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Here come the catastrophe tourists

A volcano in the Canary Islands has been erupting for nearly three months straight. We went to document the devastation. Hundreds of vacationers beat us to it.

Tourists observe the lava flow from the Cumbre Vieja volcano on Spain's La Palma island.Matjaž Krivic

LA PALMA, Spain —

This is what I can tell you about standing dangerously close to the crater of an erupting volcano: The heat is unbearable, and so is the thought that the wind might change suddenly, steering the colossal river of fire and half-molten rock straight at you. The magma consumes everything in its path. Sizzling and crackling like old joints, it seems almost alive.

On Sept. 19, the Cumbre Vieja volcano erupted, and it hasn’t stopped. The volcanic ridge that spans the southwestern end of La Palma, the outermost of Spain’s Canary Islands, rises in the island’s center, its shape under low cloud cover reminiscent of a silverback gorilla. For three months now, the volcano — which had been dormant since 1971 — has spewed lava, sent magma bombs flying high into the air, and belched poisonous gases.

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A drone captures several active volcano vents in an ash-covered forest. Matjaž Krivic

Several hundred catastrophe tourists gather in front of a sunlit yellow church at the top of the island’s mountain pass. They aim binoculars, cameras, and cellphones at the volcano’s seven craters and vents, which oblige them with deep rumbles and streams of incandescent orange and black slag. The lava flows with astonishing speed — almost 2,000 feet per hour — to the island’s western cliffs, where it crashes into the sea below. Dark, thick, unstoppable, to date it has hardened some 2,500 acres of the Atlantic Ocean into a solid mass.

Cumbre vieja is Spanish for “old peak.” With each of the ancient volcano’s low growls and skyward jets of magma, the crowd jumps, and cheers. Dogs growl, too — it is an unnerving call and response. Masks do double duty here, offering protection not only from the coronavirus but also from the toxic air. Some gawkers wear ski goggles.

“I really wanted to come over and see an active volcano for once in my life,” says Ronald Berger of Kessel, Germany. He and his wife have come for the day, on a speedboat ride from nearby Tenerife. Most air traffic to the island has been halted because of poor visibility in the ash-choked skies.

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“The sea on the way over was rough,” Berger reports. “Half of the passengers were throwing up. Well, now the volcano is throwing up!” Berger grins like a boy at an amusement park. He brandishes his unused barf bag, now filled with black volcanic detritus scavenged from a nearby soccer field.

German tourist Ronald Berger uses his ID card to scrape volcanic ash into a paper bag.Matjaž Krivic

La Palma has never recorded such an extended eruption. Alicia Felpeto, a volcanologist with the Geological and Mining Institute of Spain who is also observing from the church, tells me that we are witnessing a once-in-a-thousand-years event.

“Each day, we learn so much,” Felpeto says. “Each day, the volcano surprises me and shakes some part of my previous understanding.” She explains, “For a volcanologist, this is the chance of a lifetime. Listen, let me be clear: There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that can be predicted about what happens next.”

Welcome to the apocalypse

Photographer Matjaž Krivic and I fly to La Palma from nearby Gran Canaria island. Ours is the first flight to touch down after the thick black ash was cleared from the island’s only runway. We are determined to chronicle the historic eruption. The tourists who had beaten us there were just the first of many surprises.

The land reeks of sulfur. We are climate and conflict reporters, traveling the world documenting climate change, and we cannot fathom the amount of carbon dioxide that is being released into the atmosphere or the resemblance of the destruction to a war zone.

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An abandoned house encircled by lava and volcanic ash on the western slopes of the volcano.Matjaž Krivic

Rumors are spreading. A big enough earthquake could split the island in two, we hear. A tsunami would surely follow, we’re told. Skies and tides across the globe would feel the aftershocks of both.

We understand the rumors: The ground beneath our feet trembles. Earthquakes — some with magnitudes between 5 and 6 — are proof that Cumbre Vieja is not about to simmer down. The quakes, geologists tell us, are an augury of destruction to come. By the first of this month, 2,800 homes had been destroyed and some 7,500 residents evacuated.

