Guatemala warns tourists hypnotized by lava flows

Published June 7, 2010 11:05PM (EDT)

Thousands of tourists are flocking to Guatemala's Pacaya volcano to see the glowing rivers of lava cascading down its slopes, worrying officials who say they're risking their lives two weeks after a deadly eruption.

Pacaya National Park was closed even before the May 27 explosion, which killed a reporter who got too close and was hit by a shower of volcanic rock. But visitors are bypassing the usual route up the mountain and going instead to a private farm in the village of Los Pocitos, where locals will take them to the pyroclastic flows for a $1.25 a head.

"Just this weekend 2,000 people or more came by," said Lourdes Barillas, who oversees the collection of funds -- intended to help rebuild the hundreds of homes destroyed by the eruption.

The lava puts on a particularly incandescent show at night, attracting both foreign and Guatemalan tourists who say they feel safe because hundreds are still living nearby. Some throw sticks or plantain leaves into the lava to watch them catch fire instantly.

"Before, I was worried," Canadian traveler Alexandre Cagne said. "But now I'm calm. It doesn't look like something violent that can explode."

"I'm not scared because we came with a guide who has 18 years of experience," Spanish tourist Ana Villen added.

Emergency officials say the danger is real, and are asking guides not to take people up the mountain.

"This is dangerous," David de Leon, emergency response spokesman, said Monday.

Francisco Valdez, a geophysicist with Guatemala's Institute of Seismology and Volcanos who has studied the volcano, said it is best not to get too close to the lava.

But if Pacaya erupts again it is most likely to do so gradually, he said, adding that a rain of lava and rock is out of character with its usual behavior.

Meanwhile, guides operating out of the nearby colonial city of Antigua, who normally charge $40 a person for package tours to Pacaya, are pressing for the park to reopen as their income suffers.

Even in normal times, travel guidebooks warn of the risks of hiking Pacaya, which has been active since 1966. A month before the most recent eruption, a Venezuelan tourist and her Guatemalan guide were killed by a rock slide.

Residents say the lava flow has been increasing in Los Pocitos, though only two families have evacuated.

On a recent night, tourists visited the red-hot streams while 30 villagers organized a procession. Locals sang hymns and carried an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, praying that the flow will not destroy any more homes.

"The danger is that it reaches the village," resident Amalia Colindres said. "The river keeps getting bigger. ... These lava fields existed before and erupted before, but never like this."


By Juan Carlos Llorca

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