We were both annoyed when our alarm went off at 4:50 am on our first Saturday in San Pedro. Sleep weighed heavy on our eyes and we wanted nothing more than to roll over and ignore the incessant beeping. Still groggy, I forced myself out of bed and began preparing our packs for the day. We had to hurry if we were to be on time meeting the rest of the group. Once Zach was up, we had a quick breakfast of corn flakes, which Rosario had set out for us the night before, and ran out the door. Pedro and the others were already waiting for us when we arrived.
A few days before, we had agreed to go on a hike with several other students from our school. We hired a guide to take us up the towering Volcan San Pedro, one of three volcanoes that dominate the lake’s landscape. Hiring a guide for hiking is very common in Guatemala and almost always recommended by locals. The trails around Lago Atitlan have become popular with tourists who want to scale the volcanoes or walk from one lakeside village to the next and thus they have also gained a reputation for banditos. We’d heard this problem has improved in recent years but decided as a group to play it safe. Our school put us in contact with a local guide who runs trips up Volcan San Pedro 3-4 times each week. At first glance, I’m betting I wasn’t the only one wondering how this man would protect us in the event of a bandito attack. Pedro was a thin, almost frail looking man that had to be approaching 70.
We were herded into the back of a pick-up for our ride up to the trailhead, our first time using this very typical form of Guatemalan transportation. It was still very dark when we arrived, necessitating the use of our headlamps as we began the 4,000 foot ascent up the mountain. Our group of 10 soon spread into a single file line on the trail, with our machete-wielding guide Pedro bringing up the rear. The trail started off easily enough and I soon found myself settling into that comfortable hiking rhythm. All the sudden I heard clanking metal and an abrupt scream, following by the sound of a body tumbling to the ground.
“Oh sh*t! The worst has happened!” We were all thinking it.
“A bandito attacked our guide Pedro and has taken him down!”
Zach and I, the closest to Pedro, turned around to see that our guide had gone over a small cliff on the edge of the trail and was sliding downhill head first. We looked around but saw no signs of another person or an attack. So what the heck happened? Zach hurried down the cliff to Pedro’s side and helped him sit up. He had fallen head first over the edge and hit his head pretty hard. In the process his flashlight had smashed to the ground, sending batteries flying in all directions, and his machete had scrapped against the rocks and was now lost amongst the leaves. Out of it, he sat for a while rubbing his head as we looked around for all his things.
“Esta bien, Pedro? Esta seguro?” (Are you OK Pedro? Are you sure?)
At this point we were all prepared to turn around and ensure our guide received the necessary medical attention, but he assured us he was OK. We waited a bit and gave him a few more opportunities to reassess, but his conviction remained strong. Before long, it was him urging us to get going, hurrying us up the mountain, a theme that would continue the rest of the day.
The rest of the hike went relatively smoothly, as far as tough hikes go, that is. As we’ve found so often in Latin America, the trail was nearly devoid of switchbacks, ensuring the majority of our steps led straight up the mountain and required every ounce of our energy. Each necessary and welcome break we took on the way up was ended by Pedro’s urging, “Estan listos? (Are you ready?). Even while we hiked he insisted we be faster; “Vamos!” (Let’s go!) was Pedro’s favorite phrase. And though we were tired, each command was always followed by a charming, toothless smile, making it impossible to be annoyed. One thing is for sure – we couldn’t believe we had ever doubted this man’s ability. We reached the top by 9 am, only to find the view completely enshrouded in clouds. I’m not sure one of us cared, however, as we were simply happy to be there.