5/6/19 – 5/7/19
Jonas and Maria cooked us a massive breakfast before setting out to the volcano. From what I can tell, you are supposed to have a guide for this hike because a few people froze to death near the top in 2018. At the same time, they don’t appear to enforce this strongly. Jonas had tried to set us up with a friend that was a guide the night before. The price was quite steep though and I told him we would do it alone. He didn’t put up much of a fight about it. I realized though that despite the fact that their hospitality was genuine, we were also seen as a source of income.
He told us that he could have his brother drive us to the trail. I had originally heard him say it would cost twenty quetzales (about three bucks). It was a five minute drive or so. When his brother came by in the morning, he said it was fifty quetzales for a one way trip. We also found out the next day that a collectivo would only charge about two quetzales each. We find ourselves in this strange balance of truly liking a person, but knowing that there is a transactional nature to part of the relationship and we need to remain firm in telling them that we don’t need their help for certain things.
I’d originally had a number in my head as to how much we would leave them for the hospitality. As some of these other expenses came up and I felt like we’d been overcharged, I began deducting from that amount. He had also procured backpacks free of charge and told us to drop his name when paying for camping to get the local rate, so this was then added back in. In the end I wonder if they would have fared better if they’d just told us to take a bus for thirty cents though as my personal belief is that people tip better when they feel good.
The climb is steep. As soon as you leave the road you’re walking up loose scree. We watched as others stumbled down, some having to be helped by their guides. Despite the grade and a grueling day of riding the day before, it wasn’t much of a problem for us and we waltzed past most of the other hikers. We met some of the guides at the top and they seemed surprised at how fast we’d made it considering the fact that none of the hikers on the tours had to carry their tents or food.
Three kilometers as the crow flies was the peak of El Fuego, one of the most active volcanoes in the world. Every three to fifteen minutes it spits what looks to be a puff of smoke and some rock or ash. Somebody told me the ash is actually magma, it’s just that it appears black during the day unless it is a particularly large eruption. We set up our camp and sat around talking to a few other tourists. I was half listening to a Frenchman telling me about his drone.
Light travels at about 299,792 kilometers per second. So it took approximately .00001 seconds for the sight of thousands of gallons of red orange magma spewing into the sky to reach my pupils. This is thirty thousand times faster than the blink of an eye.
“Holy shit!” I yelled. Everyone turned.
The speed of sound through the ground is about 6 km/second. So roughly three seconds after seeing the explosion, I felt it roll beneath my feet.
Sound travels at about .343 kilometers per second through air. So about five seconds after feeling the blast, I heard it. Imagine being five years old and experiencing your first real storm in which a clap of thunder shook the house. Along with the sound is a shockwave through the air, which feels like getting punched in the chest.
We walked with a dozen other people to a lookout point about ten minutes from camp. Sitting on top of the world. Everyone in silence watching intermittent belching of fire rock and ash. Clouds like blue green orange red and purple skyscrapers. Occasional bird chirps. Ground shaking. Sun setting. I can’t help but notice that it is one of the few times when nobody has any interest in talking or using their phone.
As the sun set the site became more spectacular. The molten rock would spit out from the cone, land along the slopes, and glow red for several seconds. The clouds had dropped below us and a storm was forming. Between eruptions we would watch the sky below us light up with lightening.
As we hiked down in the morning we watched several busloads of tourists from Antigua begin the trek up. It was early, so most of them were within the first kilometer of the seven k trek. Half of them looked dead already and I wondered if and how they would ever get to the top. We passed Florencio, who was taking a group up, and thanked him for the introduction to Jonas, who was waiting for us at the bottom. He took us home and Maria prepared soup while we packed our things. I wanted to stay another day, but it was collectively decided that we should keep moving.
While we ate, Jonas walked away and returned moments later with two little sculptures. I knew immediately that they were special. He’d dug them up while working in the field one day. They were Mayan. Hundreds of years old. I’d never seen anything like it outside a museum. He said that he had once been offered several thousand dollars by an American for them. That is a lot of money to a Guatemalan farmer that makes six dollars a day. He turned it down on the grounds that they were made by his ancestors in this town and should be kept here.
We shook hands and gave one another hugs and said our goodbyes. On the volcano we had bumped into a young Canadian named Yvan that we had met in San Cristobal and we all planned to ride to Antigua together. He appeared at the door and we set off.
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