In the past few days, quite a few readers have been sending me emails expressing their worries about traveling to Guatemala. The questions usually go like this:
“Hey Rich, I (or ‘my son/daughter’) will be traveling to Guatemala soon. Will they be safe despite the recent eruptions of Volcan de Fuego and/or Pacaya Volcano?”
Wait… Pacaya Volcano too?
Most of you have heard about Volcán de Fuego’s deadly eruption, but Pacaya Volcano, a popular tourist attraction and a volcano 30 miles south of Guatemala City (Antigua is even farther away) has also increased its activity lately. A larger than usual cloud of ash expelled from Pacaya on Wednesday 13, led officials to close La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City for a few hours, just to be on the safe side. Pacaya did spew a bit of lava, but nothing that even remotely threatened nearby communities like the pyroclastic flow from Fuego Volcano.
As it happens with any natural disaster that makes news around the world, it’s natural to be apprehensive about traveling near the affected area. But if your concern is whether you should cancel your trip to Guatemala due to the events that happened with Fuego Volcano earlier in June, here’s my short answer:
No. You should not cancel your trip to Guatemala because of Fuego Volcano’s recent or future eruptions.
If that’s all you needed to know, great! You can stop reading right here.
However, if you’re still side-eyeing your computer/phone as you read this, allow me to give you three reasons you should continue your plans to visit Guatemala, so you can reach your own conclusions.
#3 – The area affected by eruptions is relatively small
Fuego Volcano is close enough to Antigua Guatemala that it’s possible to see eruptions on a clear day, and if it’s spewing lava, enjoy colorful fireworks at night. But if Fuego Volcano has ever threatened Antigua with any of its eruptions, I’ve yet to read about it during my research of the city’s history.
For your reference, here’s a map I shared earlier of where Fuego’s eruption took place:
#2 – Popular tourist destinations were never in danger
I realize that readers that are not familiar with Guatemala may have a little trouble placing the eruption in a geographical context, especially if traveling to other destinations in Guatemala, such as the Tikal pyramids, near Flores, or to the Lake Atitlan area and beyond.
Here’s how the area affected by the eruption looks when compared to a broader view of the country:
In popular tourist destinations, such as Lake Atitlan and Xela, ashes from Fuego never reached them, as the wind pushed ash clouds south and east of Fuego Volcano. Flores and the Mayan Tikal pyramids are just too far away due north.
The only road affected by the eruption was RN-14, a two-lane road that connected Antigua Guatemala to Escuintla and the Pacific Coast. This two-lane road can be easily bypassed with a somewhat lengthy detour via Villa Nueva.
#1 – If you cancel your trip, you’ll be hurting working Guatemalans
Your priority is your well-being and that of your family, which I’m totally on board with. But unless your travel plans included visiting the towns directly affected by the eruption, Fuego Volcano will not change your travel plans one bit.
If I’ve convinced you that you’ll be fine and you’re still on the fence, just know that Guatemala depends heavily on tourism to sustain its economy.
Most Guatemalans affected directly by the tragedy will receive ample support from relief organizations. But when tourists stop coming, it also hurts a lot more working people in the hospitality and food industries, shops, street vendors, handicrafts vendors, and generally anyone that benefits from having more visitors like you around.
The people of Guatemala are still waiting for you
I’ve heard directly from business owners in Antigua that they’ve experienced 25% drops in income last week – not great, especially since May is the start of the rainy season and tourism dips enough at this time as it is.
Spanish schools in Antigua have reported cancellations from student groups heading to Guatemala. Even far-off hotels in Petén, where the Mayan pyramids are located, have also reported cancellations.
I’m 99.9% confident that these cancellations were totally unnecessary based on the facts we have right now, and the projections for future volcanic activity.
If you still don’t believe me that everything is fine in Antigua, here’s a picture I took yesterday while walking about.
Sunday morning, on June 4, Fuego Volcano began rumbling like thunder and erupting with great columns of ash, both seen and heard from miles away. This was not unusual, as Fuego is an active volcano – eruptions like the one on Sunday morning seemed a bit stronger than most, but nothing particularly worrisome.
