“Buenas noches, compadres!“
“Que les vaya bien,” said the bus driver, looking a little relieved as we made our way down the narrow dirt road that led back to civilization. It had been a long, trying trek to the top of Volcano Pacaya, one of the few active volcanoes in Central America. I was relieved as well. The prospect of imminent death always exhausts, and we had finally started back for Antigua. It was a day that would not be soon forgotten.
At the time, I was living in Antigua taking Spanish classes and attempting to undo all the damage I had done to my soul back in the U.S. I was working in a very large corporation, and had lost my enthusiasm for life. 23 years old and working 55-hour weeks had worn me down terribly and I was looking for a change. I knew I had to leave the country to get some perspective and Guatemala seemed as good a place as any. I chose Antigua as my home for the cheap Spanish lessons, natural beauty and colonial lifestyle.
My success was my simple lifestyle and I welcomed it with open arms. I was living with a local Guatemalan family and paying them $50 a week for rent and food. My days consisted of going to class, taking afternoon naps, reading in cafes and drinking with fellow expatriates at the local bar. I had made a few friends and one of them suggested that we venture up to one of the local volcanoes. Three volcanoes surround the town of Antigua, and while they are breathtakingly beautiful, they are dangerous to climb. Rumors were swirling around town about bandits armed with guns and machetes robbing the adventurous climbers. They would wait until the climber would reach the more desolate portion of the volcano and strike, taking anything of value.
Being fully aware of this fact, but not caring, I let my Australian friend talk me into climbing Pacaya. It wasn’t the highest or the most dangerous, but it was the only active volcano in Guatemala. That was enough for me.
We picked randomly from one of the seemingly endless tour operators that traveled to Pacaya and were scheduled to depart at 1 p.m. the next day. The only tour I had ever taken was of the United Nations in Geneva, and afterwards I vowed never again. But the trails were unmarked and the climb difficult, so the only way to Pacaya was with a guide. Our trip was set, and all I needed to do was get a good night’s sleep. However, the temptation proved too great and I found myself talking to several women until 3 a.m.
We arrived a bit early to the meeting place and, being Latin America, we left around 2:30pm. There were seven of us; all foreigners. Three English, one Dutchman, one Australian and two Americans. As the guide spoke, the blank faces in the group told me that I was the only one that spoke Spanish. At that point I decided it would be better to keep my mouth shut.
I marveled at how everyone had come prepared with hiking boots, daypacks and all sorts of expensive travel gear; they were ready to tackle the volcano. I had a pair of gym shoes and a raincoat.
I felt a sudden twinge of panic as our transport pulled away: a broken-down conversion van that had been hollowed out to cram more bodies inside. As we drove out of town I noticed that the dashboard wasn’t attached to the rest of the van. It shook violently when we drove over bumpy terrain, which happened every ten feet. I then sneaked a peek at the ignition, not remembering any key being used. It was hot-wired with two long wires that had been spliced with electrical tape.
We drove on. We reached the gated entrance and were stopped abruptly by some menacing locals with machetes. Our guides left us to discuss the problem with the armed men. Guatemalans, for the most part, are pleasant, friendly people. They are also very short in stature and I had felt like the Jolly Green Giant ever since I arrived. But put a machete in his hand and a somber look of aggression on his face and your ordinary Guatemalan becomes a Contra.
While our guides discussed and gesticulated, the rest of us wondered just exactly what was going on. They returned and explained to us in broken English that the men were villagers and demanded that we pay 10 quetzals (about $1.50) more per person. No one was sure what to do. Most were questioning why it wasn’t included in the price of the tour. Apparently they cared more for arguing with men with machetes instead of forking over the cash.