There is something simply breath-taking about volcanos. Perhaps it is the beautiful, distinctive, tell-tale pyramidic shape that betrays their identity – perfect geometric symmetry in motion. Or rather the constant veiled reminder and “threat to life” they cast over the surrounding countryside and its inhabitants, humanoid or not. Either way, I have seen a few in my day and climbed many. I have seen flowing lava, a moving road of flame and witnessed pressure geysers that burst with precise repetition up onto the landscape. I have literally bathed and soaked up its causal forces in the onsens of Japan, hotsprings of Nepal and many other places. But seeing them erupt in all their glory is something else.
After several weeks, immersed in Spanish study, we took the chance to climb a dormant volcano outside the city of Xela in Guatemala. The 3 hour trek to the summit (3,800m) of Santa Maria was physically demanding, but not overtly so. It was a trip we had done without any planning or foreknowledge, so on reaching the summit we were pleasantly surprised to discover that the view commanded sweeping panoramas of the entire highland region of Guatemala, across to Mexico and Honduras in the distance. Distinct volcanic shapes pierced the seas of clouds in every direction including the highest mountain in Central America, Tajumulco (4,220m).
A fantastic view, but not nearly the peak of the experience. As we sat down to catch our breath and take it all in, a white / grey atomic shaped plume erupted from a distant volcanic peak. Wow – wasn’t expecting that! Over the next hour or so though, we witnessed 4 or 5 other significant plumes break through the cloud layer and then a second from the distant peak. Right below us (well more like 1 km below anyway), was also Santa Ana another active volcano. A pillar of brown, shattered rocks and crevices, a twisted step-child from the 1902 eruption of the very volcano we were gazing from. As we watched and waited, small pillars of smoke waded their way from the various craters into the atmosphere. Other travellers had also gathered at the top for the spectacle plus an odd group of Mayan evangelical Christians. These guys were dressed in traditional Mayan costume, but kneeling in a circle and prostrating themselves toward the centre, while a minister held sway in melodic, accented Spanish. We had already passed a similar group half way up, completely consumed in their own small service, swaying away in the Holy Spirit.
After about an hour or so of watching the distant eruptions and just as we were contemplating heading back down, the sound of a jet engine flying close overhead consumed us and the volcano below suddenly spewed forth a huge geyser of ash, dust and lava into the air. Within seconds the mushroom cloud was way above our heads, the entire eruption lasting several minutes, a continuous raw rush of energy and power that penetrated every living fibre within a close vicinity, giving vibrational meaning to the term a true ‘force of nature’. Everyone remained spellbound throughout, each of us lost in silent worship in all our different ways, united in awe of Mother Nature. It is a humbling experience, yet another reminder of our tenuous custodianship and the fallibility of our delusional pretenses at mastery.
Heading down the mountain, the former steep icy paths had been transformed into dangerous, mud slides by the late morning sun and ash was floating everywhere in the air like the finest flakes of snow. Everything seemed much sharper, focused, intensity and awareness honed by the spectacle above. We pass another convoy of Mayan women in traditional costume. A vibrant montage of bright, rainbow coloured dresses and white tops surging energetically upwards towards their own ceremony. In the middle, one lively old lady carried a burning bowl of incense on her head, regaling us all with laughter. The melodious cackle continued to float like a concerto far above our heads until long after she had passed. It’s a fitting final image…