The end of everything

Oct 25, 2000 in Central America 2000

The end of everything

The day I got back we had nothing in particular planned. Mike and Aasta, with whom we had climbed Volcán San Pedro, were in town, and me, Moh, Mike and Mark, a Canadian who we’d met, decided to go for a bike ride. Having hired bikes, we set off down dusty roads, through small villages, past fields and towards the volcanoes. It was mostly downhill, and we cycled for miles before stopping for a drink in a spot with a fabulous view. The clouds had lifted, and we could see the tops of all three volcanoes, with Fuego steaming copiously. Just as we began the uphill run from here back to Antigua, though, my chain snapped. I had no option but to get the bus back to town with my bike going on the roof. The others got back sweating and exhausted some hours later.

We had met a local called Gustavo while we were in Antigua. He was an anthropologist, and knew many remote Mayan sites well. He had offered to take us to Mixco Viejo, some ruins a couple of hours drive from Antigua, to which he said we would most likely be the first British visitors. That was probably an exaggeration but they were definitely not well known. But I got struck down with a nasty illness the next day, and I could not go to Mixco Viejo. I was forced to spend my penultimate day in Guatemala in bed recovering.

I was pretty much recovered by the next day, our last in Guatemala. We spent the day buying some final souvenirs – coffee, an evil saint effigy, and a Che Guevara T-shirt for me – and getting everything in order for our trip home. In the evening we met up with Mike and Aasta, and also Will and Chad, also veterans of the San Pedro climb, and had a night out on the town to celebrate the end of our journey. We couldn’t have a very large one, though, because we had to get up at 4.30am to catch our flight. We went back to our hostel at midnight and packed, and though our backpacks were insanely huge and heavy, we didn’t mind too much – we were nearly home.

In the morning we made our way to the airport and had a safe and uneventful flight home. I was sad to be leaving, as we’d had an incredible time. In an unexpected development, my Mum, Dad, auntie, brother and sister came to meet me at Gatwick. It was a wonderful end to a fantastic trip.

Towering temples at Tikal

Oct 24, 2000 in Central America 2000

Towering temples at Tikal

It was a very pleasant bus ride up there. A few years ago the road to Flores was notorious for (guess what?) armed robberies, but the road has recently been paved, which speeds up the journey enormously and has cut incidences of robbery to zero. I arrived in Flores safe and well after a nine-hour journey. Flores is about an hour’s drive from Tikal itself, and I got the earliest bus to the ruins. It was a bit slower than it should have been, because the driver got into some kind of fight with a passer-by. I didn’t have a clue what was going on and so I kept myself to myself as blows were exchanged, bloody noses given, and clothes ripped. Eventually the business sorted itself out, and our flustered driver drove on to the ruins.

What makes Tikal so spectacular is the fact that it is deep in the jungle. Every other major Mayan site has had its plazas and temples cleared of vegetation, but at Tikal the forest still covers much of the site. Also amazing are Tikal’s enormous temples, the biggest of which, at 64m tall, was the tallest structure in the Americas until the Spanish arrived. I spent a day climbing all the temples and pyramids I could, and enjoying the awesome views over the jungle canopy from the top. The jungles of the Petén stretch for hundreds of miles around, covering the whole of the Yucatán peninsula, and from up the top of the 64m Temple IV the views were astonishing.

It was also nice to be back in fearsome heat. It was at least 30°, and this was some relief after two weeks of chilly weather in the highlands. I spent some time pondering the fact that I was going to return to England in just four days time, and came to the conclusion that I would die of flu within a month.

As well as the ruins, the jungle was impressive. Many times during the trip I had heard monkeys, but had never seen them until now. They weren’t exactly shy here, and the first one I saw was shamelessly throwing bits of twig at me. As well as the monkeys, there were raccoons and foxes, parrots and toucans, and the huge, colourful Petén turkey, found only in this part of the world. All in all it was a fantastic day. I slept well on my overnight journey back to Guatemala City.

