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This story appears in the July 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine, Israel edition.

Guatemala, Heart of the Mayan World

Story by Idit Elnatan   Photographs by Eddie Gerald

A Place to Meet Your Fears

Atitlán Lake is blanketed in fog. The neighboring market town, Chichicastenango, known for its riotous colors, is shrouded with smoke coming from the local cemetery, where shamans — known here as ‘time keepers’ — make altars of blessing, or cursing, depending on their customers’ wants. The mausoleums, which seem like little buildings, are painted in pastel colors, and the cemetery looks vivid in a strange Way.

"For the Mayan people, reality is a mist," Says David Reyes, our Guatemalan guide. "People can see reality as it truly is only when they're dead. That is why death is colorful in their eyes." Following Mayan tradition, David is walking around the cemetery instead of crossing it, "so that the spirits won't be able to catch us." I follow in his tracks, just to be on the safe side.

The smell of smoke greats us outside the cemetery as well. It's the end of April, the dry season, and the farmers are lighting fires to clear-cut patches of forest. Haze, smog, smoke and fog create a film noir ambiance in a Mesoamerican style, and a sense of foreboding fills me as I disembark the plane in Guatemala City. For some reason I can't help the feeling that something is about to happen to me here. 

I start to feel a little more relaxed as we walk in the cobblestone streets of the old city of Antigua, admiring the impressive colonial buildings and the colorfully painted houses. In the local market, Mayan girls in pink and purple garments smile kindly at us, offering us plenty of woven rainbow-colored textile products, that are a feast for the eye, and tropical fruits that are a feast for the senses. Public buses – once used for schoolchildren in the U.S. -- are painted in various decorations, and jockey against rickshaws imported from India. Behind this kaleidoscope, three volcanoes tower  overhead, their dark, conical silhouettes completing what feels like a serene landscape painting. At least at this moment.

Founded in the 16th century, Antigua (formerly Santiago de Guatemala) had been Guatemala's capitol, until it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1773 and lost its crown to Guatemala City. The volcanoes' repeated eruptions caused a lot of damage to the city as well. One of the volcanoes, Volcán de Fuego ("volcano of fire"), remains active today and might erupt at any time.

As we sit over Gallo beers, the popular local brew, in one of the bars on First Avenue, I ask David the obvious question why people are not afraid to live next to these dangerous volcanoes. "Thanks to the volcanoes we have such good coffee," he answers with a shrug

A few days later, we drive past Pacaya village, which sits on the slopes of the most active volcano in Guatemala that one can climb. I realize that there are people who live even closer to the danger. In 2013, the 2,250-meter volcano erupted and covered the neighboring towns with several centimeters of ash.

But this very danger is what made Pacaya a playground for both locals and tourists. People from all over the world flock to the mountain's slopes and take photos of marshmallows being roasted over its lava. But our plan is different: we are going to climb to the crater’s very edge. As a person who prefers my adventures to be entirely danger-free I concerns about the plan, to put it mildly. So as we get to the foot of the slopes, my faint gut feeling of doom turns into a real stomach ache.

Two young officers from the tourist police join us to keep us safe from robbers, if not the molten lava (in the past there were robberies here so a police escort is strongly advised during the evenings). Two more people from the village of Pacaya walk along with us with horses in case we would like to ride.

We are led by climbing guide César Paralta. "We're short on time," César says. "Soon the wind direction is going to change and the gas will blow towards us. We must climb down before it happens. We're going to ascend fast, and descend fast."

We start hiking along a neatly paved route that is, at first, a gradual climb. It is not exactly the rugged wilderness I expected to find, and I'm not sure if it's relief or disappointment that I'm feeling. The only thing I'm sure about is that this climb requires an effort. About 30 minutes later César commands us to mount the horses to speed up the pace. Now atop my horse, I can enjoy the views of the thick, natural forest.

"At some point I realized that I should make the hiking route different for different travelers, says César, who was trained as a guide as part of an eco-tourism program in the area. "Europeans like to climb slowly, to hear a lot of stories and explanations. Americans are looking for fun, and Israelis – they are looking for challenges," he smiles. "They always ask to reach the crater."

The paved path comes to an end and the view opens to vast slopes of volcanic ash and black gravel, the fog adding a mysterious touch. As the sun sets, the smoking crater of the mountain top comes into view in the red horizon. It seems as if we’ve stumbled into the landscape of a different planet. César tells us to dismount and leave behind anything heavy. We have reached the final stage.

I look up. Horrific slopes tower above me. It seems so extreme, that I start laughing out loud. My heart is also beating out loud, and not because it thinks it's funny. We use hiking poles to help our climbing. The gravel underfoot is unstable and our progress uphill is slow. I look back for a moment and shudder. I don't even want to think how we're going to get back. I have always been afraid of steep slopes, and this one surely doesn't going to be easy for me. I start to imagine myself standing atop the peak and refuse to descend out of fear. My anxiety is distracting and I lose my step.  César is horrified. "You can't fall now!" He shouts. "Any little stumble might end up with you rolling all the way down." I focus on calming down and concentrate on my next step, and with the adrenaline's kind help I forget my fears for the next forty minutes.

The first one to reach the crater is one of our local escorts. "Strong activity today!" He shouts enthusiastically. My curiosity piqued, I try to speed up, making a final effort. As I finally reach the summit, I am overwhelmed by the views that greet me: Lava is churning in a bright orange, Clouds of smoke billow ominously, and flaming stones explode into the air like fireworks. Our cries of excitement are lost in the growling and thundering of the pit. Everyone, including the police officers, excitedly takes photos and videos of the spectacle as I try not to waste a second in taking it in. It’s not often that a person can watch the flaming red underbelly of earth, hear its mighty roar.

After a few minutes, César begins to look worried. The wind has changed direction and he decides we should leave. I turn back and recall what we climbed a few minutes earlier. "I'm scared," I tell César. "That's what everyone feels now," he answers with a smile. I begin my descent anxiously, but realize that I can see only the small part of the slope illuminated by my flashlight, which is perhaps oddly soothing. The distress signals blaring in my mind fade, and my confidence returns.

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Neotropic cormorants flying low over water in the tiny island village of Flores located in Lake Peten Itza

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