Friday 13th January 2012

Volcán de Agua = Volcán de Asaltos….dramatic assault and robbery on the slopes

Today’s plan was to recreate my great grandfather George Charles Champion’s ascent of the Volcán de Agua, on the same day as he had done it 131 years previously, on 13th January, 1881. An extract of a letter he sent to his mother, dated 11th February 1881, reads as follows:

I will now tell you a little of what I have been doing since I last wrote. Well, on January 11th, I left the capital for Antigua, next day on to Santa Maria high up on the slope of the Volcano de Agua; from this place I made the ascent of the volcano, starting with my servant and an Indian to carry water, blankets etc, at 9 p.m., a beautiful moonlight night, and arrived at 1 a.m. at the crater; passed the remainder of the night there, but so cold at this elevation (12,500 feet) I could not sleep; saw white frost for the first time since I left England, but as soon as the sun rose it cleared off, shall long remember the view from the Volcano at sunrise, grand in the extreme, the enormous mountains from Mexico to Salvador, the ocean for an enormous distance, the smoking Volcano del Fuego close by, though separated by a broad deep valley, down in the bottom of which my old quarters – Capetillo, the city of Guatemala, and Antigua, the Lake of Amatitlán and so on; it was well worth the journey to see, but at the same time, I hardly want to go up again, the descent is so steep that it takes the skin off one’s toes coming down. The Volcano is extinct, no smoke or anything issuing, started down at noon and in evening arrived at Antigua. On January 14th left Antigua for Pantaleon, a large sugar estate in the coast region (14 leagues distant) passing by Zapote on the road, arrived in evening very tired. Remained at Pantaleon till the 2nd of February, about three weeks in all, but so very hot, could not work well, the sun hot enough to roast one almost. This is a very pretty place low down on the slope of the Volcano Fuego (the estate suffered a good deal from the last eruption). Below we can see the sea for many miles; with its coconut trees about the house for shade, but so hot, dry and dusty now in the height of summer or dry season; now and again we are treated to clouds of very fine dust, brought down by the wind from the Volcano, only too glad to bathe every day for the heat.

One Sunday, I rode over to the small town of Santa Lucia (about 5 miles away) but there was nothing to see here beyond cock-fighting, this is a favourite amusement on Sundays in many places, and I think is even more cruel than bull fighting, and rum shops.

Crater of Agua, by Muybridge, 1875

We set off, Luisa, my long-standing and highly experienced volcano guide, Rocio, a very keen birdwatching friend whom we had fairly recently met, and myself, leaving Antigua in a pick-up that took us up to start of the volcano ascent, close to the village of Santa Maria. In order to lessen the possibility of being assaulted and robbed (common occurrences here), we skirted the village on a dirt track – and my goodness it was dirty; piles of plastic trash lined the “road”. Finally, still in the dark, we reached a point beyond which the vehicle could not proceed, and we began our ascent on foot.

At first all went well, and I was quite pleased to be keeping up with my two hyper-fit female companions, without even a drop of sweat appearing, even though I was wearing my by now famous bright yellow fleece! The volcano looked spectacular as the first rays of sunlight bathed it in an ethereal orange glow. It was a little frustrating to be without binoculars or a decent camera, but in view of the high likelihood of robbery, I had decided against bringing anything of value with me. I did have the notorious Sony Bloggie, with which I took a number of pictures of the sunrise.

After we had been going for perhaps 45 minutes, while we were ascending a relatively steep section, with high banks on either side of the trail, and small side-tracks going off into fields, suddenly we heard a sound behind us, and turned to find to our horror that a man with a balaclava hat, showing only his eyes, and with a pistol pointing at us, was just behind. He swore at us with a lot of “Hijo de putas” and other choice phrases, and then ordered us off the trail and into a deserted field with some rocks, and then told us to hand over everything and lie with our faces in the dirt, all the while swearing at us and telling us that if we moved he would kill us….and I would not be surprised if he was serious. He then rifled through all three of our rucksacks, pulling everything out and putting into his own bag whatever was of interest to him, while we lay on the ground, face down and powerless.

