You can see Pacaya Volcano from Plaza Berlin at the end of Avenida de las Americas in Guatemala City. It is usually smoking; sometimes at night there's lava running down its side. Two or three tour companies organise daily climbs to the summit from Antigua. We sign up for the group operated by “El Gran Jaguar”. After a ninety-minute bus ride, the last part up a bumpy mountain road, we get to the village of San Francisco, which is as far as motorised traffic can go.
Eighteen people hoist their backpacks and gird their loins for the ascent. We are led by a 70-year old local guide in Wellington boots, a tatty red sweater and an ancient straw hat. We start up a steep path between the rude shacks and the ever-present garbage of plastic bags. Soon we are out in the clean countryside. The soil is jet black; the grass emerald green.
The guide sets a fast pace that does not faze the strapping young Europeans in our group, but old timers like us huff and puff at the rear. We are chided to keep together, as there have been hold ups along this wooded trail. We remember films on Discovery Channel where predators take out older and weaker game at the back of the herd. If there is to be a robbery, we will be the victims. Without breath in our lungs to call out for help, we are easy prey.
Living in a poor farming community on subsistence, it’s hard to ignore a daily entourage of tourists arriving from wonderland. The only person profiting in the village is the owner of the Coke stand. It's reasonable that some of the wealth be distributed more equally. The backpacks are full of nice warm clothing and unusual food and drink, like power bars and Gatorade. The kids enjoy the food and the clothes. Although usually too large for locals, these items can be sold in Guatemala City. Unfortunately, this redistribution of wealth gives Guatemalan tourism a poor image. The Tourist Commission, emerging from its traditional lethargy, has finally provided security guards, persuading the less honest local lads to keep their hands off the goodies.
Coming out of the woods we can relax a little, allowing the racehorses to gallop up the hill, while we oxen shuffle up far behind.
What a formidable sight! The cone of the volcano is black and bare of vegetation. Smoke seeps out of the gravel flank, the top virtually obscured by sulphurous fumes. Our guide relates that during eruptions, visitors can see lava and molten rocks being tossed into the air like a fiery fountain. Tours are run even at these times, when the trip seems more popular than ever!
For every two upward steps, you slide down one. Above, our file of climbers is etched on the horizon disappearing through the smoke as if entering an inferno – a bizarre sight. It is a tough, but not difficult climb. The fumes at times are strong obliging you to cover your face with articles of clothing. We see little of the crater as it is obscured by smoke, but we vaguely discern molten lava swilling about below.
The return is a breeze. In less than an hour, we are back at the Coke stand, handing out the remaining tidbits of our supplies to the local children.