I couldn’t believe that people could be crazy enough to climb an active volcano. Especially the mighty Pacaya in Guatemala, which had a major eruption recently and which often spurts out lava, regardless of how many innocent travellers are standing on its rim.

Nonetheless, there I stood early in the morning among a good bunch of people, each of us trying to measure the distance we would have to travel to get to the top. From a distance it didn’t look too bad. I was pretty fit so I thought I could be on the top of the volcano in an hour or two.

How wrong I was. The hike started off in the dense, lush forests of the Guatemalan highlands. Soon we reached a clearing and saw a massive almighty wall of dark lava stones and ashes up ahead.

The stones were like sand dunes in the desert and made every single step in the 2000 metre climb sheer agony. For every footstep I managed to put in the ashes, I slid another two steps back. How on earth were we supposed to advance?

Crawling like a baby

Some local guys on horses had accompanied us so we could rest on their horses if we became too exhausted, but they soon turned back because it was impossible for anyone to walk straight. So I had no choice but to crawl like a little baby on all fours, carefully following the footsteps of our guide Jose and swallowing a ton of dust.

I wondered how Jose could possibly do this trek every day at the age of approximately 74 (he wasn’t too sure when he was born exactly), just to support his family. When a girl in the group fell unconscious because of the thin air and the physical exertion, he even managed to carry her her all the way up to the top.

Eventually, when we finally did manage to arrive at the crater, I sat down to grasp the scale of this stunning beauty. It was surreal. All around us was the kind of scenery you would expect to see on the moon, and just in front us, a mere 20 metres away, the earth seemed to have cracked open. Red hot lava came spewing of the crater and foul-smelling sulphur came out of little holes in the earth.

Being caught in that foggy vapour left me walking around like a blind person, stumbling my way around and I ended getting bruises all over my body and torn trousers, since I kept falling over myself onto the incredibly sharp lava stones.

I couldn’t believe that we were allowed to go so close to the rim of the crater. If I had tripped over a stone, I would have fallen into the deadly lava stream and been instantly vaporised.

Bruised and battered

Fortunately the descent was a lot easier. We half-ran, half-slid down the mountain-side as if we were skiing and sliding down imaginary pistes. I felt like a little kid in the snow with my feet disappearing up to my knees in the ashes.

It took us only an hour or two to get back to where we started that morning. But now I had a wide range of colourful bruises on my legs. One of my legs was so sore I could hardly move it. Back in the hostel, all the backpackers were comparing their aches and pains.

Luckily there happened to be a German medicine student there and he assured me that my leg was not broken.

We shared a feeling of fulfillment – the whole experience felt like a dream, as if we had just walked on the moon. It was a far cry away from the usual tourist traps where you are driven around and only get to see things from a great distance.