Market madness

Oct 23, 2000 in Central America 2000

Market madness

The next day, we went to a mountain town called Chichicastenango. Apart from having a fantastic name, Chichi is famous for its markets. Local people converge on the town from the surrounding countryside every Sunday and Thursday to buy and sell fruit and veg, and many stalls sell fantastic Guatemalan handicrafts, bought mainly by foreigners. We had found that it was very easy to live cheaply in Guatemala, and we had enough spare money to go on a bit of a souvenir binge. After four hours of intense haggling, I came away with three rugs, two hammocks, some painted pots and a huge blanket, all at very agreeable prices. It was great fun, and I was sad to leave. Laden with new belongings, we decided to pay the extra for a minibus direct back to Antigua.

And so with exactly a week to go, we found ourselves back in Antigua. There were two things left to do – climb the volcanoes, and visit the Mayan ruins at Tikal. The ruins had not been on our original agenda, but we decided that if we had time, we would try and see them, as they are said by those in the know to be the most spectacular of the Mayan sites. But Moh had spent a little too lavishly at the market, and didn’t have enough for the bus fare, so it was on my own that I got the overnight bus from Guatemala City to Flores, way up in the north of Guatemala on the Yucatán peninsula.

Best sunrise ever seen

Oct 21, 2000 in Central America 2000

Best sunrise ever seen

We had been told that the temperature at the summit was usually around -5°C just before dawn, and we could well believe it as we emerged from the tent at 5.30am to find an awesome view before us. Pre-dawn colours dusted the sky, towns and villages glowed far beneath us, and a mighty plume of steam rose gently from Volcán Santiaguito. A continuous jet-engine roar could be heard from the volcano. Our friends with the fire came over to make sure we were up, and we watched with them as the stars were engulfed by the rising blue of the sky. It was a perfectly clear and still morning. The effort of carrying all our camping equipment up here had been rewarded.

We could see Guatemala’s chain of volcanoes stretching away 100km in either direction: as far as Mexico to the west, and to Fuego and Acatenango in the east. Between us and these two were the volcanoes around Atitlán. It was only a week since we had been at the top of San Pedro, and I still felt like I owned it as I looked back at it from here. It was a truly beautiful moment when over this awesome scene the sun appeared, and we basked in its rays as the temperature very slowly began to rise. To make the moment perfect, Volcán Fuego chose that moment to erupt a small cloud of ash.

But the best moment was still to come. I walked round to the west side of the summit, and was amazed to see the perfectly straight-sided shadow of the volcano stretching away to the horizon. This was beautiful in itself, but then I climbed onto the very peak of the volcano to get a better view. To my astonishment I could then see my own shadow stretching away into the distance as well. It was an amazing moment, and looking back, probably ranks as the outstanding memory of the trip.

After this incredible sunrise, we walked over to the south side of the volcano to look down on Volcán Santiaguito. It was incredible to look down on, and hear, this erupting volcano while 100km away we could see another volcano erupting at the same time. We sat there silently for a long time, gazing at the view which stretched away before us to the Pacific. At 9.30am, though, the peace was shattered when a group of climbers arrived at the top. They were out of luck, getting just a few minutes of the view we had been enjoying for hours before the clouds rolled in below us. We had seen what we came to see, and so after we had eaten a breakfast of Rice Krispies in hot milk, we broke camp and reluctantly set off down the mountain.

As on the way up, we took it slowly, and after almost three hours we were at the bottom of the steep section. Here we rested for a while, and had a chat with a farmer who was on his way to his fields. He was very friendly, and talked to us for quite a while, asking us where we were from, what England was like, what the weather was like, whether there were farmers like him in England, what tools the farmers used, and what the word for ‘Machete’ was in English. We shook hands heartily as he headed off to work. After another hour’s walk, we were back at the road, from where we got a bus back to town.

