Guatemala - A lake, a volcano and a very big bubble
When my friend Danny suggested we travel to Guatemala to climb a recently dormant volcano in order to view its active neighbor erupting, I didn’t need much time to think about it. We would rent a car and make road trip out of it, getting to see some of the real Guatemala along the way. Or so we hoped.
In recent times, Guatemala has been known for one thing: murder. In 2009, more people were shot, stabbed or beaten to death than in war torn Iraq and one of the most incredible political murder mysteries unfolded in the country. You really couldn’t have made it up. Appropriately, in the 30 minutes between collecting our luggage and arriving at our first stop, a hotel in Guatemala city centre, 3 Guatemalans had warned us about the dangers of being out after dark. Suffice to say we didn’t venture far that evening.
Early next morning we quickly headed out of the city in our rental car and drove the 3 hours to our first destination: Largo Atitlan, a lake with a stunning volcanic backdrop. That evening, as we wandered around the Panajachel, the town recommended to us by the rental car company, something felt strange about the place, though we couldn’t put our finger on exactly why. It had been a long day, perhaps tomorrow would set us straight.
Touring the lake the following day was indeed a lot of fun, taking the small local transport boats to the towns and villages that sit along the edge of the water. The towns were tranquil, the locals friendly and the views of the lake wholly exotic, its turquoise water glistening in the sun and mountainous jungle covered banks rising into the clouds. But despite this, we couldn’t shake the feeling we had felt the evening before. What was going on? Something just didn’t sit right about this place.
That evening we continued on to Antigua, 2 hours drive away, it is the town is is the base for those wanting to climb the multiple volcanoes in the area. Later in the week, this utterly bizarre town would finally push that uneasy feeling far enough for us to figure out what was causing it. But first, we had a volcano to climb.
We had chosen to climb the largest of the volcanoes in the area, Acatenango, sitting at 4,000m and having last erupted in 1972. The best thing about climbing Acatenango was the view of neighbouring active volcano Fuego, sitting just a few hundred meters away from it’s summit. We would be camping at 3,500m, awaking before sunrise and hiking the final 500m to the summit to watch the sun rise over Fuego. Exciting stuff.
Our tour left at 6am the following morning and after a grueling 7 hours of hiking through farmland, then jungle and finally pine forest, we arrived at our camp. Sitting far above the clouds, it was as though we would be sleeping in the sky.
At 4am the next morning, after the most uncomfortable sleep ever (is it me or are camping and sleep mutually exclusive?) we started the final ascent to the summit. Given we’d climbed 1,500m the previous day, the assumption was it wouldn’t be too bad. How wrong we were. It was 1.5 hours of pure hell. Perhaps it was the lack of sleep, the pitch black darkness, the soft beach like volcanic sand under foot, or the fatigue from the previous days walking...or more likely all of the above. Whatever the reason, I’ve never had to work so hard to keep my feet moving.
Of course, (cliche alert) once we got there, it was all worth it. The pine trees had been replaced by barren dune like black sands, enough to feel like we were on another planet, floating in the sky. And although cloud cover meant we were not gifted a wonderful sunrise, seeing it emerge from the darkness was special enough. And the best part? Warming our hands on the steaming vents that poured from the floor, an epic reminder that we were standing in the mouth of one of nature's sleeping dragons. The strange feeling we had felt the previous days was a very long way from our thoughts.
The descent back to camp took a little over 15 minutes as one delightful step took you 10 feet down the black sands. And after another 4 hours walking we were back where we started waiting for the bus to Antigua.
We spent the following day recovering and exploring Antigua. It wasn’t long before we were discussing that unnerving feeling which had returned in spades. Antigua, a town consisting of cobbled streets and lovely double story colonial buildings, is as suitable for a postcard as any other picturesque tourist town you might encounter. But Antigua is not just touristy. It’s not just somewhere that has a lot of tourism. It is tourism.
Every shop, every building, every single thing that you can see is to serve tourists. There are more high end restaurants, bars and coffee shops packed into it’s tiny footprint than a street in London’s soho. The only Guatemalans you see are the waiters, barmen, street sellers and those begging in the town square. In the two days we spent there, I don’t recall seeing a single thing that was not tourist related. It is as though the tourist industry massacred the town's population, moved in and replaced it with a sort of colonial styled adult Disneyland.
And that really sums up why Guatemala felt so strange. Because when we thought about it, it hadn’t felt like we were in a real place at all. And, we weren’t in a real place, we were in a huge bubble. In no other country I have visited have I felt so segregated from real life. It is as though a carefully distributed network of filters covers every route a tourist might go. Your head tells you what you are seeing is Guatemala, but your heart knows it is not. Not even a bit.
The only time we had gotten a glimpse of real Guatemala was when we took a wrong turn in the car and ended up in a small town well off the beaten track. And it was less developed, edgier and less welcoming than that which we had seen elsewhere. And, it didn’t feel as safe.
And, perhaps that is the point. The real Guatemala might not be so far away from it’s reputation as a dangerous and wild country. The only way to ensure a steady stream of tourists arrive and feel safe is to isolate them from the realities of the country. And in a way it works great, Guatemala has a lot to offer in terms of stunning scenery and traditional tourist attractions. But, if you are the sort of traveller who likes to feel like you are in a real place, with real people, living real lives, you might want to consider a visit to Guatemala a little more carefully than we did.