Christmas Eve. What better day to climb a volcano.
A 6am start as the pre-arranged bus arrives at the door of the Yellow House. Martina and I hop in having been waiting in the darkness for the past 10 minutes wondering what we have gotten ourselves into. Allison the brains of the group is still enjoying her bed, opting to chill in Antigua for the day.
Soon we are whisked from guesthouse to guesthouse filling up on passengers as we go. Then we were on an hour long drive to the end of the road at the base of Pocaya. Pocaya is a mountain visible from Antigua distinguishable due to the plume of smoke consistently streaming from its summit.
Martina meanwhile has mentioned she is not feeling the best. By best she really means she is feeling quite sick. Remembering my same predicament some weeks earlier I know the feeling. She decides to soldier on though and we disembark the bus and begin the trek up the path with our guide and security detail. The trail is known to house a few ‘banditos’ who like to pluck valuables from adventurous tourists at knifepoint.
The trek starts innocently enough below the tree line and about 12 of us trudge up. Martina beginning to lag as she confronts the reality of being likely too sick to continue. At a small clearing at the edge of the tree line Martina succumbs and decides to wait with the security guard until we return from the summit.
Onwards and upwards we eventually hit a steep scree slope where it is a case of two steps forward one step back as the light loose stones beneath our feet constantly give way. The black pumice stone reflecting back the heat of the sun and it is quite roasting being exposed out here, and we aren’t even near the molten lava yet!
Reaching the summit and the smell of sulphur is in the air. It comes in wafts on the wind and the rocks surrounding the rim of 3 small calderas (blow hole like craters) have a yellowish tinge. The ground crumbles beneath your feet and it feels like you are walking on the crust of a freshly baked pie wondering if each step will plunge you into molten rock. There are no warning signs yet danger seems all around. I actually do wonder why people are allowed to come up here as a particularly aggressive hiss of steam is released above my head.
Tough to breathe clean air and it is a pretty acrid type of smoke being belched from above. I take the opportunity to look the volcano in the face and peer over the crater rim. There is not much to see except a dark hole and a hot wind which is enough for me to have ticked the volcano box and descend.
Running down the scree slope is pretty fun and there is seemingly no limit to the speed you can travel with no risk of injury as the scree just absorbs your fall. We reach Martina who has been sleeping under the shade of a tree and while feels better for not moving but now must descend the good hour or so to the bus.
It does not start well with Martina doubled over in pain only a few metres into the descent. A guide hangs back with us for a while before he continues on. I did have visions of the bus departing without us and us being left to find our own way back to Antigua if the banditos didn’t find us first.
Slowly slowly Martina descends and puts up a brave fight against what must be the worst feeling in the world. My suggestions for a piggy back are dismissed a few times until it gets very difficult for her even to stand. So I do my best porter impression and cart Martina down the hill step by step which once we got going was not too bad. It was good to keep moving and have a chance to make the bus before the driver decides to up and leave.
We make the bus and Martina sleeps up front for the long drive back to the guest house and falls into bed where she remains the rest of the day. Allison and I head out and call home for Christmas as it has just passed into Christmas day in Australia. We grab a small turkey dinner about the same time Christmas would have been held.
We walk back through the streets which are going off. Everyone seems to have bought big on fireworks and seems set on letting them all off in 24 hours. A man casually walks into the middle of the crowded street and places a small box down, lights it and nonchalantly walks off. Soon the box fires up and about 30 rockets shoot in all directions, mostly upwards but some off to the side crashing into the nearby houses. Children, mothers and elderly ladies were all sitting back clapping and laughing as though it was the most expected thing that could have been done at this time.
As the night wore on the gap between fireworks became less and less until it was just a constant background noise with bursts of intensity. I fancied my chances of not being burnt on Pocaya than I did in the streets of Antigua!