Very high

Oct 20, 2000 in Central America 2000

Very high

Volcán Santamaria stands 3772m tall, just south of Xela. It had never been known to erupt before 1902, but in that year it underwent the third-largest eruption of the 20th century. The cataclysmic explosion ripped away the southern flank of the volcano, leaving a huge gash in the side of the mountain. After 20 years of calm, new eruptions began in this gash, forming a new volcano, Santiguito, which has been erupting ever since.

Santamaria is a popular climb among visitors to Xela, and every morning a minibus took climbers to the start of the trail for 5.30am. Along with 7 other travellers, we got this bus, and so before the sun rose we were already making our way up the lower slopes of the volcano. Me and Moh were the only ones planning to stay at the top, and so we were carrying much more weight than everyone else. For the first hour or so, on the gentle lower slopes, we kept up with the group OK, but as the path got steeper and the forest thicker there was no way we could keep up, and so the fast guys disappeared into the undergrowth. We knew that at the pace we were going we would be unlikely to get a view when we reached the top, but we also knew that we were staying the night and would get the view in the morning. So we just took our time and didn’t push too hard.

The air had seemed thin when we climbed Volcán San Pedro, but here it really began to have an effect. As we climbed to well over 3000m, we found that we needed to stop for rests ever more frequently, and after four hours or so, we were only progressing short distances at a time. At about 10am we were overtaken by a group of young Guatemalans, who told us we were about an hour and a half below the summit. We pressed on, and at 11.30am we met our group coming down. They told us it was another half hour to the top, and with renewed energy we pressed on to the top. I arrived just after midday, with Moh following a quarter of an hour later. The Guatemalans who had passed us earlier were there, and gave us each a round of applause. We were relieved to have made it to the summit: after six hours, we began to believe it didn’t exist.

As expected, it was cloudy, so we couldn’t really tell we were on top of a huge mountain. As well as the young Guatemalans, we were sharing the summit with some Mayan worshippers, who were chanting and praying. We chatted to the Guatemalans, who turned out to be students at the university of Quetzaltenango, and they shared their biscuits with us. They were a lively bunch, and the summit was very quiet after they headed down at about 2pm. We set up our camp in a sheltered spot, and made ourselves feel at home. Despite the long hard climb we felt exhilarated. It was cold and cloudy but we were camping at 3,772m (12,572ft) in Guatemala, so all was well and we were happy.

We rested in the tent listening to the Mayan people singing for a couple of hours, emerging to watch the daylight fade at about 5.30pm. By this time, the worshippers had gone, and we were sharing the summit with six Guatemalans who had arrived during the afternoon. They had built a camp fire, and called us over to join them. As we stood around the fire, the clouds momentarily parted to reveal a livid red sun sinking beneath the horizon, the city lights twinkling far below us and a huge column of steam rising from the unseen cone of Santiaguito. The temperature was dropping rapidly, and we became soaked with dew as we stood around the camp fire. We chatted to the Guatemalans for a while, but soon there came a pause in the conversation when our Spanish could take us no further.

After a few seconds silence, one of the Guatemalans asked us if we liked football. We said yes, and the conversation started again. ‘Manchester United!’ said one. ‘Tottenham Hotspur’, I rejoined. ‘David Beckham’ said another. I risked ‘Watford FC’, but to no great surprise they’d never heard of the mighty hornets. We exchanged a few more player and teams names, before we left the fire to go and cook dinner.

When you’re camping in the wilderness in Central America, simple foods become culinary experiences, and we had a spectacular ravioli con carne from a packet, followed by potato soup. We bedded down for the night at about 7pm.

