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Pacaya Volcano, Guatemala

The toasted marshmallow disappeared when nobody was looking. But the suspect was obvious enough: he had a marshmallow mustache.

Pacaya marshmallow dogAs the sun set on a lava field below Pacaya Volcano’s summit cone, hikers who had spent the past two hours climbing here gathered to toast the sweet treats on steam vents. A couple of stray dogs that tagged along watched the marshmallows softening and browning on the ends of long branches.

Pacaya Volcano marshmallowspacaya volcano dog Guides offered the sticks to hikers, who gladly plucked off the gooey confections and popped them into their mouths. But one adventurer wasn’t paying attention. Soon, a marshmallow was missing, and one of the dogs was smacking his chops as he chomped the gooey goodness.

There were still enough to go around. We wondered whether the skinny dogs ate anything besides junk food. A little earlier, one had watched us with sad eyes while we ate cookies we had brought from our base in Antigua. I gave him a piece; he ate it and then promptly moved on to other suckers.

Pacaya volcano sunsetThe marshmallow roast was a nice break as we watched the sun set after the sometimes-strenuous hike up the active volcano, which last erupted in 2010. We had walked across an unstable field of a’a lava to get here. The rocks are loose and rough and sharp, easily ankle-busting and shoe-sole shredding without proper balance or caution. One woman in our hiking group was in open-toe sandals. We wondered a) What was she thinking? and b) How did she not end the night without bloody stumps in place of toes?

I can guarantee two things for anyone who wants to go on this hike:

• You will get dirty.

• You will step in horse shit.

Locals at the base of the trail try to hawk horseback rides to the less fit, and then lead the horses up with the groups in case winded hikers change their minds. That, of course, means lots of squishy land mines on the trail, which becomes narrower the higher it goes. The trail itself is dusty with dark gray ash from past eruptions. As we descended into the final lava flow field, I expected to hear the “Peanuts” theme music as we kicked up Pigpen-style clouds of dust around us.

When we returned to our hotel in Antigua well after dark, I refused to even step inside the room with my filthy shoes. Even though they were old, they had been sort of white earlier in the day. Now they were a dingy gray. I took them off, and found that my socks also had turned dark gray. They came off, and my feet were gray and gritty too.

I showered before we headed out for dinner. Rivulets of muddy ash trailed from each foot into the drain.

The shoes ended up in the trash can.

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