Nov
07
2008

Volcan Pacaya

Took a trip up to Pacaya volcano, a couple of hours from Antigua. It’s an active volcano, only the second one in my life I’ve seen up close. The other was about 10 years ago in Bali.. they stuck eggs in the steam vents to demonstrate the heat. Cool idea, but the eggs tasted awful from all the sulfur.

After arriving at the base, we had a choice to hike up or take horses. Naturally I chose the harder route. Jessica had also forwarned me to buy (actually, rent) a walking stick from one of the local kids. Not so much to assist in walking, but rather to poke the lava with. I’m always impressed with the entrepreneurial ingenuity of local kids. Anywhere tourists congregate, a small market springs up to serve their needs.

The hike was harder than I thought it would be. Fast, and up. Volcanoes are so cool. Each one is different and so weird looking. Dead and extraterrestrial looking. Like melted black ropes piled on top of each other as far as the eye can see. On this particular day it was nearly a complete white-out, so we didn’t get the views over to Antigua or of the sunset they normally see. But the clouds and fog added to the surreal feeling of the place.

After crunching up the black scree for a couple of hours, we could see the steam and start to feel the heat of the lava. The cone of the volcano was still another hour or so up but I don’t think they take people that far, it’s too dangerous on this particular volcano. We were taken as far as where the lava tubes began crunching beneath our feet. I was lucky enough to have a French geologist in my group who explained a bit about the processes at work. He was in heaven, having studied this stuff but never seen it in person. Through occassional fissures and cracks you could see the red-hot lava slowly moving just below where we were walking. If you stood in one place too long your shoes would begin melting. This was cool enough, but then our guide encouraged us to crest the next hill if we were brave.

Coming over the top was like opening the door to your oven set on broil. There, no more than 20′ in front of us, was a beautiful stream of flowing lava. Wow. We knelt close trying not to burn our eyebrows off, and stuck the walking sticks into the lava. Immediately upon touching the lava the sticks burst into flames. It felt like pushing into a vat of marshmallow. I’ve never been able to imagine what molten rock feels like. Now I know!

The sun was setting by this point, so the walk back down was in the dark. You know how much I hate flashlights – they instantly kill the precious night vision that takes so long to develop. And they only allow vision in that narrow field of light. If people would shut them off and allow their eyes to adjust, they could see everything perfectly well by the moonlight. But people are scared. I was skipping down the mountain and slipped at one point. I just put my hand down for a second to stablize, and instantly sliced it in several places. Weird – the pebbles don’t look sharp at all, but they’re like razors.

On the drive home I got to talking with some outlandish Israelis who taught me the art of haggling and bargaining. They’re naturally very good at it (which is why a lot of vendors don’t like dealing with Israelis, lol) and I was still trying to figure out how to do it.

Here are a couple of videos I took next to the lava stream. I know the files are huge, but you know you can just click on them to get them started downloading, then go and keep surfing or doing something else. When they’re finally downloaded, your media player should open automatically and play the videos. Red-hot stream of flowing lava and Igniting walking stick in lava stream.

Here is a video I found on the net that gives a pretty good overview of the experience (amazingly, I had the same guide!):

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