In 1975, my husband and I spent our honeymoon in Guatemala City where he had a medical study grant. We fell in love with that beautiful, green country that sported mountains, lakes, beaches and three active volcanos, Santiaguito, Fuego, and Pacaya. Not thinking too much, we decided to climb Pacaya for a new experience. It had been dormant for a while and was considered an easy volcano to ascend.
On a clear Sunday morning, we quickly followed the gentle rise of the path that gradually increased its incline. As we neared the top, climbing became challenging, the dark sandy volcanic soil sinking with every step. The ground warmed beneath our soles. And finally peering into the crater, we saw only smoke. But when we turned around, the valley of Guatemala City lay below. It was an airplane view except our feet were securely planted on ground, shifty though it was. Our son carried on the family tradition in 2007 when he was in the Peace Corps there but had to turn around when the heat burned the bottom of his shoes.
Pacaya remains the only active volcano we have ascended but there have been other experiences around the world. These were recalled after watching “Fire of Love”, a documentary about Marcel and Katia Krafft, two vulcanologists joined by marriage and their love of volcanoes. The two were fearless and lived for the next eruption. Wearing astronaut like coverings, they approached moving lava and magna, took samples of hot gasses, and even sailed a specially designed boat on a river of acid.
I learned the difference between red, friendlier volcanoes that are more predictable with lava flows following distinct patterns such as old riverbeds. Gray ones are more dangerous, unpredictable, spewing smoke like a diabolical cauldron. Mount St. Helens, in the state of Washington, was a gray explosion that broke off the entire side of the volcano when it exploded and sent rivers of lava down through homes and communities. The broken crater is easy to view on the airplane approach to Portland, Oregon.
My encounters with volcanos over the years cover several countries. Since 75% of the world’s volcanoes reside in the Ring of Fire, a 25,000-mile chain that follows the outline of the Pacific Ocean, I have flown over many dormant and active ones across Central and South America, with the most dramatic being views of some of Chile’s 2000 volcanos. In 2014, we hiked around part of Osorno, a perfectly formed volcano in Chile’s lake district.
From my home in Quito, Ecuador in 1973, I could see Cotapaxi, a sculpted volcano along the Pan American highway. Behind me was Pichincha, a peaceful volcano during my stay but one that erupted in 1999 covering Quito in several inches of ash. I also regularly passed the snow-covered volcano, Cayambe, third highest mountain in Ecuador, on my way to visit my Peace Corps brother in Otavalo. The bus always stopped in the town of Cayambe which had food stands selling the local potato soup served with popcorn on top. I have introduced that recipe to grandchildren.
In Costa Rica, Arundel was quite active, warming the hot springs for swimming at Hotel Tabacon near its base. Each pool posted its temperature with some too warm for me to enter. The hotel staff offered to wake us in the middle of the night if there were volcanic eruptions. During the day, large boulders could be seen tossed out of the crater.
My most powerful view of an active volcano came at night on a cruise ship around the Big Island in Hawaii. Red hot lava could be seen flowing from the Kilauea Volcano into the ocean, sending steam into the air. The boat kept its distance as the steam could become poisonous as it hits the water.
Forty-seven years later, almost to the day, the family Guatemalan climbing tradition extended to the third generation. Our son and his family climbed Pacaya this summer. Their pictures of the path upward were familiar. The two older grandsons, 9 and 7, walked on their own. Our son carried the three-year-old. This was the third volcano our daughter-in-law had climbed this season. Marshmallows were provided to roast in the red-hot vents in the heat below. It is no longer possible to climb to the top of the cone, but the photo of the valley below was the same as ours decades earlier.
While climbing an active volcano sounds dangerous, scientist have learned the signs of an approaching eruption. Guatemalan officials will shut down the climbing of Pacaya when an explosion seems imminent. Hopefully, it will remain open to climbing for our next generation. The view is worth the effort.