As a destination wedding photographer, an adventure/travel photographer, and a travel writer, I am always searching for a few key things: an adventure, things that surprise me, and experiencing everything life has to offer from danger to the deepest expressions of love. So it is no surprise that the most satisfying work I have done in my career has been for Novica, in association with National Geographic, which is a global catalog that represents artisans from the around the world who are practicing what I like to call “Vanishing Arts and Cultural Practices.”
Picture the people who are making these vanishing arts, like the women of the Karen, or “long neck” tribe, on the border of Burma and Thailand who wear the rings on their necks and are known for their very intricate weavings. Think of a 90-year-old man in Bali, Indonesia who is the last of a long line of ancient hand-carved bamboo flute makers. Or think of the Quechua people of Uros, the floating grass islands of Lake Titicaca, Peru who make all kinds of art made from grass and have knitted for centuries. These people have lived off of their craft for generations and passed down their skills to their children and children’s children. Through Novica, I have had the privilege of meeting, photographing, and sometimes living with these amazing people around the world who are living a lifestyle that is almost extinct now.
But now all of this is being threatened by technology and modern-day luxuries. Because of tourism, these people have been exposed to the outside world and many of their children want to leave and find other ways to make money and survive. So when this generation of artisans passes on, so will their craft and all knowledge of it. They will just vanish. So Novica’s mission is to bring awareness and provide a platform for these global artisans that allow them to make money creating their art forms while preserving their culture and way of life. Through doing this they have saved villages, empowered women to have jobs and support their families, educate people about environmental preservation, and spread the word about some of these amazing cultures that are remote and rare.
While I was in Guatemala last week shooting for Novica’s holiday catalog, I wasn’t surprised when Diego, their Guatemalan Regional Manager, came up to me and said that we needed to go photograph Fernando and David, two of their artisans who make jewelry out of petrified lava. When he said, “We need to go to their store tomorrow morning to interview and photograph them,” I had no idea what crazy adventure I was about to embark on or that their “store” was actually a thatched-roof hut high up on the slopes of an active volcano.
I woke up the night before to the sound of what I thought was fireworks echoing through the city of Antigua. When I walked out of my hotel room, I discovered what that noise actually was! The nearby Volcano de Fuego had just started to erupt, spewing huge plumes of lava into the air almost 200 feet high and trickling down the edge of the volcano. Apparently, this display is a nightly occurrence in Antigua, and there are three other volcanoes nearby, one of which, Pacaya, we were going to be hiking up to the top of it at 7am!
I thought Diego was joking when he said you can make s’mores at the top of the volcano because it’s so hot, but as we were driving towards the smoky peak and before I had even had a cup of coffee or moment to process what we were about to do, I challenged him to prove it. So we stopped at a nearby grocery store and bought marshmallows, chocolate, and graham crackers and tucked it in my hiking backpack along with my camera and water. You know, the essentials.
The reason we had to hike so early in the morning is that the rain always comes in the afternoon making the visibility poor, the hiking conditions a bit treacherous, and for those of you who have experienced pouring water on the coals of a sauna, imagine what the rain does to an active volcano! You definitely don’t want to be at the top when it starts to rain.
We jumped into a super old jeep and started to climb up this very steep, rocky road made out of black volcanic ash and rocks, to where you couldn’t drive anymore. Once the road became impassable, we jumped out to continue on foot, but not before parking the jeep to head downhill in the case of an eruption where we would have to run for our lives and have a quick escape!
After about another 30-minute hike, we reached the base of the petrified lava flow, still about a mile from the summit of Pacaya. The surface looked barren like the moon, with no vegetation and just mounds of spongy, breakable, lava rock. As we were carefully walking across the rocks, you could feel super hot vents of air coming up from underneath you. Some were so hot that they would melt your shoes. Here, only 100 meters down underneath you is a huge caldera, or lake, of molten lava. And here at the base of a very active volcano, is where I found Fernando and David’s store, called the Lava Store, where they make jewelry out of petrified lava rock. They have such an amazing story and have had to relocate their store 12 times since opening in 2010 due to the eruptions of Pacaya and lava flow taking out their store! Literally, they are a mobile business and have one of the most dangerous offices in the world!
