Saturday, December 5, 2009

Laughing Lava- Guatemala

Trip 400km
Hotel: Q 183
Food: Q 220

We headed out of Rio Dulce and into a mountainous ride towards Guatemala City on route to Antigua. Guatemala City was a madhouse of one-way highways. I tried several times to exit the highway in order to head in the other direction. Each time this exit lead into another one-way roadway that was heading off into slow moving traffic and jammed packed cars and trucks.

Eventually by stroke of luck I found the CA1 which got us going in the direction to Antigua. During this 1 hour tour of the city Julie and I sweated out more than a pint each it was exhausting. The sweat was evaporated quicky as we began ascending a huge mountain at 85-95 km/hr passing trucks belching searing hot black diesel exhaust. The soot from all the diesel trucks and cars made the ground level look like we were driving down a coal dust road.

A stretch of road opened up in the passing lane so I moved over and opened the throttle wide. Just then I noticed a police pull-over check point. Eight officers were waving, pointing, blowing whistles, and yelling. I was like....yup sure buddy, just jump in your Toyota 4 cylinder and chase me up this mountain.

We crested the mountain and the traffic disappated the decent was so steep that they engineered a run off ramp every 500 meters, which I thought was too far between considering the pitch. Alas we entered the volcano rimmed town of Antigua. The town has been rocked by earthquakes several times in its history and was once the capital of Guatemala. The big earthquakes occured in 1717, 1775, and again in 1976 and several small ones in between. Thus the people began building in the nearby Guatemala city.

Antigua now is mostly restored but not modernised. There are no billboards, neon or paved streets. The roads are all cobble stone and the tallest structures are the archways and Cathedrals.

There are many adventures to embark on here and the one that we chose to partake with was a hike to the top of Volcan de Pacaya, an active volcano. The cost was Q105 each which included a shuttle ride to the trail head of the hike. Here we unloaded out of the van only to be bombarded with 9 little dirty kids yelling sticks....sticks...sticks.....nessario....nessario....sticks!!!! They were surrounding me like a flock of Canada geese in a park around bread crumbs. I told them that Julie needed one and instantly they all ran around her which gave me some breathing space to pull out my wallet for Q5 total for two walking sticks.

The ascent up the volcano was through thick fog and mist and lasted for about 1.5 hours before we punched out of the clouds to the blue skies above. Below was a geothermal energy plant which used the volcanos heat to boil water, generate steam and thus spin a turbine to create electricity which Guatemala sells to El Salvador.

At about 500 feet elevation below the caldera, we noticed there were warm winds blowing our way. It was then that we realized that the frozen lava flows we were walking up were still hot. A short while after that were began to see glowing hot magma turning to lava as it exposed its self to the surface. All around us there were mini land slides going on where lava sand would randomly begin tumbling down the 45 degree angle slope. This is when I said aloud that the mountain was alive.

We followed a small path between glass like lava flow and the 45 degree angle slope. Then just around the corner we saw the river of lava flowing down the side of the volcano into the valley some 4500 feet below. The lava was being extruded like whip cream from a pipette. Seconds after it emerged it plastically deformed into a river that flowed slightly slower than water would but at a good clip nonetheless.

The sunset was occuring at the very moment in a colorful display of purples, yellows, reds, and blues with a backdrop of distant volcanos. The sunset was the most amazing sunset we've ever seen.

Our guide began hustling us to leave. Just then I saw that the path we came up was being covered in giant lava rocks which were being heaved from the pressures generated from beneath the surface. Our group had to scale up the side of the slippery lava scree to escape a fiery death. Alas we lived and headed back down the barren volcanic scree and boulder lava and again entered the jungle towards the base to where our van was parked with only our headlamps in the dark. At the base of the volcano our guide pointed to the apex where we had just decended from. In the darkness we could easily see the glowing caldera. The silloutte of the volcano had a cherry red cone with splashing sparks in it's boiling center.

It was an invigorating experience which we will never forget. Every day we seem to come to the consensus that today was the best part of the trip. We wonder what each day will bring.

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