In the early hours of a morning in early February, 1976, a 7.5-magnitude earthquake flattened much of Guatemala City, killing 23,000 people, seriously injuring over 70,000, and leaving over one million others homeless. When I arrived on a bus from El Salvador two months later, evidence of the devastation was everywhere to be seen. And countless numbers of people living in the open, many with a shelter made of little more than cardboard, covered with scraps of plastic.
I found a room in a small hostel, run by a charming elderly Swiss woman. She told me that she had converted her house to take in guests, after her husband died. The rooms were arranged around a beautiful internal courtyard. It was an oasis of tranquillity, compared to the chaos outside.
But the electricity supply was intermittent and there was water for only one hour every morning. One does not have to have much imagination to envisage what the toilets were like after twenty-three hours. I stayed for two nights and then caught a bus to Antigua, about 40 km to the west of Guatemala City.
The original city was founded in 1524 by the Spanish conquistadores, and was called Ciudad de los Caballeros de Santiago de Guatemala, but it was destroyed in 1541 by a mudflow from nearby Volcán Agua, possibly caused by an eruption. The survivors relocated to the current location.
Antigua is surrounded by four volcanos and in the intervening years has been once devastated and many times damaged by earthquakes. These days it is known as one of the best surviving examples of colonial Spanish architecture. It was there that I found a comfortable room in a remote wing of an old mansion, owned by a building contractor.
At 3760 m, Volcán Agua towers some 2100 m over Antigua, and the base at Santa María de Jesús is about 10 km south of the city. From my first sight of the volcano, I wanted to climb it. Locals told me that one needed two days, spending the night in the crater. But I had neither suitable equipment nor clothes to spend the night at altitude. I decided to do it in one day.
So one morning I woke up long before dawn, carefully closing the heavy front door, across the courtyard, and through the outer door to the silent street outside. No cars, no dogs, not even the crow of roosters, still asleep in their coops. Nothing stirred in Antigua.
Walking in the middle of the cobblestoned streets, without a car in sight, one could have been transformed in time to the Middle Ages. Past the church of Nuestra Señora de la Merced, many times destroyed by earthquakes since 1541 and rebuilt. Under the Arco de Santa Catarina, past the Plaza Mayor and the Cathedral and the church of San José and out into the countryside. And once out of the city and away from the polluting neon lights, I could see, towering in the distance, the bulk of Volcán Agua.
After some time, the sounds of my own breathing and plodding footsteps were interrupted by voices, first faint and then becoming more distinct. I hesitated, not sure whether those that approached would prove friendly or a threat. Then out of the half-light appeared a large group of people; some men, some women and a horde of children of all ages from teenagers to quite young. All carried massive bundles on their backs and heads. One carried chickens trussed together, one had cages containing wild birds, others carried bundles of various vegetables. Even the youngest, probably no more than four or five years old, had her burden. They were heading to the market. ‘Buenos días señor, buenos días, bueños días… One by one the greeted me, as they passed. There would be no school for those children that day, perhaps not any day. For them earning a living and surviving may have had a priority to learning.
It was almost sunrise when I arrived at the village of Santa María de Jesús. I continued through the village, up a long steep street, until I arrived at the last of the houses and a police post. I had to produce my identification (passport) and sign a logbook. I could see that not many people had passed that way in recent weeks.
From the police post the path climbed on long loops, back and forth across the slopes of the volcano, steadily ascending. It was already a warm day in the sun, but still cool in the shade of the trees. I continued at a steady pace for the first couple of hours, until I was well above the tree line. A bank of clouds moved in and I was soon walking through a thick fog. It was noticeably cooler.
When I finally emerged above the clouds, the view was stunning. Below me was an ocean of white with several volcanos dotted about, like upturned ice cream cones. And the most impressive of them was nearby, Volcán Fuego, spouting towering clouds of smoke and ashes, and bleeding the vivid red of the streams of lava. It was a magnificent spectacle.
But by now, my progress had very much slowed. My breathing was very heavy and my heart was beating so much, that I could feel the rapid thumping in my forehead. In the last thirty minutes trudging steeply up on loose rocks and dust of the old lava flows, I found myself taking ten steps, resting for ten seconds, in repetition, until I finally reached the highest point on the mountain.
Down below, on the bed of the crater, I could see a partially completed building. I found out later that it was intended to be a religious retreat. I was tempted to try to find a path down into the crater, but decided against it. If I wanted to descend before dark, I needed to soon start back. I then understood why most people did the climb over two days.
Although relatively easy at first, descending brings into play a different set of muscles. It is not until the descent does one realize how far one has ascended on a mountain. After two hours I realized that I was not much more than half-way down, and the sun was visibly lower in the sky.
It was not long after I was back in the trees, that I heard a crashing and thudding coming in my direction. I did not have time to even imagine what it could have been, when a group of Indians burst out of the trees, across the road in front of me, laughing, shouting waving, and noisily disappearing headlong down a non-existent path. I guessed that they were workers from the building work in the crater, and for them, straight down the mountain was preferable to the tourist path that I was on.
I was not tempted to follow them.
I reached the police post at just after 17:00, signed the logbook, and headed back along the road to Antigua. It was already dark when I passed under the Arco de Santa Catarina.