Antigua: Climbing Volcán de Agua and handling the security issues
The proximity of Volcán de Agua (3,760m) to Antigua and its impressive prominence in comparison to the surrounding landscape make it a particularly appealing volcano to climb. It towers substantially above the old capital of Guatemala and one is reminded of its huge mass from anywhere in the city; it epitomises my idea of a perfect volcano and its impressive conical shape can be seen for miles. Physically it’s not the hardest mountain to climb, it’s a 1700 metre change in elevation from Santa Maria de Jesus and took us 4 hours at a medium pace; however everyone in Antigua will tell you that it’s too dangerous because of its security issues. Unfortunately, it is famed for armed robbery and a lot of the tour companies won’t go claiming this as the reason.
However I wanted to do it and initially found one reasonable option: go to the tourist police in Antigua and ask them to chaperone you up the mountain. They would normally give you two armed police (I think for 200Q each but I’ve also heard they do it for free with a tip of some sort expected). Unfortunately for us they required 3 days notice and hadn’t replied to my email so Liam and I decided we would do it without carrying any valuables. Maybe that seems reckless to some but people get robbed in Antigua just walking around at night so it didn’t seem so different. All throughout life, we are informed of various risks but it’s always hard to know the actual reality. I believe that most of the time our reality is totally distorted from generalising our views on just a few incidents often from unqualified sources. Without true hard facts how can we know? Short of sitting at home all day, I prefer to take a calculated pragmatic approach to minimise the risk where possible but at the same maximizing the enjoyment or interest of the experience. Afterall we take risks everyday just getting into a car. Why do we do this? Maybe because it’s familiar so it seems safe but in reality the risk of fatal injury is comparable to extreme sports such as skydiving. ‘Risk: Why we fear the things we shouldn’t’ by Dan Gardner was an interesting read on this topic backing up his arguments with scientific fact. Anyway, I digress…
I called a few local contacts and was told that the situation had changed and it was now safe on Volcán de Agua. Taking no more than 100 Quetzales for transport (just over US$10) limited any potential financial loss. From my research I could see there had been a few robberies but, more recently, not so much in the way of violence (although admittedly getting accurate information is difficult here). I speculated that it’s in the interest of some of tour companies to keep the perception of it being dangerous to protect their own businesses. (Most people travel one and a half hours to the smaller and far less impressive (in my opinion) active volcano Pacaya through the local tour agencies.) Having said that clearly there have been problems here; even my friend Billy and his travel companion were robbed with handguns having passed through it on bicycle (http://www.billysbigcycle.com/) a few months earlier.
I had just about recovered from 2 weeks of tummy upsets so I was a little unsure of what my fitness would be like but we caught the taxi from the Central Park to Santa Maria de Jesus at around 5am (it was dark); it cost 100Q although perhaps one could negotiate further to 70 or 80. Climbing from Santa Maria de Jesus is the most established route and cuts out a few hundred metres of elevation since it sits higher than Antigua. The taxi dropped us by the square in Santa Maria de Jesus claiming he couldn’t drive any closer to the trail head. We had wanted to be dropped right to the trailhead (so noone in town would see us and therefore follow us up the mountain to rob us) but we accepted our fate.
As we were apprehensively wandering through the square someone in a bright yellow jacket stopped us and asked us to come into the tourist office. We ended up having to pay 40Q for the privilege of climbing the volcano but they assigned us two local guides to accompany us for approximately the first third of the climb where most of the attacks occur. I thought this was pretty good value and I was happy to have them there since they hiked with us for an hour and were pretty friendly, humouring me whilst I practiced my Spanish with them. (They offered a guide for the whole hike at around something like 150Q but we hadn’t brought enough money). We were the only ‘gringos’ climbing the mountain although there were a couple of other Guatemalans and a few farmers and several people on the top; one selling soft drinks / water. On the way back down we were chaperoned down the same section by an alternative couple of guides.
Whilst climbing the initial part the guides told us that they knew who the robbers were (8 of them in town) but allegedly nothing happens if you’re accompanied by the tourist office guides. They claimed that most attacks occurred when people tried to climb it without registering in town and having the local guide with you. They also said they didn’t know of anything happening in the last year and it was a lot safer now. It’s hard to know where the truth starts or ends since it conflicted with everything we were told in Antigua but we didn’t feel unsafe at any stage and I would probably climb it again if I was so inclined. Although the top is covered with shacks and aerial masts, there is an impressive crater and the view was indeed spectacular with huge views of large parts of Guatemala including Volcanoes Pacaya and Acatenango; I felt mild altitude sickness but felt a lot better after descending. (although grimly my dengue fever symptoms started the next day, see previous post). It’s a shame that we hadn’t brought our cameras due to the security threat but we walked away with some great memories.
For the tourist police in Guatemala; they gave me this email address for requesting security on the volcano but I didn’t get a response: email@example.com. We went to the office which is near just to the west of Alameda de Santa Lucia (I think on 5th Calle)
Contact numbers for Santa Maria de Jesus tourist office: these telephone numbers were printed on the tickets we were given (not sure if they speak English, probably not). 2253-0912, 2251-5258, 2253-3278.