Attemping Recollection: Guatemala Trip Part III

It’s been quite some time since I’ve had the time to sit down and pull together some thoughts on the trip to Central America I had late last year. It’s Sunday evening and, feeling inspired by the soothing, Caragay-like pointed enunciation of Gregory Charles on CBC Radio 1, I feel as though I ought to wrap up what I started quite some time ago.

I abandoned (hey, it’s a blog – what did you expect?) my recollection of travels in Guatemala having told of adventures in the city. I was just about to head out exploring those less urban parts of the country. While the country looks quite small on a globe and can easily (although quite wrongly) be simply “bunched up” with it’s neighbours as just one of several vertebral countries connecting North and South, relative smallness should not be mistaken for relative simplicity. Upon visiting one country in Central America, can one assume to have visited them all? Of course not – once on the ground Guatemala seemed to stretch on forever (although this might have been due to road construction). I had the privilege of exploring three truly unique landscapes and two new worlds above the clouds, and this was only a peek at what the country has to offer to the curious traveler.

The first landscape I was to explore was the Central Highlands, based in what is for better or for worse (I think worse) the most comfortable town in Guatemala – Antigua. Many people claim Angitua to be beautiful, and I’m not one to argue when comparing it to most rural towns, but it’s surely as dull as it is beautiful. Tourists flock there to learn Spanish, to enjoy the feeling of cobbled roads under foot, and, well, I’m not really sure why else people go there… but everyone does – I went there twice in one week! One great thing about the town is that there are loads of travel agents happy to take what few US dollars you have in exchange for secure exploration of the beautiful Highlands and volcanoes in the region. On a related note, there are also plenty of bankers who will happily restock your wallet with US dollars in exchange for Quetzals at six to eight times the actual exchange rate… with the nerve to throw in a smug grin and an innocent “c’est la vie” shrug just to sweeten the deal.

The most memorable features of the Central Highlands are the volcanoes – if you ask me, probably the coolest distinct feature a landscape can have. The great thing about volcanoes is that they are shaped exactly like how you drew mountains when you were in kindergarten. Real mountains, of course, come in vast ranges and are a bit of a jumble. The volcanoes in Guatemala stick out from their more-or-less flat surroundings like poorly squiggled triangles (think Doritos on the horizon), dominating the space around them. Indeed, about one third of the ultra prominent peaks in Central America are Guatemalan volcanoes.

The first volcano I would climb was the tourist-infested Volcan de Pacaya. It’s tourist-infested for a reason – the thing spews lava 24/7 and if you feel like snacking you can actually get close enough to the lava flows to roast up some marshmallows. I took a late afternoon hike up Pacaya with a large tour group full of lovely people, and we reached the peak after an hour and a half or so. The second half of the climb was quite surreal as the land around us transformed from dense forest into a bad day in Mordor. The sun set as we climbed up recently solidified lava flows and we reached the top near dark.

Thus followed one of the single coolest visual experiences of my life to date. Everyone was excited at seeing the solid remains of recent lava activity, which still radiated plenty of heat if you put your hands up against the ground, but we hadn’t spotted any true flows yet. The reveal came after several minutes of poking around a seemingly ordinary patch of jagged rocks. The only comparison I can think of right now is to a scene from Sci-fi classic “Stargate” (now available on blu-ray!) when “Jackson” and Kurt Russel first step out into the desert of another planet. They’re already feeling awed by the experience, given that vast deserts are unique places to find oneself and that other planets are other planets. Then they turn around and, suddenly, their landscape transforms to something far more magical – the replica of Giza’s Great Pyramid stands above them.

Maybe I’m being overly dramatic here, but we’re talking about lava, and lava is really wild stuff. After several minutes of poking around among some (very interesting) rocks, thinking I was in an enjoyable but not extraordinary place, I took a peak over a nearby rise and before me was a great river of lava stretching farther than I could see. The origin of the river was directly below the rocks I was standing on. What an incredible moment. We hung around for at least half an hour, some getting foolishly close to the river, me sticking to a safe distance enjoying the sight and the sound of the crackling flow.

A river of lava near the peak of Volcan de Pacaya

After a short time the guides started yelling at us because it was dark and we still had to climb back down the volcano. Eventually they pulled everyone away from the lava’s draw and we started back down in the pitch black. Another incredibly cool experience – we only lost two people during the descent.

Two days later I was ready to take on a real climb, and with fortune I had met a tour guide earlier in the week who was planning to climb Volcan de Agua with a small group. Agua is the ultra (meaning its peak is at least 1500m above any other surrounding point of land) that dominates the skyline in the Central Highlands. It’s also known as “that one where you get mugged”. You have to walk through a small town called Santa Maria de Jesus to get to the trail, and when tourists with backpacks are seen strolling through town in the morning its a good bet that an ambush will be set half-way down the trail later that afternoon. I’m all for optimism, but I think perhaps they should consider changing the name of their town. Maybe if they named it after Robin Hood I would feel better about the frequency of armed robbery on the slopes of Agua.

Volcan de Agua

I left my camera in the hotel and, feeling fairly confident that most firearms in the region were old and unreliable, I set out to climb the 3800m peak with my optimism bolstered by the fact that it was a gorgeous sunny day with hardly a cloud in the sky. Unfortunately I don’t have any photos of this trek, because the views were remarkable. After about three hours at a very quick pace my guide and I reached the top – the other two in our party suffered from an excess of urban living and we left them behind after the first 5 minutes. We could see the entirety of Central Guatemala with a complete view of the sprawling chaos that is Guatemala City. We could also see, in the far distance, the highest peak in Central America: Volcan Tajumulco. I had originally chosen to go to Guatemala to climb Tajumulco (4420m), but after climbing Agua in nearly half the time most people take, my body wouldn’t let me. I could barely walk down the street for about two days.

At the top of Volcan de Agua was a fascinating sight – a structure of rocks built in the shape of a church sitting in the middle of the volcano’s crater. We sat eating lunch in the heavens for a short while, then made a circuit of the crater and began the descent. The funny thing about climbing mountains is that on the way up you can’t believe that you had woke up that morning thinking it would actually be a good idea to hop on nature’s stairmaster for 5 hours of nonstop pulse-pounding-in-your-ears trauma, and then only a few hours later on the way down you can’t wait to climb the next one. I guess all worthwhile exercise is like that.

This post is getting a little long, and the soothing voice of Gregory Charles has been replaced with an acoustic Quebecois version of Billy Jean, so I think perhaps I’ll abandon the blog for another two months and then return to finally finish my story.

Kidding, of course! Stay tuned over the next week as I’ll be posting the official Rules & Regulations for the Bridgehead Barista Cup – outlining the format and specific details of the competition.

– Ian

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