard then. I almost died. Thankfully by this point there were others who felt the same way that I did.

We hiked a little bit more and got to a resting point and this time got to sit for a whopping five minutes. Just enough time for me to down the juice that I brought with me. Luckily, I had lots of water and juice with me, so that wasn’t a problem. We kept going and for the next hour and a half, climbed the mountain. Some parts were a little less steep than others, but honestly, there were no parts that went down like the guide said. Finally we got to a point where we could actually see the volcano (yeah, we weren’t even ON the volcano, we were just hiking up a mountain TO the volcano). It was really impressive- coal black from all of the ash and rocks and smoking up at the top. Actually, it was more like billowing poisonous gases from its crater. Great, if I wasn’t going to die on my way up, I was definitely going to die from gas inhalation. So we start walking but this time, we weren’t on the ground. We were walking on this ash and rocks mix which was sort of like climbing up a HUGE sand dune (remember in New Zealand Liza & Dad?) and so you would take one step up and then two steps back. It was agonizing. It took probably another hour for me to climb up to the very top, having to stop every two minutes or so. Not only was it so hard to climb, but the air was so thin up there (we were way above 10,000 feet) that it was hard to breathe AND hike at the same time. Anyways, the guide made it to the top and was waving at us stragglers down below, encouraging us to keep going. Once we made it to the “top” we discovered that it wasn’t actually the top, but that we had only made it halfway! Ugh.

Finally we made it. We were above the clouds and looking down into the valley at Antigua. The volcano was blowing its gases every which way and that. When you looked down into the mouth of the volcano, all you could see was white gas, with seemingly no end to it. It was pretty cool.

I made a bad mistake of sitting down because once I sat down I wasn’t sure if I would be able to stand up again. The guide was just smiling and having the time of his life. It was nice to see that somebody could get this excited about doing this. Actually, I was really glad once I made it to the top and proud of myself, but I would have liked to have been informed by the travel girl that it was this intense of a trip.

We started down the mountain, which was of course the ash and rocks again. But this time the rocks were sliding every which way and that, so you just had to step and then you would slide down a few feet with the rocks. This time gravity was working for us, so it was really fun. The guide pretended that he was skiing down the side of the volcano, and most of us followed suit. It was like skiing (almost) cause you would go from side to side and jump down and you would just slide down the mountain. You had to lean back because the incline of the volcano was so great that you would surely tumble and fall down the rest if you weren’t careful. Five minutes later, we were down. It took an hour to climb up it, and five minutes to go down.

The rest of the walk back was easy, but also very hard on the legs since it was just a steep climb up, that it was hard to go quickly down. We were trying to get down before the sunset, since many people didn’t bring flashlights. The descent down the mountain was good, but I never thought it was going to end. Finally we made it back to one of our stopping points on the way up and we stopped to watch the sunset, which was very beautiful. At this point, the Italian man asked the guide how many times a week did he (the guide) go up and down the mountain? The guide just smiled and said twice a day, seven days a week. WHAT?!? Oh my god, you are kidding. Nope, he smiled, 14 times per week. No wonder he looked so fit.

We set off again and soon we were at the bottom of the mountain, back in the small village. I sat down again (another mistake) and after a few minutes of washing up and getting drinks, we all piled back into the shuttle to take us down. This time we had all of the security guards that guard the mountain each day, and of course all of their weapons. The shuttle was packed, but hey, at least we were safe!

I sat next to this Australian guy named Steve and we started talking. He is a computer programmer and was in transition between jobs, with his new job taking him to London or Leeds, in England. So we talked about England and Australia and all sorts of stuff and it was really nice because I hadn’t had such a long conversation with anyone yet. I talked with Chris on the way up, but it was nice to talk to someone my own age and with similar interests. It was actually funny because Steve was in the same travel agency that I was the day before, asking about going up the volcano, and then he was on my trip.

We got back to Antigua and I had a taxi back to Guatemala City. It took me about ten minutes to wash all of the dust and dirt off of me in the shower and then I went right to sleep, which is why this didn’t get written yesterday.

(c) 2004 Sarah Galbraith. All Rights Reserved.