6am, Saturday 9th April: A bleary-eyed crew of 19 PLQ students plus two guides, Oscar the driver and provisions for two days pile into a school bus designed to take a maximum of 20 small children. Ned and I, egos still slightly bruised from our abortive attempt to climb Volcano San Pedro a couple of weeks ago, are fired up for the climb.
A cramped two and a half hours later, we arrive at the foot of the mighty Volcano Tajumulco – the tallest peak in Central America.
11am: Lunchtime – a tad early, but we have been up since 5.30am!
2pm – ish: Setting up camp, our home for the night at 4,000m above sea level.
One of our guides – Almaro – gave us some orientation on the history of the volcano, and told his story. At eight years old (during the Civil War of 1960-96) Almaro and his family fled to Chiapas, Mexico from their home near the volcano. Almaro’s father had been captured and tortured due to his status as a community leader in the area. His father survived but was so badly hurt that he had to be carried across the border by the family – a journey of some days through the mountains.
Almaro and his family lived in Chiapas, but after ten years he decided to return to Guatemala and join the guerrillas, to fight for his country and what he believed in. He lived and fought in the mountains for five years in the early 1990s, sometimes going four days without food. Many of his friends died in the conflict, and he witnessed terrible atrocities.
During the conflict the guerrilla forces broadcast a clandestine radio station from Volcano Tajumulco. Two days a week for 30 minutes to one hour the guerrillas managed to broadcast to counter the propaganda from the government forces. The military eventually found out that the broadcast was from the mountain and mounted a huge campaign to find and eradicate it. They never found the equipment.
Almaro has now joined the URNG – the ex-guerrilla party, and the only left of centre party in Guatemala. He is running for local office in the forthcoming elections, later this year.
The story made a big impression on us all. Despite the freezing cold we were all transfixed. Thinking back to what I was up to during the mid-nineties: listening to Brit-pop, being a moody teenager and generally causing mischief; brought it home how recent and tragic the history of Guatemala is.
4.30am, Sunday 10th April: After six freezing cold, sleepless hours in our tents we set off in the pitch dark for the summit.
5.30am-ish: The summit! A devilishly steep scramble up in the dark and we arrived just before dawn.
The conditions were perfect on top of the mountain – no wind, no clouds above us or surrounding the crater. It felt like we were on top of the world. We witnessed a sunrise beyond compare – a gorgeous orange glow slowly unfurled towards us, enveloping the whole of Central America. It was emotional, and bloody freezing!
6.30am-ish: the descent back to camp for peanut butter sandwiches begins…
10.30am-ish: Safe and sound, tired but extremely happy we arrived back at the road to the welcome sight of the school bus waiting to take us back to Xela (and to bed). Alas! The bus refused to start – choking repeatedly, and belching thick smoke from the exhaust every time Oscar tried to fire her up. Dismay spread around the group – whisperings of mutiny began to take hold. The chicken bus began to look like an attractive option, even though it would involve three changes to get back.
After two hours of nervous waiting and milling around, while our two guides enjoyed a beer or three – totally chilled out about the broken down bus – a snazzy car showed up with some mechanics inside. They eventually managed to jump start the bus and away we went. A relief to one and all – another night on the volcano being the least attractive option! Plus, we had almost run out of peanut butter.
3pm: Back in Xela we went our separate ways – satisfied and exhausted. It was, as they say here in Guatemala, ‘vale la pena’ – definitely worth the pain!