Volcán de Agua from Pacaya

He then came to us and ran his hands all over our bodies (in the girls’ case his examinations were particularly thorough, and lingering). He found Rocio’s cellphone, my Sony Bloggie camera (to be honest, good riddance to that rotten piece of equipment!), removed Rocio’s Bushnell binoculars, and then said that he knew there must be more phones, and that if we did not hand them over, he would shoot us…and he cocked the pistol, a most alarming sound. However, no more phones were forthcoming, so he then told us that we should continue climbing, and that he would be waiting down below, and that if we returned, he would kill us. I asked him how far he expected us to go, to which he replied “A la cumbre”…to the top! I told him we had no further desire to climb up, after such an experience, to which he swore further and told us to go on upwards anyway. I asked him how long we should stay up there before we could return, to which he said we should not come down until after midday – this was happening at about 07.00.

Volcán de Agua from lower slopes of Acatenango

Finally came a strange detail: he asked us where we were from, to which Luisa replied “Antigua”. He then told us he was leaving 15 Quetzales to allow us to catch a local bus to town! In retrospect, I should have said I was from the U.K. – I wonder how much money he would have left us for that journey!? My sarcastic reply of “¡Muy amable!”, or how kind, was perhaps pushing my luck a little. He then told Luisa to get up and put everything he had left in one rucksack, and that we should go.

Then he was gone. It was some time before we dared to move, but finally we returned, considerably shaken, to the trail, and continued upwards, in stunned silence. Finally, we found a large rock by the side of the track, on which we could sit…but then we realized that we were very visible, and could be vulnerable to another attack by a different robber, who might then react much more violently if he found that we had nothing to offer. With this in mind, we dodged up a side track into a maize field, where we hid ourselves and sat down to lick our wounds and consider what we should do. There really did not seem any point in continuing, and all desire to proceed to the summit had disappeared, but on the other hand, sitting in a maize field for four and a half hours did not seem a very happy prospect.

The near perfect cone of Agua, viewed from Acatenango

Just then, we discovered that while running his hands over Luisa to steal whatever he could from her person, he had missed her mobile phone and her car keys, which were in a small pocket lower down her leg. She immediately texted a friend, Ricardo, who then alerted the chief of police, and a rescue mission was launched. However, this had its negative aspects too, as we soon heard police sirens coming from lower down…these could have provoked the robber into returning to finish us off in fury.

From our concealed position, we could frequently hear and see a number of local people moving up the trail, some clearly innocent workers with horses or mules, but others walking with hoods up and looking potentially dangerous. Every sound seemed threatening, and we spent a long time hardly daring to move a muscle. Finally, however, we ventured back to the trail, and headed downwards, passing the scene of the crime, afraid that at any moment a shot could ring out or the robber could spring out from a side path and vent his anger upon us.

Agua panorama from Acatenango

But far from this happening, we were suddenly relieved to find Ricardo and two policemen coming up the path towards us – they had made it up to this point in a Toyota Hilux pick-up, on one of the rockiest tracks I have ever seen. And so ended our ordeal. We returned to Antigua, where we filed a crime report. In retrospect, we should have organized a police escort all the way to the summit of the volcano (this can be done, giving at least 72 hours prior warning), but at least we had not lost much of great value, barring Rocio’s Blackberry containing a lot of telephone numbers and contact details, and her binoculars, my near-useless Sony Bloggie, and a North Face jacket that Luisa was sorry to lose. It could have far far worse.

Interestingly, the police said that they were fairly sure who the assailant was – a repeat offender who had been in and out of prison many times, each time with only token sentences, as the law is not strong enough in this sense – something familiar to someone from the U.K., where often it seems that criminals have more rights than victims.

This (mis-)adventure, experienced on Friday 13th, probably concludes my diary entries from Guatemala. It serves also as a reminder that Guatemala, as well as being a land of extraordinary beauty, is a violent, troubled nation, and such acts are far from uncommon, and sometimes have much more tragic consequences than we experienced.

I am due to fly back to London on Sunday 15th, from where I shall post my final comments, findings and conclusions. It has been a truly momentous journey, and despite today’s event, my overall experience has been absolutely wonderful. My sincerest thanks go to all those who have made my stays in Guatemala, Ecuador and Panama so memorable.

The last picture to be added to my diary appears below: a view of the erupting Volcán de Fuego, taken by Stephanie Boehle during our freezing night camping on Acatenango on 18th November, 2011. Congratulations to her for taking such a fabulous shot.

An incredible view of the Volcan de Fuego, by Stefanie Boehle

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