A young Guatemalan boy stares at me, his dark eyes wide and inquisitive. I glance up from the pages of my book and he hurriedly looks out at the buildings rushing by, cheeks reddening slightly. We continue this charade for a few minutes as the bus trundles along, but before long we are engaged in conversation. I intrigue him. Where have I come from? What am I reading? How many volcanoes are there where I live? My answer is met with an incredulous titter. What do you mean there are no volcanoes in England?
For Guatemalans, volcanoes are not just things you learn about in geography lessons; they are the things that shape the skyline, that form the backdrop of your city and that you see spewing smoke on a regular basis. There are 37 volcanoes in Guatemala, a country roughly the same size as Bulgaria, and three of them are currently active. In recent years, eruptions have claimed lives and El Palmar, a small town at the foot of Santiaguito volcano, was completely destroyed in 1982.
Building cities so close to volcanoes may not seem like the most sensible idea, but in Guatemala there isn’t really an alternative. Fortunately, most towns and cities are at a safe enough distance, but even in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala’s second city, a large eruption is enough to send a cloud of ash over the suburbs. Guatemala’s relationship with volcanoes is historic. Lake Atitlan was formed 85,000 years ago when a volcanic eruption caused the collapse of the magma chamber and spread volcanic debris as far as Florida in the north and Ecuador in the south.
Many indigenous Guatemalans see these ‘volcano-lakes’ as sacred and Mayan women regularly make offerings at their shores. Reaching Laguna Chicabal involves a fairly arduous hike up steep hills, but some women will make the journey on a daily basis. Of course, volcano summits tend to be at quite a high altitude. Many of Guatemala’s volcanoes are more than 3000m above sea level and, at 4,200m, Tajumulco volcano is Central America’s highest point. At altitude, the air is thinner and breathing becomes more difficult.
Naturally, hiking volcanoes is a popular tourist activity in Guatemala. The overnight hike up to Santa Maria from Quetzaltenango is hard work. The darkness engulfs everything and it can feel like an endless battle against the steepness of the slope, the ever-thinning air and the dust that your feet kick up. However, the view from the top is remarkable. A line of volcanoes stretches to the south and even Lake Atitlan is visible from the summit. Santa Maria overlooks Santiaguito and it is quite common to see this little volcano spouting smoke and ash. As the sun rises, the volcano casts a vast, delightfully triangular, shadow.
Acatenango, the most popular tourist volcano, is accessed from the city of Antigua and involves spending a night in a tent on the volcano, overlooking its active neighbour, Fuego. It is a quite phenomenal sight.
I stand at 3,976m, looking down into Acatenango’s vast crater. Fuego is erupting noisily on one side and volcanoes poke through the blanket of clouds on the other. As the sun bursts through the cloud the gruelling hike and biting cold are forgotten. The incomparable glow of lava pouring out of Fuego in front of a cloudless, starry sky trumps everything else. Astounded, my blue eyes wide, I must resemble that little Guatemalan boy on the bus.