But on that Sunday, this would be a tragic assumption for many residents who didn’t think anything was out of the ordinary until it was too late.
Ash falls on Antigua Guatemala
Fuego Volcano is just 10 miles from Antigua Guatemala. It’s eruptions and spectacular lava flows are rarely a threat to its residents.
Occasionally, ash clouds from Fuego’s most violent eruptions will reach Antigua Guatemala if the wind happens to blow just right. When strong eruptions occur, the ash will blanket courtyards, sidewalks, and cars in coats of fine powdery, silver-colored “snow.” But unlike previous dustings of ash, Sunday’s event seemed much stronger than previous occurrences and the ash much bigger in diameter.
To the poor residents living in the towns at the foot of these volcanoes, massive eruptions will trigger evacuation orders if the falling ash poses a health hazard. Orders like these are routinely ignored since local residents don’t have a place to stay nor money for public transportation – to leave their homes is a huge inconvenience to them.
Unfortunately, this was no ordinary eruption – it was Fuego Volcano’s most violent eruption in 44 years, and it would catch residents and CONRED, Guatemala’s crisis management department, off-guard.
Fuego’s eruption as seen from space
Many would be presumed dead hours after the initial eruption, when rather than fleeing for their lives, they obliviously kept on filming the fast approaching pyroclastic flow – some amused, not realizing they were staring at death coming for them.
As the pyroclastic flow descended, the magnitude of the flow was still unknown to CONRED. The organization had sent personnel earlier that day to issue evacuation orders to the small village of El Rodeo and San Miguel Los Lotes, the towns most aligned with the direct path of the flow.
One CONRED representative and two firefighters were in town making the rounds and loudly urging people to leave their homes – most residents were refusing to leave, when an avalanche of ash and rocks hotter than 500 degrees, along with toxic fumes, caught them all by surprise.
Only when the ash began to settle just a few hours later, was the true extent of the devastation revealed.
San Miguel Los Lotes covered in ash from Fuego’s eruption. Source: Unknown
The main highway was left impassable. Source: Unknown
The CONRED representative and the volunteer firefighters were confirmed dead on Monday.
As soon as the flow stopped, search and rescue teams, local firefighters, and medical personnel jumped into action.
Stunned survivor burned and covered in ash. Source: Unknown
Many of these volunteer teams worked relentlessly, often without the benefit of protective respiratory gear, or proper protective footwear. As rescuers raced to enter buried communities, many would soon discover that the soles on their boots were melting from the still-intense heat of the rocks that had just descended from Fuego Volcano.
Boots with melted rubber soles. Source: Unknown.
Many rescuers have received severe burns on their feet. They searched for survivors until the could not walk anymore.
*Warning: Graphic image of burns below*
Rescuers feet burned due to inadequate footwear.
Contrast this to a photo op by a government official (congressman) who had to be “rescued” by eight people because his feet were “burned” while visiting the site.
I wonder why people are upset with him… Source: Estuardo Paredes/Prensa Libre
Fortunately, private businesses (not the government) has provided sturdier footwear to rescuers.
New shoes. Source: Unknown
As of right now, the rescuers are in need of shovels, hammers, and other tools needed to rescue any possible survivors – they’re still out there. On Sunday, this baby was pulled out from a house, unharmed.
Baby rescued from eruption rubble. Source: Unknown
More info on what happened to the baby in the Updates section below.
Pyroclastic flow vs. lava flow
There are a lot of pictures circulating online that are tagged as coming from Guatemala, but they’re patently false – most are from Hawaii’s recent eruption. Both are fundamentally different events.
Instead of Hawaii’s slow-moving lava, Fuego’s eruption is cataloged as a pyroclastic flow. The flow that destroyed entire villages and buried beautifully posh La Reunion Golf Resort was a mix of ash, pumice, lava blocks, and volcanic gas. This mix travels considerably faster than lava flows, up to 430 miles per hour, and at temperatures up to 1,000 degrees.
