Archive for November, 2009

Volcan Agua

At 5am we got out of our van in Santa Maria de Jesus, a small town of almost exclusively Mayan inhabitants on the falda (skirt) of Volcan Agua. The sky was clear, cold, and changing colour in the East as the sun prepared for its entrance by polarizing the distant clouds into dark greys and soft oranges. Our guides, Francisco and Omar introduced themselves and told us we had a nice day to make the five hour hike to the crater of this magnificent, dormant giant that dominates the view from every one of the cobbled streets of nearby Antigua, Guatemala.

I had arrived in Antigua a week or so previously after a 27 hour bus journey from Mexico City. I took an almost instant dislike to it. On the face of it the city has everything going for it: it was the one time capital city of Guatemala after pent up rainwater in the crater of Volcan Agua escaped, creating a vast landslide that devastated the previous capital which had been located on its lower slopes. Thus Antigua was once a great centre of colonial power and this is reflected in the physical appearance of the city despite mother nature’s near constant attempts to shake the place to the ground– hell the place is stunning. Cobbled streets flanked by one story colour washed houses, magnificent palaces overlooking the central park, and everywhere the great volcanoes of the region look down upon this city packed with nice hotels, bars, parks, ruins and churches.

So what then could my problem be? Essentially it all boils down to the number of tourists. The presence of tourists is not in and of itself a negative thing, and I am under no illusions that I am anything other than a number in their ranks. Yet in the case of Antigua tourism has turned a UNESCO World Heritage Site into a pretty vacuous experience. The people that come to Antigua, many of whom do so in order to take advantage of one of the many excellent Spanish schools, are all no doubt seeking genuine experiences of life in Guatemala. However, the sheer numbers involved have induced an industry to spring up in Antigua, and it is manufacturing the easy life for the gringos. Every other door is a travel agent who can ferry you by coach for $40 to the next pit stop on the trail which could equally be reached for $4 on the camionetas (bizarrely decorated ex-US school buses). There is international cuisine. Shops stock cigars and fine wines. There is no evidence of the poverty that affects 75% of this nation. Life is good. Life is easy. Faced with such an atmosphere the tourists do what tourists do when no effort is needed to realize meaningful travels – they drink. They drink and dance badly to US Hip-Hop.

This feeling of distrust toward a place such as Antigua for its plethora of travelers has elicited some complicated feelings for me. One the one hand I cannot ignore my initial reactions to a place, nor successfully intellectualize them away.  On the other it seems mean spirited, in countries such as Guatemala where poverty is a real problem, to denounce a place for its success in attracting tourism. The fact of this success has provided jobs to local people enabling many to lift themselves out of poverty, provided a marketplace for indigenous communities to sell their wares, and even for those not directly employed in the tourism industry there is no doubt a trickle down effect of the imported wealth. When considering this however, I also bear in mind the fact that many of the bars and hotels and travel agencies in Antigua are owned by foreigners looking to exploit the growth in tourism. Additionally there are towns and villages in close proximity that are terribly poor, so the wealth may not in fact trickle down all that far.

Nevertheless tourism in Antigua, for all its warts, must be a positive for the local communities. There is a tendency in me, and therefore I assume in other travelers, to judge  place based on how many authentic experiences it can yield. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, however, I now want to keep in mind that places are not put on this earth only to gift me interesting stories and encounters; people live permanently in the realities through which I pass only fleetingly.  Therefore, I will seek out places that are off the beaten track, yet suppress the urge to begrudge a place its ability to draw large crowds of tourists, as those tourists can inadvertently allow communities to better their own lives.

From Antigua it is possible to take a tour of  Volcan Pacaya. Before I go any further I should declare that I did not take this tour and my therefore ill informed view runs contrary to that expressed by basically everyone that I spoke to who had made the trip. You have been warned.

