I was alone on a volcano: shaking, scared and in complete shock! It actually happened! I was robbed by three men brandishing guns and a machete! It’s not so much that I was robbed, rather where it happened.
I’ve travelled to Central America several times, having been to every country. My most recent journey in 2012 was probably my finest! In a stretch of five weeks, I had extensive dental work in Costa Rica, was spontaneously invited by locals in Nicaragua, participated in a Mayan cacao ceremony in El Salvador, many hitchhiking experiences to go with various colonial cities, four sets of Mayan ruins, and some incredibly seductive Caribbean sunsets. I must confess how much I love Central America!
The day before I flew back to California, I decided to walk up the majestic Volcan Agua: a perfectly-shaped conical volcano that could easily rival Mt. Fuji (which I would climb two years later for my 30th birthday). Looming gracefully over Antigua, the setting looks like something out of a movie taking place in 19th century Mexico. On this particular journey, I felt as if I hadn’t done enough extraordinary things, so I said to myself “this is going to be the feather in the cap on this great journey!” After reading in the Lonely Planet guide that there was a robbery several years ago on Volcan Pacaya, I decided to carry as little as possible: my camera, jacket, pack of gum, and only enough money for snacks and the bus. In town, I even debated whether to burn my pictures to a CD just in case anything happened, but I thought I’d just take out my memory card and put it in my sock (I’ll often do that if I’m in high risk areas). First I had to go to Santa Maria de Jesus: a highland town slightly south of Antigua that’s the jumping off point for hikes on Volcan Agua. I asked some locals in broken Spanish where the trail was, and I kept getting sent different directions. There before me the volcano loomed, and up a dirt road I went. Walking fast I was hot and thankful when the occasional cloud past over the sun. My speed went up when the sun was covered, and closer to the summit I went. It was about 1 p.m. when I started the walk and they say to allow 4-5 hours to reach the summit. If it took the same amount of time to walk back down I wouldn’t get back to Antigua until about 9 p.m. or so. As I walked fast I said to myself “slow down Chris, you’ll make it.” As a journey at its finest, I felt super confident and excited that I’d reach the top and plant that feather in my cap. I’m a true traveller, a nomad, a wanderluster, a free spirit…whatever you want to call me! In about three hours I’d reach the top…or so I thought…
Suddenly two guys ran toward me shouting “ARRIBA, ARRIBA, ARRIBA.” Immediately I knew it was trouble! One pointed a pistol at my head and another to my chest. A third guy jumped out of the bushes with a large machete. They were dressed in black and ninja-like (all I could see was their eyes). Scared and shaking, I immediately pulled out my camera and dropped it on the ground. Reaching into my back pocket I pulled out everything I had: a 10 quetzal (Guatemalan currency) note, a 1 quetzal coin, and half a pack of gum. They shouted at me as they searched my pocket and I said, “Please don’t hurt me.” Suddenly I crouched down and they went into my left foot, and then they ran back into the bushes. The whole ordeal lasted less than 30 seconds, but was long enough to make my life flash before my eyes. My memory card was tucked in my right sock and was safe, but my camera and the 10 quetzal note were gone!
Crouching down I saw my water bottle, gum, and a few coins strewn about. I quickly gathered them and ran in tears as fast as I could down the mountain. Upset, angry, confused, and hurt, I thought “Why me? And why on a volcano?” In more than 10 years of travel it’s without question my scariest travel experience! It was so hard to believe that this could actually happen on a volcano. Of all the times I’ve hitchhiked, the hundreds of times I’ve stayed with locals and the dozens of times I’ve been in situations where I could have been mugged or robbed, it happened on a volcano! A couple of nights earlier I was stranded in Guatemala City (reputed to be one of the most dangerous places in all of Central America) past midnight and really had no choice but to hitchhike out. Why wasn’t I robbed there? Thanking my lucky stars I made my way down the mountain. Even if they had shot me in the arm or leg I would have to hope and pray that a vehicle, horse, or donkey comes and is able to transport me to a hospital. If these robbers really wanted to kill me they could have put a bullet through my head right there! Frantically thumbing a ride in the back of a truck and shedding a few tears, I still managed to smile, gaze at the volcano, lift my arms, and say, “you know what, I love Guatemala!”
Back in Antigua, the tourist police told me that robberies happen very frequently on some of these volcanoes and that it’s strongly recommended you go with a guide. Even whole groups of tourists with a guide have been robbed by bandits. Last year a guy went up there while wearing his wedding ring and a $2,000 Rolex and he was robbed of those in addition to his camera. When I think about it, I think the robbers got what they expected from me; they’re aware that tourists aren’t going to bring passports, credit cards, and large amounts of cash on a volcano hike, but they’ll more than likely bring a camera. Still, it’s just a camera. My pictures were safe and sound in my sock, so I didn’t lose any. I would have lost some of my best photos (all of my photos from Belize and Guatemala) had they stolen my memory card. When I called my father and told him about the robbery I said, “I’m not going to let this ruin my trip, this has been a fantastic journey and a lot more good than bad has happened.” My host would later state that few things could get me to lose my spirit, and in retrospect I should have hiked to the summit even after having two guns in my face.
If you’re ever robbed, don’t resist! If you’re hiking on Volcan Agua or any of the major volcanoes I best recommend going with a guide. In any event (guide or not) don’t take any jewellery of any kind, and either back up your photos before setting off or hide your memory card in your sock or underwear. A really experienced traveller might even tape it to their body or hide it in a sewn-in part of their jacket or pants.
All in all, I love Guatemala! Great people! Great culture! Great country!
By Christopher Farrell