From San Pedro La Laguna on the western shores of Lake Atilán, there are two popular day trips that every self-respecting walker should consider if they're in the area. The first, and most popular, is a jaunt up to the crater rim, to a spot called the Indian's Nose, so-called because the shape of the crater from San Pedro looks like the profile of an Indian lying on his back, and the highest point is the Indian's nose. The second is a four-hour climb up Volcán San Pedro, which looms over the town of the same name.
I quite fancied doing both, but we thought we'd start with the easier of the two, the Indian's Nose, as there's no way I'm ever going to persuade Peta to stomp uphill for four hours straight. The only catch is that the trip up the Nose is a sunrise trip, and that means getting up at 3am to leave the hotel at 3.30am; it wasn't a pretty sight as we stumbled out of bed and into the hotel foyer, to discover that the couple in the next door room – a blonde girl and a rasta from Austin, Texas – were also coming along.
Our guide bounced into the hotel on time and full of beans, and we set off on foot to catch the bus to the foot of the Nose. It was dark and totally silent, apart from the odd dog bark and the gentle lapping of the lake, but as we walked up the steep hill into central San Pedro, we heard an almighty rumble from the direction of Antigua.
'That's a volcano somewhere,' said our guide. 'Nothing to worry about. It's outside the lake.'
'Ah, OK,' we said.
'It happens a lot,' he said. 'An eruption somewhere. No big problem, tranquilo, tranquilo.'
And so we plodded on up the hill, getting ready to climb to the top of the rim of a massive volcanic crater, while the spine of Guatemala rumbled in the distance.
The Chicken Bus
The first leg of our journey was by chicken bus. The chicken bus is a Central American staple, and although a lot of travellers use the much more comfortable and more efficient tourist shuttles to get between the main attractions, sometimes you have no choice but to hop on the chicken bus. Depending on who you talk to, they are either called chicken buses because everyone uses them, even the local livestock, or because they cram passengers in like chickens in a factory; both versions are accurate. The buses are mostly old American school buses, painted in garish colours and rebuilt to last forever; quite how much of the original bus remains is up for debate, but as with most developing nations the world over, nothing ever gets thrown away, and the chicken bus is a perfect example. Hailing from an era when being environmentally friendly simply meant smiling at everyone around you, the chicken bus is a reminder of how the other half live, and travel.
The seats on a chicken bus are probably the right size for the local Mayans, but for westerners they're a tight squeeze; you have to jam your knees into the back of the seat in front if you're going to have a chance of fitting, and both Peta and I are pretty small, so goodness only knows how six-footers cope. Originally the seat rows were designed for, ooh, two adults or three kids, but when the bus fills up, as it inevitably does, you can squeeze a good three or four people onto one row, particularly when the central aisle gets rammed and physically pushes each row into a smaller space.
We joined the bus as it started off, so there were only a handful of people on it, but within 20 minutes it was astonishingly full. According to our guide, it was fuller than normal because everyone was heading off to the market in Xela to do their Christmas shopping, and this meant that Peta and I shared our row with another woman and a little girl, who were being crushed into us by a man with a large backpack and an older man who seemed intent on squeezing his body into every single gap that appeared, no matter how small. I had the window seat, which I'd thought would be fun, but as the bus started on the switchbacks heading up to Santa Clara La Laguna, I realised I was on the outside of the bends, so every single turn of the road meant Peta and I had to put up with the combined weight of our row of four, the two men wedged into the aisle, and the other row of four on the other side. Thankfully it was still dark so I couldn't actually see over the edge of the road, but as brick dust from the road blew clouds through the holes in the bus's chassis, I could just about make out the lights down below... a long way below.
I managed to stave off the claustrophobia for most of the journey, but when we lurched to one side in a particularly violent turn, crushing the wind out of Peta and squeezing my entire body so that I could no longer move my limbs, I lost it and the panic swirled in. I tried calm breathing and thinking happy thoughts, but it was only because I was completely jammed into my seat that I didn't leap up and rush for the exit. The last 15 minutes were utter hell, as Peta and I both tried to push back the weight of the bus while trying to smile at the locals who seemed fairly used to the whole thing.
Finally we arrived at the bend in the road where the path to the top of the Indian's Nose starts, and our guide stood up, looked back at us and nodded. Then all hell broke loose, as the old man realised that we were getting off and decided that he was going to have our seats, come hell or high water. Unfortunately there was a woman with a couple of children across the aisle who had exactly the same idea, so as we forced ourselves to stand up in the crush, thereby giving a little ground at our end of the seat, the man and the women both jammed into the end of the seat, plugging up the way out and creating total gridlock. Neither of them was giving an inch, and while I lost the plot and started screaming, 'I need to get out of here now!' and Peta said to the old man and the woman, 'I can't move, you've got to move back!', the old man and the woman decided to start yelling at each other while the poor woman and child in our row cowered under the crushing force of six people jammed into a row of seats designed for two.
