Chico invited me to climb Cerro de Oro with him, Monday, departing at 5 am, before sun-up, the air fresh and cool.... He duly picked me up, a little late, but ready to head off across the lower slopes and up the mountain, Cerro de Oro, a giant lava dome that towers 330 metres above Lake Atitlan. It was dark when we left with daylight peeking over the crater rim to the east. At first by torchlight, we meandered along paths, mostly ancient, through red-beaned coffee groves and dry-stalked corn fields. The coffee groves are shaded by huge, ancient avocado and jocote trees. Chico has his two dogs and a machete. Farmers we pass have just machetes and greet Chico in Kaqchikel, *xseqër k'a!*,then me in Spanish. *"Buenos dias!"* As the sun appears over the horizon behind us, we see Cerro de Oro bathed in orange dawn light up ahead. The mountain is steeped in Mayan mythology; legend involves an elephant, a serpent, and a giant. One legend continues that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry came to Lake Atitlán where he saw Cerro de Oro: the “hill of gold” became the model for “the boa constrictor digesting an elephant” on the first page of The Little Prince. He said when the Spanish first came to Lake Atitlán, they looked for gold hidden by the Maya in the caves and tunnels under the hill where they became lost and never returned. Other legends say the tunnels run all the way to Tolimán volcano, and that the Tz’utujil people hid from the Spaniards in the tunnels. The colossal steeped mound has the look of a crouching beast with a bristling head, lit up now in its fiery morning glow.
And a beast she was to climb. Not that high, but steep, on very dusty narrow trails, with sheer drop-offs down arid, dry-season-denuded slopes. At a cluster of massive boulders which serve as a ceremonial altar, the slope eases, winding like the snake around a wooded glade to the rocky, treed summit. The views are magnificent over Lake Atitlan, from Santiago, to San Pedro, to Panajachel, all the way round to San Antonio. The air is hazy; the sun glistens over the little peninsula of Pachitulul, where we have come from, way down below. The morning sounds of traffic and activity from the strung-out village of Cerro de Oro drift up on the pleasant breeze. At 8 am, the sun is already hot and our time of rest, re-hydration and contemplation is most welcome. Chico tries to assure me that this climb is good for the heart, legs, and soul. To him, the elephant swallowed by a boa constrictor seems sacred and hallowed.
His world stretches before us - Lake Atitlan in all her glory. He says that when he was a youngster, the lake lapped at the feet of the now giant amate tree at Casa Pitaya where we regularly sit on a hillock with the lake some thirty feet below! The fields he farms today were, back then, under water and this whole shoreline is reclaimed. He says the lake level goes up and down in 45-year cycles, suggesting that another rise is due. As we gaze from this eagle's nest some 1100 feet above the lake, anywhere near a thirty foot rise over the breadth of this vast expanse of water seems unthinkable, but the twenty five feet drop in recent years is indicative of the possibility. It would certainly upset more than a few foreigners who have built homes and businesses perched close to the water's edge. The locals know better, of course.
Back home, a refreshing swim in the tranquil waters of the bay washes away the dust of the trail. Later on, Chico cut a fabulous bunch of a dozen ripe bananas and delivered them. A fruit salad of fresh-picked bananas and lemons, with sweet pineapples and mangoes from the market drizzled with local mountain honey was so juicily delicious.