I toured their store and bought jewelry made out of carved coconut shells inlaid with lava stones and learned the history of this region. There is a great power and energy to this place that the Mayans really believed in and modern-day Guatemalans still believed in. Much of the jewelry was inspired by Mayan symbols and horoscope signs and the lava rock is thought to have healing and protecting properties for whoever wears it. So I thought it was an appropriate time to buy some jewelry for myself to protect me against the extremely dangerous hike I was about to embark on to the top of Pacaya Volcano.
Fernando decided to hike up with us to the top because he needed to bring back a rock from the mouth of the volcano so they could make their next batch of jewelry. And so this is how my Thursday morning began shooting for Novica in Guatemala.
I found out later that this hike was voted one of the top 20 most thrilling hikes in the world by National Geographic and after summiting its peak, there is no doubt why Pacaya is on that list. Towering over the metropolis of Guatemala City at 8,373 ft, Pacaya is extremely active and is constantly spewing sulfur fumes and, at times, lava. Its last intense explosion that covered a village nearby was only in 2014, so tour companies are now not allowed to hike all the way to the crater as we did, but since Fernando and David are literally “residents,” we had special permission to go all the way to the top! Having special permission didn’t make our mission any less dangerous, but it was that much more special when we finally reached the top!
From the lava store we still had another hour to hike straight up through the rainforest, then across the rocky, barren landscape that looked like a black version of Mars, and then finally to the peak which was an intense, steep climb on shifting, slick lava stones straight up until you reached the smoky mouth of the crater. All along the way were signs that said, “Danger, do not go any further” in Spanish, but we continued on. We lucked out incredibly with the weather and it was clear, hot and sunny on the volcano.
What I witnessed was beyond words and so overwhelming, not only because we were out of breath from the ridiculously steep hike and we had the fear of losing our lives in the back of our minds, but because the view at the top was literally breathtaking! I walked right up to the crater’s edge formed from the 2014 blast and saw the new volcano forming inside of the crater. I didn’t expect that at all and the colors were so vibrant! The cone is bright green constantly spewing sulfur and other gasses that are not safe to breathe for too long. Swarming around this huge crater were thousands of colorful insects feeding off the fumes. For this reason and the obvious fear of an imminent eruption, we decided against lingering too long at the top, but it was one of the most epic, beautiful moments of my life. I sat on the edge of the crater and dangled my feet over the lava and fumes and tried to take it all in…mentally. You can actually hear the volcano “breathing” in and out of its funnel, like a sleeping giant. From up there, over a mile up in the clouds, you can see the peaks of all three volcanoes in a row that surround Antigua and you literally feel like you are on top of the world.
I filmed and took epic photos on the edge of the crater, while Fernando scurried around trying to find the perfect lava rock to bring back down. Once we all started getting nervous about being up there too long, we had to do the trek now straight down back to the lava field. I found out from Fernando that people do “Volcano boarding” in Guatemala and surf down the sides of their volcanoes. It is so steep and slippery, we were pretty much doing just that (minus the board) on the way down.
After a couple hours of round trip hiking, Diego reminded me that we had not eaten breakfast and that we needed to get some food…which then reminded me that we had s’mores in my backpack! Fernando and David helped us to “find the ovens,” or the hot volcanic vents coming up from the caldera by walking around on the unsteady lava rocks until you felt the heat under your feet. You literally couldn’t stand in one spot for too long or your shoes would melt and we found sticks on the ground that we used to roast our marshmallows.
Can I just say that volcanoes make the BEST s’mores?! There is something about the way the heat comes up that makes the marshmallows crispy on the outside, but perfectly cooked on the inside…. Or maybe they were the best tasting s’mores I have ever eaten because I was starving and I was still coming down from the adrenaline and elation of conquering and surviving the moody Pacaya Volcano. Either way, we all sat there on the volcano roasting s’mores reminiscing about the amazing experience of being out there and feeling and harnessing the energy of Pacaya, and retrieving the lava rock. We all agreed, “Yep, just a typical Thursday at work.”