Luckily the couple from Texas were on the row in front of us, so as they slid out, I took my chance and dived headfirst over the back of the seats in front, landing face first in the row in front while other locals slid towards me, keen to fill up the gaps. I think I screamed at them until they backed off – it's all a little hazy at this point, to be honest – and luckily they pulled away to let me through, giving Peta the chance to do her own salmon leap out of the increasingly dangerous mush of old man, woman and child that had once been our row. I swear as we stumbled out of the bus and into the dirt road, the bus gave a popping sound before rattling off into the dust clouds of the moonlit switchbacks.
Up the Nose
The walk up to the top of the high Indian's Nose is fairly steep, but it's not too difficult. Peta did really well, considering that she's just come out of a batch of bronchitis, has asthma, gets triggered by cold, damp air (like the cold, damp air of the Guatemalan mountains), is afraid of heights, and (I have permission to say) is no longer a spring chicken. She stoically soldiered on to the top, stopping only for a few rests, and it wasn't long before we'd passed the first lookout post, and had scaled to the very top of the mountain.
At about 2230m above sea level and some 620m above San Pedro, the views over the lake are absolutely breathtaking (to put this in context, the Nose is about the same height above the lake surface as the top of the world's second-tallest building, the Shanghai Tower, is above Shanghai). It's dark when you arrive, but the moon lights up the lake and you can see the lights of all the settlements around the shoreline, and the stars are exceptionally clear. As the glow from the approaching sun slowly brightens, you can start to see east along the line of volcanoes that runs from Lago de Atitlán towards El Salvador. There are the peaks around the lake (San Pedro, Atitlán and Tolimán) and just past them are the peaks around Antigua (Actenango, Fuego and Agua), followed by Pacaya in the far distance. I was delighted to finally be able to see all the Antiguan peaks; I'd spotted Agua and Actenango from the lake the day before when the winds had died down and the skies cleared, but you can't see Fuego from San Pedro, as it's hidden behind Atitlán.
Most amazingly, Fuego decided to put on a bit of a show for us, and every 15 minutes or so it sent out a cloud of ash that spurted from the side of the summit and formed eerie smoke rings in the dawn sky. The sunlight spread slowly up the sky, forming haloes around the triangular peaks and lighting up the night sky behind us, turning the deep blue into turquoise and tangerine before finally bursting through into the most glorious sunrise. Almost instantly the cool humid air started to warm up, and our guide pulled out a flask of coffee and we celebrated the new day in style.
I don't think we quite managed to celebrate it in as much style as our walking companions, who had climbed to the top of the rickety wooden structure on top of the Nose, which Peta had sensibly declined to scale. Up on top they fished out some kind of screw-top container and took a couple of big sniffs, offering one to the guide as the rasta nattered away with him in Spanish. A few more sniffs later, and suddenly it was all giggles and guffaws as the rays of sunlight flooded the landscape below. I'm not sure what was they were sniffing, but they certainly seemed more than a small wooden staircase higher than us.
This was a bit of a shame, as the two-hour walk back down to the hill was spectacular, and it would have been more enjoyable if the rest of the crew hadn't been mashed and collapsing in giggling fits. Drugs are pretty common on the travelling circuit, so it's not exactly a surprise when people you meet turn out to be a little bit augmented, but when you're not on them and they are, it can't help putting up a bit of a barrier. So although we smiled at each other lots and we nodded sagely so they would know everything was fine, we weren't in the same head space, and that was a bit of a drag; we would much rather have had someone to share the walk with, rather than leaving them to have their own trip.
No matter, though, because the views soon took over from any social unease. The route back down from the Nose follows the outside of the crater rim through fields of dried-up corn, before eventually reaching the rim itself to more spectacular views across to the volcanoes. It then dips down into the forested slopes, following a thin path that's at times only a foot wide, with vertical drops down one side and slippery soil underfoot. I'm a bit of a mountain goat so I was in my element, but Peta was having to dig deep and not look down, though she coped admirably while the rasta and his girlfriend hooted and hollered their way down the slopes, stopping every now and then for more sniffs and seemingly unhampered by whatever it was that was floating their boat.
We dropped down through coffee plantations and past farmers hacking at the dry undergrowth with machetes, and every now and then the forest canopy would clear to perfectly picturesque views of the lake. It was a long two hours that was hard on the knees, but eventually we dropped down into the village of San Juan La Laguna, from where it was a quick tuk-tuk ride back to base.
Not surprisingly, at 43 I'm not as physically strong as I used to be, and as we soaked our bones in the Mikaso's verandah hot tub, with the Indian's Nose looking down on us from the distant rim, I figured that perhaps I'd leave the four-hour ascent up San Pedro for another lifetime. I might not have been on the same level as our rasta companion and his girlfriend, but one trip up the Nose was plenty high enough for me. Goodness only knows how lousy they felt afterwards...