Survivors, especially children, have a difficult life ahead. Many children have been left orphaned and many more have been found dead, still huddled up in their rooms – they were overcome with the toxic fumes and burnt by the hot rocks and ash that tore through the sheet metal shacks they called home.
I tagged along with a group to visit Alotenango on Monday to help a tiny bit with the supplies we had on hand and meet survivors. There were a public service and funeral for the first seven victims recovered – there are 69 confirmed deaths already. As soon as this funeral was over, more caskets filled the stage with new victims.
A public funeral in Alotenango for victims
This large hall is usually the stage for Patron Saint festivities, Christmas parties, school and civil acts, but rarely used for something as grim as this. The smell of embalming fluid used on the bodies laid on caskets on the stage you see here was noticeable.
At the precise moment I took this pic, Guatemala’s President was doing a nationally televised conference from the second floor, which is located almost right above the caskets.
The President speaks to the press at Alotenango
He had come under fire earlier Monday for his remarks lamenting that the state did not have funds to help survivors and would have to scrounge them up from somewhere.
In January of this year, however, a newspaper reported about his extravagant lifestyle, which included spending $3,000 dollars on a single pair of designer glasses. This is a country where many public school students don’t even have desks or chairs to sit on and receive classes while sitting on the floor, or buy their own desks if they can afford them. Just the price tag of his sunglasses alone would’ve paid for over 150 desks. To no one’s surprise, his comments have upset a lot of citizens.
Guatemalans already know that they can’t depend on their government officials for help during a crisis. It was quite a sight to see an endless parade of vehicles full of citizens, foreigners, and organizations, mobilizing to bring much-needed medicine, clothes, and food to the close to 700 survivors, 20 to 30 to a room, temporarily living in a shelter right across the street from where this funeral took place.
Shelter in Alotenango – access is restricted
The people working there to sort and distribute everything is largely made up of local residents, as are the Search and Rescue teams, many who have worked up to 16 hours straight since the eruption started. Some government higher up will take the credit – they always do, but there are a lot of unsung heroes doing for others and giving more than they would ever give for themselves.
How to help
If you’re thinking of sending any goods here, don’t. Far too costly and most likely cheaper if the needed items are bought here.
There’s a rash of well-intentioned, but misguided people setting up GoFundMe pages and soliciting donations via PayPal. Unfortunately, among the good people, there will be scammers as well. My advice is to only donate to people that you truly and personally know will use your money to help the victims.
So far, all I’ve seen are people rushing into supermarkets and pharmacies and buying a bunch of canned goods and medical supplies that may or may not be actually consumed by the people that need them. Their intentions are good, but if they’re not going to the right people then it will be truly a waste.
Sidestep all of this by donating directly to organizations with good track records, local contacts, and channels in place to help not only the people at the shelters but the people badly burned that are clinging to life in undermanned, underfunded local hospitals.
Sadly, a week from now donations will stop and most people will move on. However, survivors can’t remain in shelters forever. I recommend helping organizations that are already here and will be committed to helping in the medium and long-term. Some of these organizations are:
As a precaution, I also recommend staying away from non-profits that are totally unrelated to disaster relief and are using this occasion to raise funds for their own causes. Again, their intentions might be good, but it’s doubtful that they’re committed to helping survivors long-term if disaster relief isn’t their primary or even secondary core mission.
Same applies for every religious organization, selfie-taking volunteer, and missionaries living in gated communities that are asking money to go buy supplies – if it wasn’t their core mission to help disaster relief efforts before, then I caution you to do your due diligence before sending them any money.
My wife went to visit the shelter today along with the team from Campos de Sueños and spent some time with the children there. They brought toys yesterday and today had fun activities to keep the children entertained, which judging by their smiles the children really appreciated it. Some of the children couldn’t hide the sadness on their face once the team finished spending time with them and headed out.
Survivors at Alotenango’s shelter.
Children being led in prayer.