Pacaya is one of the active volcanoes in the region and it is possible to drive up most of it, engage in a gentle one/two hour stroll with up to 200 other tourists in order to see (hopefully) rivers of magma flowing from the crater. The round trip from Antigua costs around 50 Quetzals (£4).

To me this is almost as adventurous as deciding after a particularly stiff dinner party to shun one’s usual habits and plump for a regular rather than a decaf coffee. Even if I could ignore the fact that virtually no exertion is needed to the reach the summit, I could not enjoy an ancient and powerful natural spectacle such as seeing part of the core of our planet spewing forth from a vent in Guatemala, if I was constantly saying “excuse me” to the hordes in order to get a peak. The various agencies are compelled to give their clients team names so the guides can distinguish between the multitudes!

Thus, when I saw Agua looming over me when I arrived, and, subsequently when I was told that it was possible to climb although tours were rare, my heart was set on scaling it. I made contact with a private guide through a travel agent. The guide would charge £40 for the day to lead an expedition including transport. I needed to find companions not only to share the cost, but to provide safety in numbers as there have been instances of tourists being ambushed on the slopes of these volcanoes. It was now that I began to despair as all the people I approached in the street and bars responded to my invitation, in the main, by looking blank before asking me if I was aware that the Pacaya tour was only £4 and involved only an hour or so walking.

As despair turned to resignation and resignation turned to plans to leave Antigua, I decided to put up an advert in my school and lo and behold five others agreed to climb with me. Result!

And so it was that at 5.15am we were walking through the farm land that has ordered the chaos of the subtropical jungle that covers the lower slopes of Volcan Agua. Tall, slender and eerie, the purple maize plants silhouetted against the slowly brightening sky swayed down toward us. Passing through some narrow tracks we arrived in the jungle proper. The going was hard but manageable. I don’t think any of our group was hugely fit, but we were marching consistently.

About three hours into the hike the landscape changed as we entered the area that was destroyed by the landslide. A huge tear was made in the side of the volcano; no plant life is there, only gravel and large loose stones. This in turn gives way in the final scene change, to pines and also grasses reminiscent of Norfolk sand-dunes. We were now hiking in the clouds, a danger of attempting such journeys so close to the end of the rainy season.

As we approached the summit, we emerged from the cloud cover into blue skies. An infinity of clouds stretched out before us with only Volcan Acatenango being tall enough to rise majestically through the sheets of white. Occasionally the wind would blow a hole in the clouds and Guatemala City would be revealed to us. Another gust and the reflected light of Lago Amatitlan would come shining through. We were alone in the crater where there is a small church. We were isolated from the towns below; above the clouds; 3760 metres above the sea, and 1208 metres above the second group of tours that would have been making their way up Pacaya at about that time.

This was not adventure hiking. The trails were well established and easy to follow, there were other recreational hikers we met on our descent (all Guatemaltecos), and the farmers were running up and down between their smallholdings. Additionally there is a community of less than five men that tend the antennas that have been perched on the crater lips meaning there is a stream of men that hike up to deliver provisions. The volcano is covered in litter as Guatemaltecos think nothing of littering their country, often throwing bags of rubbish from the bus windows, or in this case directly to the volcanic earth.

Despite these things, the breathless hour I spent in relative solitude on that volcano after five hours hiking, a horribly early start, and difficulties in organizing the tour, was the best that I would spend in the Antigua region. We were barely off the tourist trails but it felt like a different world. Little did I know as I gazed upon the temples of clouds that three days later I would be atop the highest point in Central America, in far more extreme circumstances but with an equally imposing, inspiring and private vista.

[The Spanish school I attended was called Spanish Academy Antiguena http://www.spanishacademyantiguena.com/. It costs $160 a week for 4 hours per day one-on-one tution and homestay with three meals a day.

The travel agent who helped me get in touch with a private guide was called Vera L. Castillo of the Hotel Dia Verde. She is extremely helpful and patient and she will be able to help you plan any sort of trip you could desire, plus it will be better value than some of the larger outfits. Email vera12cg@yahoo.com]

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