There Are No Atheists in Lava Fields

I’ve recently returned from a visa renewal trip to Antigua, Guatemala. While the majority of the trip was spent taking in the culture, enjoying the food, and trying to process the long, brutal, and complicated socio-political history of the region, most of that deserves a much more in-depth analysis than I can offer on this blog. Instead, I will focus on a particular day trip my friends and I took to an active volcano.


Volcanoes are Acts of God. I say that unironically. They are a dramatic, unstoppable, primeval testament to the forces of nature that are only alluded to by the slow-moving landforms around us. See a volcano, and you can understand how religions are born. You feel awestruck. Humbled. Pitiful.

I’m getting ahead of myself. The volcano in question, Pacaya, sits in a cluster of similar, relatively small active vents in the mountains of Central Guatemala. For the last several hundred–if not thousand–years, it has been steadily belching out a stream of molten lava and hot gases. Its rate of activity is considered safe in that it’s been releasing pressure and not threatening a big eruption. The lava flows are slow and usually give humans and animals a chance to escape their path. Aside from a large, rapid expansion in 2014 and earlier in the 70’s, Pacaya has been predictable and mild.

Eh, say that to whoever used to live here.

That is, for a volcano. We hiked the hour-or-so trail up the slope, surrounded by cloud forest, shrouded in fog, and pursued doggedly by several young children on horseback offering “taxi natural” to the top. Like pack predators they picked off the weakest of us first, and as we approached the summit, the growling birth cries of infant liquid rock grew louder and the metaphors grew even more mixed.

It’s hard to describe just how a volcano sounds. The cracking of lava flash-cooling in air sounds like a building demolition, like concrete crumbling beneath heavy tools. But there’s a deep gurgling as well, a gastronomic tremor. Occasionally punctuated by the hiss and snap of a jet of lava bursting lose and tossing a steaming boulder down the slope. More on that later.

The clouds were so thick at the top of the lookout that we could hear all this, but not see anything. As we approached, however, the washed-out clay of the trail became loose volcanic stones and through the clouds we could start to make out the silhouette of the cone. Every now and then a gust of wind would make a window through the haze and we’d get a brief glimpse of red. Our guide made some joke about “preparing the sacrifice” and plunged ahead, across the old lava field. We followed.

That? That is liquid rock. Liquid. Rock. I have never felt so inconsequential.

Soon the clouds cleared and we could see the lava flow perfectly. It was slowly creeping down, it’s edge a pulsing smirk of red. It was also only about 100 meters away and above us. Every few minutes it would spit out a spurt of lava, which would tumble down toward us, cooling and darkening as it fell. Once an entire boulder the size of a beach ball came loose and landed about 10 meters away, still red-hot.

Pictured center, still glowing faintly even after a few minutes where I just stared in shock.

Grinning, our guide produced a bag of marshmallows and skewer sticks. “The sacrifice!” she proclaimed, and pointed to the steaming holes between the rocks under our feet. They were active thermal vents, and beneath the surface they were hot as ovens. So we toasted marshmallows in the shadow of a lava god.

Sacrilegious? Delicious? Sacri-delicious?

Ritual complete, we backed off a bit and the clouds began to clear to where I could make out the valley below. There were visible scars where lava flows had spread, annihilating anything in their path. However, just beyond them, the forest grew thick and lush, marked here and there with farms and pastures. While Pacaya was regularly consuming entire swaths of land, the nutrients it was replacing into the soil was keeping the area fertile, even in an area leached by tropical weather. Looking around, I noted that the soil was unusually dark and rich, and that plants were already starting to reclaim petrified lava fields.

Many of the plants were in bloom, as if the symbolism wasn’t obvious enough.

Which is what I really mean when I say that volcanoes are like gods. How can someone not appreciate the awesome power, the obvious dichotomy,  the give-and-take of destruction/creation? Volcanoes are literal expressions of the cycle of life and death, sacrifice and rebirth. That’s as close to a religious experience as I like to get. The marshmallow wasn’t bad, either.

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