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The birthday trip to call ‘crazy’

The author (left) and Amy Cheng roast marshmallows over a lava flow from Pacaya volcano among their birthday adventures in Guatemala. The author (left) and Amy Cheng roast marshmallows over a lava flow from Pacaya volcano among their birthday adventures in Guatemala. (Nicole Wong/Globe Correspondent)
By Nicole C. Wong
Globe Correspondent / August 16, 2009

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PACAYA VOLCANO NATIONAL PARK, Guatemala -- Midway into our hour-and-a-half, shirt-soaking hike up one of this country’s most active volcanoes, my city-girl leg muscles cramped, stalling our attempt to reach the crest flowing with lava and return before sunset. Then a thick fog fell. We could see about 40 feet, which made it crystal clear why this trail is notoriously riddled with thieves. Suddenly, this impromptu adventure didn’t seem like such a good idea. At least our tour guide was carrying a machete.

I gulped a bottle of water and pushed on. As soon as I spotted the glow of molten lava peeping out from the charred slope, my misgivings melted away. Reenergized, I raced to the edge of the lava flow. There were no guardrails preventing you from tumbling in, no park rangers telling you to stand back, not even a sign with the ground rules - precautions that would abound in the States.

So I crept closer. Close enough to feel the heat singe the hairs on the back of my neck. Close enough to roast marshmallows for a satisfying treat of s’mores.

Cooking the puffs of sugary fluff atop Pacaya has become so popular among foreigners that the locals sell big bags of marshmallows alongside brightly colored woven souvenirs at outdoor market stalls in Antigua, the town where Gran Jaguar Tours picked us up for the 31-mile drive to the volcano. Our tour guide, Arturo Rogue, half-joked that the real reason he carries a machete is so he can whittle our wooden walking sticks into marshmallow skewers - which he was kind enough to do.

“This is the most adventurous, dangerous, crazy thing I’ve done in my life,’’ I marveled to the seven others - all 20-something Americans - on my tour. And the thrill cost me only $12.25: $6.75 for the bus tour, $4.90 for the park admission, 30 cents for the marshmallows, and 30 cents for the walking stick. No wonder we found dozens of other tourists crowding around the creeping lava stream, including a guy roasting a pineapple on his stick.

I figured this would be the highlight of my two-week vacation in Guatemala and Belize, even though it was only the fourth day. I was wrong. The Central American countries’ lush assortment of natural playgrounds continuously surprised me with goosebump-raising experiences.

Two of my best girlfriends, Amy Cheng and Gina Kim, traveled with me to celebrate my 30th birthday, a milestone many of my pals eyed with trepidation. I had yearned for a touchstone to mark my progress along the journey of life.

Amy suggested we climb the Mayan ruins - towering more than 210 feet high, the ancient empire’s tallest - in Guatemala’s jungle-shrouded city of Tikal. Then we should snorkel or scuba dive alongside turtles and dolphins in Belize’s 174-mile Caribbean Sea barrier reef, the world’s second-largest reef.

In between, we could wander the hippie and handicraft towns dotting Guatemala’s picturesque Lake Atitlán, soak up Old World colonial charm along the cobblestone streets and Baroque buildings of Antigua, and read books on the beaches of Belize’s Ambergris Caye. It would be easy and economical to hop around these neighboring countries in puddle-jumper planes, buses, and taxis since Guatemala is smaller than Louisiana and Belize is about the size of Massachusetts.

The plan sounded perfect. In reality, it was even better because we not only did it all, but also added more adventures. First came the lava cooking. Then came the close encounters with dangerous sea creatures and the impromptu game of Fear Factor.

A 15-minute boat ride from Ambergris Caye plunked us into the snorkeling and scuba-diving haven of Hol Chan Marine Reserve, thriving with more than 160 species of fish and 40 species of coral. I wavered between exhilaration and nervousness when I unexpectedly found myself gliding next to 4-foot-wide southern sting rays and 6-foot-long nurse sharks.

Even though I live 3,000 miles from my parents, I still heed their decades-old warning to avoid petting strangers’ dogs, no matter how adorable or lonely they look. Nevertheless, at my snorkeling guide’s beckoning, I buried my inhibitions, stuck out my hand, and petted a sting ray. Then I hugged a shark.

