We arrived in the town of Antigua in the midst of the Saturday market. Even though we’ve been preparing for it all along, it was a bit of a shock to see so many white faces. Be it your budget backpackers or vacationing families, the streets were filled with every kind of tourist imaginable. After settling in to our room, we went for a walk to explore the town. It was a busy Saturday filled with locals and tourists alike, but it was immediately obvious why the town of Antigua is so popular.

Founded in 1543, Antigua served as the colonial capital for 233 years before being devastated in an earthquake in 1773. The town was slowly rebuilt, retaining much of its traditional character and in 1979 UNESCO declared Antigua a World Heritage Site. Most of Antigua’s buildings were constructed during the 17th and 18th centuries when the city was a rich Spanish outpost and many attractive colonial buildings remain. The cobbled streets are lined with the bright and colorful buildings that grew out of Spanish colonization and impressive churches are scattered throughout the town. It’s a delightful place that feels worlds apart from the rest of Guatemala.

We spent most of our few days in Antigua relaxing in the beautiful plaza and shopping in the market, but our time there was not without its share of exhilarating moments. We joined a tour to Volcan Pacaya, the only active volcano near Antigua, though three others loom above the town and provide a wonderful backdrop to this already enchanting city. Along with a dozen others, we made the hour or so drive to Volcan Pacaya, getting our first views of Guatemala City sprawling across the valley with skyscrapers towering in the distance. As the volcano has been the sight of robberies, rapes and even murders in the past, we were accompanied by a guide who led us up the steep path through the forest and into the hardened flow from only a few years prior.

We could see the trail carving its way up the face of the volcano then shooting nearly straight to the top. Though I knew Rachel and I would have little problem making the steep ascent, I wondered how some of the others in our group would fare in footwear inadequate for hiking on such difficult terrain. The well-worn path began in sand-like rubble that was like walking on a beach that filled your shoes with pebbles instead of sand. It was difficult hiking, but nothing compared with the rocky ascent that followed. As the trail became steeper, the footing grew more treacherous. A faint path carried us across unstable rocks of varying sizes on which we balanced precariously, forced to trust our weight upon a mountainside of light, sharp lava rocks. At times they would tumble beneath our feet and without protection on our hands, we had to be weary of grabbing for safety. The climb was a bit nerve-racking, but great excitement and anticipation carried us on.

A dark bank of clouds had long since covered the mountaintops and upon this tree-less landscape cold winds chilled our bodies and it seemed as if rain could soon dampen our sweat-soaked shirts even more. I contemplated putting on my jacket when we stopped to wait for the others, but quickly found myself warmed from gusts of heat that emanated from below. The sudden realization that this dark, barren mountain was actually alive below our feet was as startling as it was thrilling. Lifting a small rock from the ground, I found myself juggling it between my hands in my own game of volcanic hot potato.

Ten more minutes of climbing and we found ourselves carefully following our guide across an eerie landscape of frozen rocky waves. Where only years prior the ground at our feet had been currents of molten lava, now it was our path to the hike’s grand finale. Across a small crack in the ground we hopped carefully across while lava flowed just a few feet below. Then there it was right before our eyes. From beneath the ground we stood on, a stream of pulsing, molten lava emerged and flowed down the mountainside. The wind carried whafs on remarkable heat and intensity yet still we were able to stand just a few feet away. Nothing I have ever seen could compare with the current of liquid that cut its way across the mountainside. It was as exhilarating and humbling a sight as Mother Nature could provide, a testament to the forces at work on this Earth far greater than ourselves. We could only watch in awe, roast some marshmallows and toast the unprecedented power that lie just beneath our feet.

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