What It Was Like to Be in Guatemala Right As the Volcano Erupted
As I drifted past the volcano in a helicopter, the sky had the air of a Romantic painting, ominous but ravishing. An enormous plume of smoke was billowing from the cone of Volcán de Fuego (literally “Fire Volcano”), its dark, undulating waves making a gorgeous contrast to the gentle white clouds above and below. Like the other passengers, I blithely took photos with my iPhone, and thought little more about the natural spectacle. Even the Guatemalan pilot didn't bother to comment. We all assumed it was a regular emission from Fuego, which registers activity every four to six weeks. (It's one of the country's three active volcanos; there are some 35 more in Guatemala, where three tectonic plates intersect, but they are either extinct or dormant).
None of us could have guessed that three hours later — at about 9 a.m. last Sunday morning — Fuego would erupt, spewing a deadly tide of lava, ash and poisonous gas over the Mayan villages huddled at its base. Combined with a second eruption at 6.45 p.m., more than 100 people have died, including many children. Whole rural communities would be devastated, the international airport closed and a national emergency declared.
In retrospect, that morning helicopter flight was part of a dreamlike sense of invulnerability before the crisis. I had just spent several days exploring idyllic Lake Atitlán, which is often described as a more spectacular version of Lake Como, and had even climbed a dormant volcano the day before. On that Sunday, June 3, I was due to fly back to New York, so decided to take the scenic morning flight to Antigua, Guatemala's old colonial capital. The sight of Fuego Volcano, as symmetrical as a child's drawing, had been one more spectacle on the 20-minute ride across the rugged mountains, where ancient, emerald-green agricultural fields were squeezed on every inch of arable land.
The surreal air of indifference continued when the helicopter dropped me on the outskirts of Antigua, declared a UNESCO World Heritage site for its beautifully intact colonial architecture. None of the residents showed the slightest interest in the smoking volcano, even though it was only 10 miles away. As I wandered the picturesque cobbled streets, local families were promenading after Sunday mass and gathered for brunch in the Posada de Don Rodrigo, a former aristocrat's mansion with flower-filled Spanish courtyards. I left before the first eruption occurred just before noon, but even then there was no sense of crisis filtering out on the news. At 2 p.m., after driving in light rain the 45 minutes to La Aurora Airport in the capital, Guatemala City, I was sitting on the American Airlines flight to Miami, pondering a late dinner in New York.
But as the departure time came and went, Guatemalan passengers scanned their smartphones and muttered that something was happening near Antigua; photographs were being posted on Instagram of dark flakes showering on the city. Then the captain made an announcement. “Sorry, guys, but because of all the volcanic ash, they've closed the airport. There's nothing I can do. We're not going anywhere.” There had been some sort of eruption, but there were next to no details. Only now did I look at the drizzle still gently drumming against the window and notice that it had turned black.
What followed was one of the less edifying scenes in the recent history of travel, as the hundred or so passengers fell over themselves to get back to the ticket counter to rebook flights. Some power-walked through the endless terminal; the more shameless broke into a run. The air of frenzy increased as passengers furiously filled out forms while standing in the immigration line and jostled for position in customs queues. (Workers looked at us in confusion. “The airport is closed!” I explained. “It is?” they replied).
By the time I made it to the ticket counter — luckily, I only had hand luggage — the American Airlines App had already booked me on the next day's flight, but that seemed wildly optimistic: The last time Fuego erupted, the ticket attendant explained, La Aurora, the country's only international airport, had been closed for five days.
Only as I logged onto Wi-Fi in the lobby of the Guatemala City hotel later that afternoon did I begin to realize the true scale of the tragedy. The quaint streets of Antigua, which we had innocently wandered a few hours before, were now blanketed in gray ash. More horrifically, more than 3,000 Mayan villagers lived at the foot of the volcano and evacuations had not been not been ordered until far too late. By nightfall, 25 were confirmed dead. The mad rush to book a new flight back home now seemed utterly absurd — the very definition of a “First World problem.” Guatemalan TV showed corpses on a roadside curled up in fetal positions, recalling the victims excavated in Pompeii who were killed during the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. I will always be haunted by the image of the lone survivor staring blankly at the camera, his skin raw with burns.
Like other stranded passengers in the hotel, I undertook a grisly crash course in volcanic terminology. The danger from Fuego was not from volcanic lava, which moves very slowly and can be easily avoided, but “pyroclastic flow,” a lethal mix of gas and debris that can reach temperatures of 1000 degrees and travel at speeds of 400 miles per hour. As volcanologists explained, nobody can outrun a pyroclastic flow — you can't even escape it in a car — which is why the Guatemalan eruption was so much more catastrophic than the one at Kilauea of the Big Island of Hawaii, where not a single fatality has been reported.
It also took everyone by surprise. According to reports, some Guatemalan villagers were gazing at the eruption as if hypnotized by its natural beauty, only to realize too late that a deadly wave was surging towards them. Most of the corpses found by relief workers were burned beyond recognition, and will now only be identified by DNA tests. Relatives were wandering the morgues in frustration. One father found his two children curled up in their bed, as if hugging for protection.
The next morning, our emotions now numbed, we dealt with our modest travel problems. The reality of the disaster was that, while the remote Mayan villages were affected, travelers were protected in a cocoon of modernity. Twitter revealed that nearly 400 Guatemalan militia-men had cleared the airport runway overnight — basically sweeping away the ash — and rumors spread that flights could now leave. As I drove to the airport, reports continued to be humbling. Relief workers were still digging survivors from the searing-hot ash that formed over villages in giant dunes; they parked their cars pointing downhill in case they had to flee another eruption. The death tolls was now 60. (As I write, it has climbed to more than 100 — with 200 still missing.)
Although I was expecting chaos at La Aurora airport, the crowds now behaved in orderly fashion, with everyone talking in hushed, respectful tones. Ironically, the journey fell to pieces not in Guatemala but Miami. The security line for connecting flights snaked around the terminal, and my entreaties to American Airlines agents to skip ahead were met with a shrug. After the last flight to New York left without me, I spent the night in the Miami International Airport Hotel. No matter. If there was one thing I had learned from the experience in Guatemala, it was to put such things in a little perspective.
Should you go?
The most immediate way to help Guatemalan eruptions victims is to donate to the local Red Cross. But another way to support the country is to keep any travel plans intact. Guatemala's economy is heavily dependent on tourism, and its two main attractions are entirely unaffected by the Fuego volcanic eruption. The Mayan ruins of Tikal, hidden in the northern jungles, are amongst the most impressive historic sites in the Americas. And Lake Atitlán, created by an extinct ancient caldera, is one of the world's most scenic retreats, rung by a dozen Mayan villages each named after one of the twelve apostles, and each one specializing in a different traditional handicraft.
The main travel consideration is whether further volcanic activity might close La Aurora airport in Guatemala City, the country's only hub for international flights. Fuego's last eruption in February, although much less serious than this month's, shuttered it for five days due to falling ash. This time, emergency workers were prepared — and winds were blowing in the right direction — so runways were closed for less than 20 hours.