Volcán Pacaya, Guatemala. Ascension was otherworldly. After muddy trailed through thick vegetation and ducking under wire fence to get there, the path led us to a massive range of perfect black mountain ranges composed of coal and gravel crumbling down, veiled in white by mist, rain and ghostly fog looming over the pass.

I hadn’t eaten lunch. I felt delirious, tired, and the rain was smothering me…my breath shortened at the altitude above the clouds…the fog stormed thick and gray below us, some of the verdant landscape and the lights of Guatemala City far and below reaching into the distance. Terrifying lightning storms cracked next to us like an electrifying natural force, shocks of energy pummeling down. I had never been so near to lightning before. The guide screamed to tuck away my camera, the metal parts would attract the lightning. Last year a Canadian trekker was lethally struck by lightning. But I could barely hear his rapid Spanish fading into the howling wind. And in special scenarios, all ability of Spanish fades and I’m only about to huff out short phrases. Just over the black mountain, you smell the burn. Contrasting with the drab monochrome, magnificent rivers of burning lava were dripping just ahead over the black, releasing pristine white steam. No where else did I ever feel a sensation so unreal.

This being Guatemala, nobody had even mentioned what “Pacaya” was going to be like. No mention of what shoes to wear, what clothing to bring, what to expect, just a sign on a board with a $7 price. Consequently, I thought we were going to the top near a crater in hot temperatures, peer down into the bubbling lava, on a designated trail with a police escort and guide. (That’s what I paid for.) So I wore a lacy blouse, a bonnet hat, comfortable walking shoes, and knee-length capris for the sunny weather. Instead, I was drenching wet and trembling cold, with a plastic sheet over me struggling to keep pace. The guide ended up saying nothing about the volcano, instead, telling sexual jokes about how Latino men were and leaving us far behind.

By the time we got to the lava, the pumice rocks were brittle and cracked as we stood on them but you could see the thermal red glow of magma in between the crevasse. I felt the intense heat on my toes and bare skin as the soles of our shoes melted–(softened and melted! Do you know what kind of heat melts running shoes?! Pain!)—and as the flow trickled down in infrared, the guy kept telling us to get close to it, to poke at it with our sticks.

Some of us–me too–wanted to stay back, others started roasting marshmallows over the lava, but Guatemalans kept insisting we proceed forward. Nobody could remain at a distance. Two very stupid Americans ran and jumped over the molten lava, which plumes of heat singed their hair and eyebrows in the split second they leaped (they do know this is molten rock, right?) Another stepped upon cooled lava, which crushed and crumbled under his weight. I wondered how close the magma was beneath our feet. They told us that one year a girl had tried to jump over the stream and instead barely missed and fell onto the incinerating molten lava, with severe caustic burns all over her body.

While up there, it felt like walking on the surface of Venus… one of the most outstanding experiences in Central America.