Books and toys donated by Campos de Sueños staff.
On another front, my wife spoke with one of the local coordinators. They had self-organized and spent hours sorting and distributing goods to those who needed it, keeping track of everything.
Today, however, government officials arrived and quickly set up shop, telling the volunteers that they were now in charge and things were to be done their way. They also barred local volunteers from talking to the media. The top government official on the scene directed that all interviews were to go through him. Which of course he began with the statements “We have set up…” and “We have done…”.
Understandably, these actions have local volunteers fuming, who feel that officials are coming in late now that they’ve done the hard work of setting everything up to take all the credit and cherrypick what is given out and set aside what they’ll keep for themselves.
There are already reports that new clothes are being set aside for unknown purposes, while survivors receive all the older clothes. Same goes for medicine, as older, expired medicine is given out first.
As it stands right now, donating food and clothes is becoming really unnecessary, as the warehouses are full of them and survivors are unlikely to see much of it if past actions by government officials are any indication. It’s recommended to check in with shelters first to establish what is truly needed and donate that instead and to donate money to medium and long-term causes that will directly benefit survivors.
Update #2: Tuesday, June 5, 2018
It has been reported that there were more eruptions from Fuego Volcano today, which caused rescue teams to leave the area – further evacuation orders have been issued.
There was a strong thunderstorm accompanied by heavy rains in the afternoon, which while good for getting rid of some ash and dust, temporarily halted search efforts.
Update #3: Wednesday, June 6, 2018
Fuego Volcano appears to show normal activity at this moment, though those in surrounding areas further south are still in a red-alert emergency state.
There were rumors on Tuesday that another pyroclastic flow greater than Sunday’s was headed towards the main highway to the coast, CA-9, located a few kilometers further down from the reach of the initial flow. This sent residents and refugees into a panic. Fortunately, those rumors were false.
Volcanic activity as of Wednesday morning.
The baby rescued in the video above, as well as a second baby, found later in the area, were placed in foster homes in Guatemala City. As of today, the alleged father and grandmother of the little girl in the video have shown up to claim her, but the baby won’t be released to relatives until a DNA test conclusively proves they’re related. The local paper reports that a vast number of calls have been received from families looking to adopt her.
Update #4: El Rodeo – The town and its children before the eruption
Almost two years to the date, on June 26, 2016, my wife and I visited Aldea El Rodeo to deliver bookbags for children in the community. These bookbags had been donated by a local church in Florida and my mother had sent them to be distributed.
As you can see in the photo below, El Rodeo is very close to Fuego Volcano. I took a pic of this eruption, which appeared impressive to me, though residents barely batted an eye. These types of displays from Fuego are commonplace, which likely contributed to the complacency and reluctance of residents to leave.
Fuego volcano erupting in 2016 as seen from the entrance to El Rodeo
To reach El Rodeo via public transportation, it’s necessary to take a bus traveling between Antigua Guatemala and Escuintla. These buses leave Antigua Guatemala every hour, so if heading south, away from the volcano, residents would’ve had a long wait, unless they happened to catch a bus heading in the opposite direction, towards Antigua.
El Rodeo before the eruption
Most of the homes we visited that day were located in alleys far from the main road. The overwhelming majority of residents did not possess any mode of personal transportation. Just getting out to the main road would have been a struggle, especially if the dirt paths were still muddy from recent rains.
Dirt paths deep into El Rodeo homes.
House in the path of eruption – you can see ash clouds in the background.
We spoke with many of the children and their families. Many of the teens expressed a desire to one day be able to leave the town and attend the nearest university in Escuintla. They were extremely sweet and friendly with anyone who showed interest in them.
Many of the children said they wanted to be doctors (to help their community), teachers, or architects (to build better homes for their families). As the pictures show below, many lived in shacks constructed over dirt lots.
Of the children I took photos of below, I do not know how many made it out, if at all. I’ll try to find out more information and keep you posted.
I’m glad to report all the children pictured above were able to escape without harm to nearby Escuintla.