Rivers of steam and mountains of fire

Tried my hand at horse-riding in the mountains around Copán this weekend: having scaled the gravely slopes we plunged through a river, kicking up spray, to take in a ruined Mayan village deep in the forest.

Later that evening, a group of us piled on the back of a pick-up to some hot springs in the mountains. Two man-made pools – one lukewarm and pleasant, the other bubbling in a frothful frenzy – sat side-by-side, while a scalding natural waterfall plunged straight into the river to form a natural Jacuzzi ripe with sulphurous fumes.
It took six hours by minibus to reach Antigua, across the border in Guatemala. Suitably rested, we set off to scale the active volcano Pacaya the following day. After trekking up a winding mud track, the suspense grew as we picked our way over tell-tale chunks of malformed black rock. Then we reached the cone itself, a towering mass of smouldering gravel.

Scrambling up this steep bank of sliding ash was not unlike tackling a hill caked with fresh snow, feet sinking to the ankles with every step, except its blackened antithesis was spiky and hot to the touch. Our guide proudly informed us that following an eruption the previous Saturday, we were the first to walk on the freshly-hardened lava.
Nearing the summit, a definite phut-phutting began to grow louder. Plumes of smoke rose from the rocks beneath our feet, little more than a crust over the furious furnace. Rounding the last corner the source was revealed: twin chambers of fire, pumping bright-orange molten fragments far into the air. They pattered down some 50 metres from where we stood, agape. No velvet ropes here.

Antigua, Guatemala – 24th March 2005

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