The road down to Lake Atitlán didn’t leave anyone indifferent. Dark blue volcanoes surrounded the bright blue lake- it really felt like reaching another planet. Sleepy tourists grabbed for their cameras to take a picture and another one and one more. Even the most seasoned travellers rubbed their eyes to make sure they were not dreaming.
Lake Atitlán has a magnetic power on many tourists. They see it, fall in love and never leave. And it was not difficult to see why. All you had to do, was walk down to the beach in Panajachel and admire picture-perfect volcano San Pedro on the other side of the lake, begging you to climb it.
No wonder that we left Panajachel, the biggest city around the lake, as soon as we had written some articles. We got on a boat and travelled to the other side of the lagoon at the foot of volcano San Pedro.
Climbing a volcano is not a walk in a park
Travel guides describe San Pedro La Laguna as a party town. We didn’t find any party. Instead, it was a lovely little town where you could take yoga classes, do horseback riding, learn Spanish, go to a nail salon or drink freshly pressed carrot-ginger juice, among many other things.
But for us, the number one thing to do was to climb volcano San Pedro. Even though I’d climbed already a couple of volcanoes, the thought of it still scared me a bit. Not that I was afraid of an eruption. Volcano San Pedro fell asleep millions of years ago. I was afraid of the tough climb. The first time I ever climbed a volcano, Mount Merapi, I started the trip optimistically. Only to realise, hours later, that ascending a volcano, was not, in fact, a walk in the park.
Since I didn’t climb regularly, I had no idea how fit I was. Was I going to make it? The question rang in my head before each summit. And it was exactly how I felt before our trip to the magnificent San Pedro. But the difficulty of the climb was not the only thing to be afraid of while climbing volcano San Pedro.
Is Volcano San Pedro safe to climb?
We sat peacefully in the flowery garden of our guesthouse-Playa Linda (beautiful beach). To our disappointment, the closest beach, a 1-minute walk away, wasn’t very beautiful. All of a sudden, Tom read to me that people had been robbed while ascending volcano San Pedro! Great! It turned out that San Pedro wasn’t only a strenuous hike. We had to be afraid of our belongings as well.
Tom, who loves to read negative reviews on TripAdvisor, had discovered two one-star reviews. To my horror, these people hadn’t just been the victims of pickpockets. They had encountered armed robbers. For example, only a couple of weeks ago robbers attacked two Austrians on the volcano. They were just passing a resting spot when two men with guns and machetes jumped out of the bushes. They took almost everything, including their jackets.
Dreams of machetes
As you can imagine, I could not sleep very well that night. I imagined how I would be threatened with a gun for the first time. Not that I planned to carry much money up there, but it was impossible to leave my camera or phone home. More than about losing valuables, I was worried about the attack itself. At the same time, I really wanted to go.
Tossing and turning in the bed, I finally calmed down. Sweet sleep was just about to kick in when I heard a strange sound behind the door. It sounded like someone was taking a machete out of a sheath. I was wide awake again.
We had a plan. We would take a guide and not go anywhere without him. We had read that some lazy guides turned back after 20 minutes. In normal conditions, that wouldn’t be a problem since the trail was easy to follow. But the people who were attacked all went without a guide. So there was at least one safety measure we could take.
In the ticket booth, I asked again if the guide would stay with us for the whole time. They assured me that yes, he would.
Rope swinging on volcano San Pedro
My worries faded when we took our first steps up. It turned out that having not climbed a volcano in four years had indeed left its trace. I did not stress about bandits anymore. Instead, I started to worry if I was strong enough to make it to the top. After just a couple of steps, my heart was pounding faster than in a body combat workout. It felt as if I had never climbed a single volcano before. It was hard, but there was nothing to do anymore but to keep going up.
Luckily, we were not the weakest on the trail. There was an Israelian girl seemingly on the verge of dying already after 100 metres. Later, we met an older woman who seemed to take the last steps in her life… Fortunately, we all made it safely to the top.
Climbing was not only hard work. Someone had installed a swing on the slope. It was just a tire connected to a long rope. But it was tons of fun to swing and feel the wind and nothingness under you. To stop the thing was another matter. You needed one more person to catch you or else you’d be dangling somewhere mid-air.
Tears of happiness
The top was crowded. People had chosen their favourite rock to sit, they didn’t seem to move anywhere soon. And why should they? After all that hard work, finally, you could just swing your legs and do nothing. And that’s exactly what we chose to do as well.
After we had enjoyed the view on the magically blue lake, Tom suggested to get further from the crowds and find a better rock to sit. Then he asked me if I’d like to marry him. “Sure!” I said without thinking. The beautiful views were still requiring my full attention. After all, we’d asked that question to each other more than once. It was only when he repeated the question that I looked at him. “Sure,” I said again, but he kept asking until I finally saw what he wanted me to see- the ring. It was not just a random ring you could buy from every jewellery shop. It was a ring made of rock crystal that we had found climbing the cliffs on Parangtitris beach in Indonesia.
For the next minutes, I couldn’t say a word. I just admired the ring and tried to capture the meaning behind it. Finally, I said “Yes” for the fourth time. Coming down the mountain, we couldn’t help but smile. “Are you crazy?” I asked. Tom admitted he was on a verge of tears.
And how hard was it to carry the ring to the top?
Tom was hiding it the whole way in his sock, just to be sure the robbers wouldn’t get it. After all, it was unlikely that anyone would be interested in robbing someone’s sweaty hiking socks.
After the hike, we celebrated our special day by dipping ourselves into a steaming hot tube while sipping El Salvadorian craft beer and admiring the amazing lake view. Every now and then, we jumped out of the hot water to cool down in a cold bath.
Enjoying the hot pool, I realised that sometimes we really have to beat our fears to reach big beautiful and scary things.
Note from Tom: the ring is made by my old friend Jasmine from La Petite Curieuse. Highly recommended.