|Our next port of call is Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala. We are going to do the Pacaya volcano hike, the blurb in the guide says 2.5 miles on rough terrain.
Puerto Quetzal is one of the main ports for Guatemala and it looks as if it was built very recently. The main road out of town is a dual carriageway to the capital and fortunately for us it is in the direction of the volcano. We have been warned that security is an issue here and when we stop at a service station guarded by armed security complete with security watch tower you begin to believe them. The fact that most large buildings have tall walls with sentry posts (complete with gun positions) tends to confirm the belief.
After about 90 minutes we arrive at San Francisco de Sales which is part way up the slopes of Pacaya. It is not likely to be mistaken for San Francisco California given the run down buildings and cars together with the horses in the streets. It transpires the horses are for hire to the tourists who have come to hike up the hill. We all refuse the offers of equine help and start walking, strangely the locals leading horses just nod say something in Spanish and tag along behind us.
After a few hundred metres it becomes. apparent that steep slopes and rough terrain as described in the brochure mean something specific here, as in really really steep and rough. Ian suggests that a horse is not a bad idea and after negotiating with a handler using hand gestures to arrange the price we hire a rather thin light brown animal complete with handler. With this first crack in our solidarity numerous other horses find immediate employment with members of our group.
The climb continues, Ian and a small group of walkers set the pace and those of us on horseback (hanging on desperately) stay with them. Much of the rest fall further behind and we have to wait periodically for them to reappear looking increasingly sweaty and tired. The entire slope is clothed in lush vegetation and despite the fact we are rising in altitude it is still very hot. After about an hour and a half we break out of the forest onto the bare slopes about 500m from the summit. The last section has to be completed on foot by everyone.
There is smoke coming from the top of the mountain and large areas of red and black lava flows. We are not allowed to the very top, not least because it is unsafe. The last major eruption was 2014 and we can see where the lave spilled down the slope and into a side crater, filling It to a depth of 200m with fresh lava. Above the desolate black rock the heat is still causing the air to shimmer. Inside this dark mass is still red hot lava. It is sufficiently hot to ignite sticks thrown onto it and for us to roast marshmallows. Not really the sort of place you want to walk on.
It is really quite bizarre, a tumbling mass of black rock, still hot, abuts directly onto the old slope which is clothed in lush green vegetation. Despite the heat the plants are starting to colonise the new lava and you can see where the rocks (which are riddled with tiny pockets caused by volcanic gas) are already starting to break down into black sand.
With our feet now turned down hill I hope that the route back will be easier. Not a chance, yes it is downhill but the path is a mass of marble sized pebbles and sand all of which moves every pace you take. The sand drifts up and we are soon clothed in dirt. Worse, as we descend the heat builds up. You have no idea how grateful I am when we get back to the coaches and the air conditioning. One of the other passengers has a GPS and tells us the 2.5 mile walk was slightly over 6, I can believe him. The guide seems surprised that we ever thought it was only the shorter distance. Ah well, it is an achievement.
The return journey hits Guatemala rush hour. It is Holy Week and an important local festival. So important that stalls have been set up alongside the dual carriageway. When I say "alongside" it would be more accurate to say, on. The only road that is left is the middle white line dividing the two lanes. Traffic slows down and we can watch the locals as they pull off to the side and go shopping, unbelievable! Still we got back to the ship before it was due to sail, one other tour wasn't back until 7:30pm, an hour after the due departure time. Thankfully for them because it was an official tour the ship waited.
Well now we are back at sea and headed for the Panama Canal, should be quite a sight. For anyone interested my legs ache all over from the horse ride and the walk, Pacaya was a great place to visit and an interesting experience, but it has put me off any idea of hiking to Everest Base Camp for awhile.