Highlands

Oct 19, 2000 in Central America 2000

At an elevation of 2330m, Xela is noticeably colder than Atitlán and Antigua. It was near here that the decisive battle in the conquest of Guatemala was fought in 1524, and the city was founded on the site of the capital of the K’iché Maya. You would have no idea of this if the guidebooks didn’t tell you, because today Xela is nothing but a modern city. It seemed very different from the rest of Guatemala, with incredibly friendly people and a chilly climate. It is surrounded by Mayan mountain towns, and on our first day there we visited one of these, Zunil.

We had intended to go to the markets at Chichicastenango, but when we got to the bus stop we couldn’t find any buses at all going there. We looked and looked, but were defeated, and, eager to go somewhere, got a bus to Zunil, a place about which we knew nothing, but which turned out to be very interesting. Like Santiago Atitlán, it has its own resident evil saint, San Simón, as well as a fine old church in the main square, a small handicrafts co-operative and a dramatic setting surrounded by towering hills.

After sampling all of Zunil’s other attractions, we went to visit the shrine of San Simón. It was a very different experience to Maximón’s shrine. Where everyone visiting and looking after Maximón had seemed to be having fun, and the whole thing seemed to be thought of as a bit of a laugh, San Simón was dead serious and quite scary. We were ushered into his presence, and found him sitting in a chair wearing shades, a bandana and a cowboy hat. The room was filled with hundreds of candles, and there was some serious worship going on. San Simón was represented by an old shop dummy, which looked a bit difficult to believe in, but people clearly did, and very seriously. There was a constant stream of worshippers, who would come in, cross themselves before San Simón, touch him and stroke him, talk to him, sometimes for half an hour or more, feed him Vodka and cigarettes, and light candles before him. The feeding of the vodka was a weird ritual – San Simón was tilted back in his chair, and the Vodka poured into his mouth. Meanwhile, the last offering of vodka had trickled down to his feet and collected there, and was poured out into a bowl when he was tilted back.

It was fascinating and surreal to watch the goings on at the shrine of San Simón, a strikingly visible fusion of ancient Mayan beliefs and Catholicism. But having seen two evil saints in two days, we decided we were getting too much religion, and we decided to climb up Volcán Santamaria the next day, and camp at the top.

Evil saints

Oct 18, 2000 in Central America 2000

Evil saints

After two days we had recovered enough to leave the hammocks and get on our way again. Our next point of call was to be Santiago Atitlán, another lakeside town.

Our main reason for coming here was to visit the shrine of Maximón. Maximón is a Mayan saint, revered in Santiago but reviled in other lakeside villages. He wears western clothes, drinks whiskey and smokes cigars, and grants prayers for revenge. He is believed to be a fusion of ancient Mayan deities, Judas Iscariot, and Pedro de Alvarado, the conquistador of Guatemala. He is represented in his shrine by an intricately carved wooden effigy, and moves to a different house every year. Finding him was simple – we said ‘Maximón?’ to a passing child and straight away he set off through the back streets to the shrine of Maximón. We followed, paid the small toll required to see him, and went inside.

Having visited Maximón, we were done with Lago de Atitlán. It was time to head off to our next objective, the city of Quezaltenango. We had an awesome boat ride back across the lake, sitting on the roof of the boat, basking in the sunshine and surroundings, before once again braving the bus system. After four separate bus journeys and a narrow escape from getting a bus to Guatemala City (the passengers were more honest than the touts, thankfully), we arrived in Quezaltenango, known to its Mayan inhabitants as Xela.

Quite high

Oct 14, 2000 in Central America 2000

Quite high

And so long before dawn on October 14th 2000, we set out for Volcán San Pedro. We climbed in the enjoyable company of our group of 11, which consisted of me and Moh, Ashley from Australia, Mike and Aasta from Alaska, Will and Chad from Oregon, Greg from the UK, Steve from Canada, Julie from France and Julie from Germany. An almost full moon lit our way until the sun began to make its presence felt, and we reached the end of the road just as the sun rose from behind the hills across the lake. After pausing to appreciate the view, we headed into the forest and began the climb in earnest. The going was reasonable at first, but it was not long before the relentless uphill began to get tiring. Our guide, Clemente, was enthusiastic, though, and kept us all going. After about an hour, though, Julie from France dropped out, and Mike from Alaska chivalrously accompanied her back down to the village.

