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GUATEMALA


T


here’s an unnerving tranquillity to Guatemala’s cloud forest, arrayed as it is here across the slopes of a towering volcano. Its beauty is delicate, ripped from the pages of a fairytale: boughs drip with tangled


beards of moss; thick, glassy droplets hang from pine needles; and fingers of ferns are glossy-wet. Shiſting mists blot the sky and half-obscure my path, forcing the foreground into focus; amid the black soil at my feet, I spot minute white blooms, like pinpricks of light. There’s a stillness and silence in this glade that belies the molten lava seething somewhere deep, deep beneath the earth — and the chaotic scene lower down the steep mud road. I hear a distant shout — “Vamos! Let’s go!” — and retrace


my steps out of the wood to where our 4x4 is still wedged, at a tilt, in a pothole. Members of our camping expedition are wiping sweat from their foreheads and throwing dirt-caked shovels into the trailer; I hurriedly wedge the branches I’ve gathered under the tyres and jump in. At the wheel, my guide, Vinicio Peña (Rambo, to his


friends), revs the engine. “Come on, my son,” he whispers affectionately to the truck, eyeing the rutted incline ahead. A crucifix dangles from the rear-view mirror. The wheels spin and then we shoot forward, the truck


careening over the track’s ditches like a wild thing possessed. “Yeehaw!” Rambo shouts, shiſting through the gearbox. The forest’s outstretched limbs batter the bonnet and scrape at the windows, as if warning us to turn back. I spy a hairpin bend ahead, and acres of open sky over the verge, and screw my eyes shut. When I open them again it’s because he’s switched


CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: Sunrise from Acatenango; Fuego erupts; guide Raphael Chicojay Diaz takes in the view through binoculars PREVIOUS PAGE: A lone hiker stands atop Acatenango, part of a chain of volcanoes that stretches through the Western Highlands


the engine off. The forest has spat us out onto a rubbly plateau, wrapped in clouds and crowned by skeletal vegetation. “You have to be a little mad to come here,” Rambo laughs. And then, clutching his chest: “It’s like I have two hearts! Do you feel that?” I don’t know if he’s referring to the thrill of the ascent or the effects of high altitude. The air is noticeably thinner: we’re around 10,500ſt up. From here we’ll hike to the trailhead and pitch camp; at dawn, we’ll make our ascent to the summit of Acatenango, Guatemala’s third-highest peak. There’s a flash of light, an air-splitting peel of thunder


and the first drops of rain. We grab our kit bags from the truck; Emeralindo and Fernando, the porters, using a forehead strap to balance giant bundles on their backs. Raphael Chicojay Diaz, another guide and the trip’s


mountaineering expert, falls into step with me at the rear as the storm breaks in earnest. The path beneath our feet is black: ash and pumice. “This is Guatemala,” he says. “Fire and water.” There’s another distant rumble, but this time it travels through the earth; I can feel the percussion in my bones. Raphael raises an eyebrow and grins at me. “I don’t think that one was thunder,” he says. We’ve been unlucky with the weather — typically,


between late October and April there’d be nothing but warm days and clear vistas. But our team makes the best of it, cheerfully gathering inside the kitchen tent to share stewed chicken, hot chocolate and stories. Rambo has been guiding for 30 years, he tells us; before that, he was in the Guatemalan army during the country’s brutal civil war (1960-1996). “In that life, I was a soldier, a paramedic, a paratrooper, and I worked on anti-narcotics projects too,” he says. “But becoming a guide, learning more about our history and culture, has been the best thing that ever happened to me. I understand better both sides of the conflict, and what happened to the people caught in the middle.” Raphael, in turn, speaks about expeditions and adventures across Guatemala. “Acatenango is my favourite volcano — I like a challenge. I’ve climbed 12 of Guatemala’s 37,” he says. “None of the three active ones, though,” he adds, ruefully. When we exit the kitchen to return to our own tents,


the sun has set and the clouds have cleared. The villages of the valley below are lit up like Christmas but the night seems unusually dark. There’s not a star in sight — the sky is concealed behind a hulking volcano. Fuego, Acatenango’s noisy neighbour, just three miles to the south, fires off a flaming volley of rocks. Neon-red ash and boulders spew into the sky, tinting the remaining clouds apocalypse rouge, then tumble earthwards, illuminating the upper cone. The sound of the explosion — just like the rumble heard on our walk — reaches us a moment later. “That was a big one!” Raphael cheers. “Try to get some sleep before the climb, if you can.” The ‘climb’ turns out to be an undignified two-hour


scramble in volcanic scree. For every stride I manage — heart-pounding, leg muscles screaming — I slide two back. As dawn breaks, Raphael and I switch off our headlamps, soak up the view and catch our breath. (We’d leſt a poorly Rambo behind. “The volcano wasn’t the only one exploding in the night,” he’d joked, clutching his stomach and nodding to the latrine pit apologetically.) The undulating landscape of Guatemala’s


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