Homes lie buried beneath volcanic dust. The ash feels like powder to the touch. Here and there a treetop sticks out above the soot as rushing lava sizzles past. In the devastated village of Las Manchas at the western side of the island, the lava has overrun the cemetery.

Birds flee. Wind pushes the volcanic ash into our eyes, imperceptibly at first. It fills our nostrils and sticks to our palate. The sun shines through the rain. A rainbow, resplendent, arches over the entire western half of the island, shimmering, like an invitation.

It is a treacherous beauty.

Drone footage of a ravaged mountainside captures a single tree withstanding the lava flow.Matjaž Krivic

Our aim is to hike across sharp volcanic rock up to a fresh lava rivulet that has reached the village of Tacanda, in the island’s interior and situated just below the volcano. The Guardia Civil and the fire brigade have evacuated the village. Most of the area is closed down. We jump over fences, walk through the ash, and arrive to find the few stubborn residents who have remained combing through the wreckage of what had been their homes.

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Close to Tacanda, we find some abandoned beehives. Nearby, a local beekeeper has excavated some of his hives from volcanic ash almost 20 feet deep. The bees are alive. They had sealed the entrances with propolis and sustained themselves on it.

Four strapping middle-aged men approach us. We expect to be yelled at for trespassing, but the men are more catastrophe tourists, French sailors, who — while crossing the Atlantic en route to America — detoured to La Palma to get a good look.

Only a thousand feet away, a band of starving horses forage the wasteland for sustenance, their ribs all but jutting through skin. A white stallion tries to swallow dry twigs. A brown mare rolls in the sand — she does not seem right but is heartbreakingly meek and trusting. A couple of apples seem to make them ecstatic.

An abandoned horse searches for food in an evacuated village below the volcano.Matjaž Krivic

The following day, Matjaž and I probe for a safe pathway as high up the rumbling ridge as possible. Struggling to find the safest path, we come across, of all people, an Austrian yogi.

The lithe and strikingly tanned fellow explains that he was once a successful entrepreneur. He packed it all in, he tells us, for a life of yoga retreat in La Palma. That that life is also now gone doesn’t seem to perturb him. He radiates serenity and goodwill and beams at us when we tell him we are trying to reach the main crater. “I’ve just been there!” he says. “Come on, I’ll show you!”

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As we climb, the landscape seems to go back in time. I imagine that this is what the earth looked like not long after its creation. Everything is covered with volcanic ash. Many trees are broken, dead. Some struggle under the weight of the ash, as if driven by an animating force. A lone solar panel is an incongruous sight in the middle of the ash-covered forest.

The heat intensifies with each step. The rumbling we’d heard from a distance is a tectonic howl shifting the ground as we walk. It sounds like a cross between artillery fire and an angry sea thrashing into rocks.

An Austrian expat on La Palma meditates with the raging Cumbre Vieja in the distance.Matjaž Krivic

We climb at a brisk pace for 90 minutes and stand just a half mile from the volcano’s main crater. Everything between us and it blazes orange and red. We know it would be unsafe to take another step in that direction.

It is like staring into a dragon’s maw. A fatal attraction. It starts raining. If the wind changes direction, we are done for.

I turn to descend the way we came and see that the Austrian has assumed an effortless lotus position. He is meditating. I urge him to join us for the hike back down.

“You just go ahead,” he says, his smiling gaze fixed on the crimson horizon. “Don’t worry, you will find your way.”

I ask what he will do. I feel a growing sense of terror.

“Me?” he asks. “I’m going to the lava.”

Around us, the terrain feels touched by both a Creator and a Destroyer. I wonder still which force will prevail.

Boštjan Videmšek is the author of several books and a journalist who has reported from war zones over the last 25 years. Matjaž Krivic is a documentary photographer from Slovenia. For the past two decades, he has traveled the world capturing stories about social and environmental change.