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It was a small poster on the stone wall at Anna’s Café in Antigua Guatemala that tickled our collective sense of adventure. It simply read: “Climb a live volcano tour. Meet here at midday.”

 

So here we are, a bunch of strangers, attempting to reach the top of a live volcano with two boyish guides and a pregnant mongrel dog. In the last rays of light we tramp to a barren plateau. The land is suddenly eerie and alien. Our laboured breathing punctuates the utter silence.

 

Pacaya stands at an imposing 2,552 metres (8,372 feet) above sea level. In recent history, this complex volcano has reigned terror on local residents with the threat of major eruptions. Since 1965, Pacaya Volcano has erupted almost continuously and is known to launch plumes of ash 6 kilometers (more than three miles) into the atmosphere. As our vision lingers on the crater, thoughts of female sacrifice come naturally to mind. The ancient Mayas believed the flames and magma gushing from a volcano came from a place as mysterious as the heavens above. The Mayas, Aztecs, and Incas tossed virgins into the fiery mouth of the monster to appease angry gods.

 

Skirting the edge of a knoll, the earth drops into a deep canyon far below. We trudge onward to the sheer incline and the pot of gold. Beginning the ascent, I refuse to believe that I could possibly reach the top. Two lunges forward, one long slide back. We sink, ankle deep, shoes filled with rusty red granules.

 

As darkness falls, the Great Volcán Pacaya Show begins. I feel deep rumblings from the earth as I crawl the last few metres to the top. Several dramatic explosions spew a galaxy of glowing red magma as big as trucks from the lips of the crater. The errant fireballs race each other down the mountainside and then disappear into nothingness.

 

Engulfed in a stream of moist air, bursts of sulphur gas stinging our nose and eyes, we cheer and applaud this ancient wonder. We are on top of the world. Trillions of stars drip from the heavens. A neon-red river of boiling lava slithers down the mountainside like an exotic snake in a deep trance.

 

I once read somewhere that a group of crazy volcano academics took the temperature of lava from this very same crater. It was 1,970 degrees Fahrenheit. “You could only insert the temperature probe when the wind was blowing away from your body; otherwise you started to cook,” they reported.

 

The immense power and mystery of life on this planet is a revelation to me here. I am perched on a pipeline to the beginnings of the planet and the gateway to Hades. I feel as significant as an ant. Suddenly, a series of ear splitting double explosions fills the silent darkness, followed by a brilliantly lit hailstorm from hell.

 

On cue, a translucent curtain of tangerine smoke and cloud closes the show. We clap and cheer in a standing ovation. High on the wonder of what we have witnessed, we ecstatically pick our way by torchlight back to the edge of the scree slope.

 

“OK, let’s go skiing,” yells Miguel the boy guide. On the soles of boots we slide and lurch downward to the base of the peak, squealing like children drunk on life.



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