On my first weekend in Antigua I decide to hike up the volcano Pacaya, about an hour and a half away. I joke with my friends about the volcano erupting while I’m hiking it. That doesn’t happen. Pacaya didn’t erupt until I was off it for at least 10 hours.
Pacaya erupts all the time and not long ago you could climb it while it was erupting. Not Krakatoa-Pompeii-cataclysmic-Terminator-2-Judgment-Day erupting, just, you know, shooting some chunks of molten rock past you while you climb. But in this case the eruption was significant enough to shut down climbs for a few days. You can see pictures of the eruption here.
Of course my first reaction when I heard about the eruption was damn, that would have made for a good photo, and it was quite a bit later that I had the additional thought and I guess I could have died.
When I board my shuttle to Pacaya Saturday morning I’m pleased to find that my neighbor is a friendly face: Bonnie, an 18-year old British girl that I met a few nights prior at Reilly’s. No comments from the peanut gallery regarding the age please, this is all platonic.
Nothing ruins a sense of adventure like the reminder of what a damned tourist you are, and that happens the second the van door slides open at Pacaya. Local kids are swarming, hawking crude hiking poles made from branches. “Stick? stick? es necesario!” they shout. The stick is not at all necesario; neither are the ubiquitous “taxis” as the horses are referred to by their riders. I wonder what kind of lazy asshole would want to ride a horse up such an easy two hour hike. On cue, a tubby middle-aged guy in a Texas A&M baseball cap AND Texas A&M Adidas polo shirt, sporting a huge ring that looks to be some kind of championship ring, canters past me.
The horses aren’t just available at the base. The riders hound you for the first hour of the hike up. Their constant presence is almost as annoying as the minefield of horse manure that we have to avoid. It feels like Dance Dance Revolution has returned, Volcanic Horse Shit Edition. But eventually you clear the forest, the horses fade back, and only the black volcanic rock of Pacaya’s cone is left. Well, only the cone and a little shack that sells gifts containing lava.
Bonnie is a very sweet girl and calls me, without irony, Pee-tah, the way that my American friends sometimes do when the idea that referring to me as Peter Pan strikes them as hilarious. But Bonnie really does have that accent. Amusing accents aside, I have a lot of respect for her, traveling in Central America at 18; it reflects a good deal of courage on her part.
Another trait Bonnie has is that she’s the slowest goddamn hiker I’ve ever met in my life.
That sounds like a bad thing but it isn’t, necessarily. I want to be specific about this. Sometimes girls (or yes, guys) go slowly because they’re not in shape to hike. Others may complain about the heat, or the steepness, or any number of things. Bonnie does none of this. She just does not feel like walking at the same pace as the rest of the group. I usually do walk quickly but I regularly fall behind to take photos; even so, by the time we get to the top, Bonnie is a good five minutes behind me. There’s no hurrying her, although our guide certainly tried.
Once you reach the top – which is not the crater, they don’t let you go that far anymore – you can do silly things like roast marshmallows in a hot vent, or crawl into some of the deeper vents. They’re quite warm. I’m only in one for a few seconds and my sunglasses steamed up right away.
We are chagrined to learn that the woman selling snacks next to the lava store does not have any beers. Celebration has to wait until we descend. As we start down, the sun moves behind the clouds and provides some spectacular light over the neighboring volcanos and Guatemala City, only a half hour away.
In the end it turns out that Bonnie had the right idea all along. Most of the group was already back into the woods before the really spectacular sunset started. Why not linger?
At the base camp there’s a little kiosk where we can have our belated summit beers while we wait for our shuttle, as dogs roll around in the street, local teens play pinball, and two overactive small girls twirl themselves dizzy.