The rest of us carried on up. After another half-hour, self-confessed old fat guy Steve from Canada dropped out, and the eleven were now eight. Now it was down to the hard core, and we continued doggedly. The path got ever steeper and slipperier as we climbed, and the air was getting noticeably thinner. After about three hours, Julie from Germany tried to give up, but Clemente said we had ‘only’ an hour’s climb to go, and persuaded her to carry on. At 9.25am, after four hours of climbing, we emerged from the forest to find ourselves at the 3020m summit.

The view from here was almost unbelievable. The sun was shining brightly, and far below us we could see boats beginning to ply the waters between the villages around the lake. Many months before, I had discovered the music of the Afro Celt Sound System, and as I planned this trip and read about Lago de Atitlán, I had a sort of vision of myself on top of a mountain looking down on the lake, listening to a song called ‘Dark Moon, High Tide’. I had carried my walkman and the Afro Celts tape all the way from London to here without listening to it, preserving it for this moment. I listened to the awesomely atmospheric music and felt like I was tripping.

Too soon it was time to rejoin the real world and leave the summit. We picked ourselves up and began the long descent back to the village. The 45° descent down the slippery path was, as I wrote in my journal, ‘a total knee-fuck’, and we all fell over at one time or another. I got a long and bloody cut to the arm when I tried to save myself from a fall by unwisely grabbing hold of a thorny tree. After a hard three hours, we were back in the village.

We were exhausted. We spent the rest of that day, and the next as well, relaxing in the hammocks at the hotel, occasionally buying a loaf of banana bread from the Mayan children who came to sell it at the hotel, and generally waiting until we could walk normally again.

Down to the lake

Oct 13, 2000 in Central America 2000

Down to the lake

When we woke, though, we found it was really not a nice day. We decided not to climb that day, but we didn’t want to hang around in Antigua any longer. We decided to leave for our next destination, and hope to return to Antigua with a couple of days to spare at the end of the trip to have another crack at Acatenango.

So we headed for our next point of call, Lago de Atitlán. Many thousands of years ago, a cataclysmic volcanic eruption in the Guatemalan highlands left behind a crater hundreds of meters deep and several miles across. Over hundreds of years, the crater filled up with water, forming the beautiful Lago de Atitlán. Renewed volcanic activity then began, and over time three new volcanoes formed around the lake shore. Today it is one of the most famous places in Central America, and we had been looking forward to it.

Having been in Guatemala nearly a week, we decided to brave the bus system for this journey, and we were glad we did. The buses were not crowded, they were driven safely, and the atmosphere good as we chatted to locals. The only bad point was that each time we needed to change buses, the bus touts were so keen for our business that they would tell us that their bus was going where we wanted to go, even if it was actually going in the opposite direction.

But it was worth the wait. Our first sight of the deep blue waters of the lake surrounded by towering volcanoes was breathtaking, and we had a long and incredible descent in the bus from the hills to the lake shore. We arrived in the lakeside town of Panajachel at about 3pm. Panajachel is probably Guatemala’s most touristy town, so we made a rapid exit, jumping on a boat across the lake to the town of San Pedro la Laguna.

Every afternoon a wind known as the Xocomil rises to churn up the normally placid surface of the lake into large swells, so our boat ride was bouncy , and occasionally I wondered how strong the hull was, but we made it to the other side OK. As soon as we got off the boat, we were engulfed by people offering to guide us if we wanted to climb Volcán San Pedro, which looms behind the village. This was the main reason we had come here, so we shopped around for a good rate. The more people in the group, the cheaper the cost, so we decided to try and recruit some other people for the climb.

