What’s the last thing you’d ever expect to find atop of an active volcano? In the top three for me would almost certainly be a jewelry shop. Living in another country, you learn to (please forgive the cliche) “expect the unexpected.” But really? I’m pretty sure I was more prepared for my shower heater to explode (which it did this morning as a matter of fact) than to find a jewelry shop at the top of Pacaya. At 2,250 meters (or 7,832 feet), Pacaya is an active volcano outside of Guatemala City—about an hour’s drive from Antigua, Guatemala, where we live. For the past year, I assumed (rather wrongly) that going to Pacaya was just like climbing any other hill in Guatemala. On a lazy Saturday afternoon, my traveling crew of Emily-Kate, Julia, Chispa (our dog), and I set out in hopes of finding lava (at certain times the volcano spews lava which you can get close enough to see).
While we didn’t find lava, we did find an incredible story. We were led by our very knowledgeable guide, David, up the volcano. We were required by law to hire a guide at the entrance of the park (it’s now an official rule after Pacaya erupted last year, wreaking havoc on the nearby villages and leaving one person dead). The guide that we were set up with, David, is a native of the nearby volcano town and a certified tour guide through Guatemala’s Tourism Institute, INGUAT. He stopped us along the trail to point out different medicinal plants, and also advised us to take a few lava rocks home “because everyone does it.” Julia and I decided against it, but Emily-Kate stuffed her pockets with lava to give out as Christmas presents.
When we reached the top of our climb, the landscape drastically changed. Here’s what we saw:
Our guide began whistling to a shack-like structure in the distance when we came to this moon-like environ. He mentioned there was a jewelry shop ahead, but I was sure it was another one of those common language miscommunications. When we arrived at the shack, I was completely caught off-guard. In the shack was a man, David Flores, who moved to Guatemala from Los Angeles where he worked in the fashion industry. Now, along with his partner Fernando (who was not in the shack that day), he designs and promotes making jewelry out of lava for Guatemalans of few economic resources. The inspiration for this work came after living a not-so-meaningful life in Los Angeles combined with Pacaya’s fatal eruption last May. After experiencing the devastation of the volcano and seeing the surrounding communities displaced and with little work, they came up with a plan. Why not use the very ingredient that created all of this destruction to create something beautiful? Lava is unique, ubiquitous and the jewelry-making provides work for surrounding communities. This is exactly what the team is doing. They formed a company called Pacaya Designs, which was recently picked up by Barney’s New York. Moral of the story: the next time you climb a volcano, be prepared for a socially responsible jewelry shop. And family, if you are reading this blog, you now know the story of your Christmas lava jewelry.
Laura Stephenson is a recent environmental science graduate from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, focusing in environmental and community health. She is currently studying Spanish in Antigua, Guatemala. Laura writes the “After” Life of an Environmental Studies Student series, telling stories of the activities and endeavors of environmental science and studies students after graduation.