“This is the coolest, craziest, most adventurous, dangerous thing I’ve done in my life!’’ I blurted to Amy after we climbed back aboard the boat. “This is going to be the highlight of my vacation, even better than when we

roasted s’mores over lava!’’

Yet that evening, something even better started brewing.

Gina and I decided to spend the next day plunging deep into Belize’s mainland jungle to explore Actun Tunichil Muknal, or ATM, a 3.3-mile-long river cave that the Mayan believed led to the underworld and so used for religious ceremonies between 200 and 900 AD. The perpetual darkness and spookiness beneath the cave’s stalactite ceilings - disturbed only in the past 10 years by tour groups’ helmet headlamps - preserved hundreds of pottery vessels and shards and 15 crystallized human skeletons. Six of the skeletons belonged to infants, the rest to 18- to 40-year-olds.

“This is a place of creation, a place of fright,’’ our government-certified tour guide, Carlos “The Cave Man’’ Panti, said repeatedly. The Mayan believe that the Corn God and the Rain God as well as the spirits of their dead ancestors reside in ATM, so most locals dare not venture inside the cave.

Reaching the relics required wading thigh-high across three streams, swimming through a 20-foot-deep pool at the mouth of the cave, then squeezing through rocky crevices, dodging bats flying overhead, and scaling limestone slopes without shoes. Pushing through this earthen obstacle course unleashed an adrenaline rush. But Panti also boosted the excitement as we hiked toward the cave by feeding us a protein-packed jungle snack.

He flaked off some mud-caked leaves that formed a roadside nest, dug his index finger in, then shoved a tiny, crawling termite in front of Gina’s face. “You have to try it,’’ Carlos said. “It tastes like carrots.’’

“Will they bite me?’’ Gina asked nervously, eyeing the bug that was half the size of an ant.

“No, you bite them before they bite you,’’ he replied. “Everybody will eat it.’’

Gina grimaced. Then she gave into peer pressure.

Panti was right. Each of us ate a live termite, which tasted like shredded carrots. It was actually refreshing. It was the most adventurous, craziest, coolest thing I had done in my life, and it was the highlight of my vacation.

Nicole C. Wong can be reached at nicolediscovers@gmail.com.

If You Go

Coconuts Caribbean Resort Coconut Drive
San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, Belize
501-226-3500
www.coconutsbelize.com
This beachfront hotel offers great views and live music.
Doubles $100-$180.

Hotel Utz Jay Calle 15 de Febrero
Panajachel, Sololá, Guatemala
502-7762-0217
www.hotelutzjay.com
Unwind in the Mayan sauna
$10 for two people for an hour. Doubles about $38.

La Casa De Don David El Remate, Flores, Guatemala
502-7928-8469
www.lacasadedondavid.com
At this lakefront hotel, doubles $38-$63, include one meal per person daily.

Black Cat Inn 6 Avenida Norte, 1A
Antigua, Guatemala
www.blackcatantigua.com
Delicious fare at a great value. Try the egg burrito with homemade salsa and guacamole for $4.25.

Estel’s Dine by the Sea Beach Front, Buccaneer Street
San Pedro
501-226-2019
www.ambergriscaye.com
Try the fry jacks, a Belize breakfast staple ($2.50 for two) topped with blueberries, mangoes, strawberries, or cinnamon apples.

Gran Jaguar Tours 4a Calle Poniente #30,
Antigua
502-5897-4784
www.granjaguartours.com
Hike Pacaya Volcano day or night. $6.75 for the bus ride and tour guide, plus $4.90 per person for the national park admission.

Aqua Dives Belize Beach Front, San Pedro
501-226-3415; 800-641-2994
www.aquadives.com
Scuba dive or snorkel the barrier reef. $25 per person for a half-day snorkel tour of Hol Can Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley.

Inland & Sea Adventures San Pedro
501-226-3088
Spelunk through the ancient Mayan cave Actun Tunichil Muknal with a tour guide for $180 per person, which includes breakfast, lunch, a plane ride from Ambergris Caye to the mainland, and a ferry ride for the return trip.