We checked into a hotel right on the lake shore, with hammocks on the balconies and hot showers, all for £1.50 a night. We were surprised when Ashley, who we’d met in Nicaragua, emerged from a room near ours. Having been with us when we were defeated by Volcán Masaya, Ashley didn’t hesitate to join us on our quest for the top. There were several other travellers staying at the hotel, and within half an hour, we’d managed to assemble a group of 11 people. We negotiated a rate for a guide, and arranged to leave at 5am the next day.

We climb our first volcano

Oct 12, 2000 in Central America 2000

We climb our first volcano

Another grey day followed, but we didn’t have the time to wait for sunshine so we decided to climb Volcán Pacaya. This was another spot notorious for armed robbery, yet another legacy of Guatemala’s violent recent history. From Guatemala’s independence in 1821, the government has generally been a dictatorship. The dictators have generally been military, and have ruled in the interests of the wealthy classes. Briefly, from 1944 to 1954, Guatemala had a democracy, and elected liberal leaders, but things were soon back to the usual order.

The first democratically elected leader, Juan José Arevalo, began a modest program of social reform. This was continued and accelerated by his successor, Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, who also started a massive land reform program. Huge areas of land owned by the United Fruit Company but left fallow were to be nationalised and redistributed, and the UFC would be compensated at the value they had declared for tax purposes. This was a fraction of the true value, and the UFC was not happy. However, they had friends in high places in the American government, and in 1954, a US-backed coup forced Arbenz into exile, and the land reform out of the reckoning. The young Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara was in Guatemala at the time, and later said that this was the moment he became a revolutionary.

The coup returned Guatemala to a military dictatorship, and over the next few years, laws were passed which made voting rights dependent on literacy, disenfranchising three-quarters of the population. The secret police became powerful, and opposing the government became dangerous. In the early 1960′s, guerilla groups began to form, and by the middle of the decade the country was embroiled in civil war. This continued for the next thirty years, reaching a peak of brutality in the 1980s, when the government, believing that the indigenous people were all in league with the guerrillas, simply wiped out any village where they believed the guerrillas to be. In the 1990s, dialogue between the government and the rebels finally began, and in 1996, peace accords were signed, ending 36 years of war, during which 200,000 people had been killed.

The problem when we arrived four years after the peace accords was that there were still an awful lot of guns in Guatemala, and endemic poverty. The pace of the change since the signing of the accords had been too slow, and as the number of foreign visitors rose, the incidence of crime rose too. But when we were there, a lot of tourist excursions were accompanied by armed guards. Volcán Pacaya had been well known in the past for its armed robberies, but the tour groups were now accompanied by two armed guards, and no problems had been reported for a while.

We took the tour at 1pm, and after a dramatic two-hour drive to the base of the volcano, we set out along the trail for the top. It was not very hard going, and the weather was better than it had been. We had spectacular views of the volcanoes around Antigua and the surrounding countryside. After a couple of hours walking, we reached a shoulder about 200m below the summit. The weather was now closing in, and we were soon in thick cloud. After this point, the climb also became much more difficult. Pacaya’s frequent eruptions mean that the upper slopes are a barren cone of loose rock, and climbing the last stretch was very much a case of two steps up, one step down. The wind was fearsome as well, making it an extremely arduous final push to the top.

We got there, though, only to find that we couldn’t see more than three feet in front of us. Had we been able to see down into the crater, we would have seen lava flowing on the crater floor. All we got, though, was a scorching wind blowing out of the crater. I reached over the edge to pick up one of the sulphur-covered rocks, and I had to be quick to avoid burning my hand. All around the summit, there were steaming hot vents, and the whole area was warm to the touch. We stayed up there for about half an hour before returning to ground level.

The descent was a lot more fun than the climb, and we virtually ran down, creating landslides as we did so. This was the first summit we reached on the trip, and though the weather had let us down, we were still pleased to have made it. We decided we would try and climb Volcán Acatenango the next day.