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Pacaya; the Day I Became a Volcano Climber
For an amazing #active adventure, head to #Guatemala to climb a #volcano or several! #Pacaya is the most climbed active volcano at a feasible 2550. Remember your hiking shoes and go in the afternoon to watch the sunset off the volcano.
It’s not like I woke up one morning with the burning desire to climb one of the world’s most active volcanoes. In a country like Guatemala, however, where over 30 volcanoes all but define the national landscape, opportunities to climb both dormant and active volcanoes are everywhere.
It’s not like I woke up one morning with the burning desire to climb one of the world’s most active volcanoes
Even not-so adventurous visitors can become volcano climbers here thanks to the countless deals pushed by infinite travel agencies.
Even not-so adventurous visitors can become volcano climbers here
This is how I found myself packed into a shuttle with ten fellow climbers, a mix of Canadians, Americans, Dutch and British tourists one recent afternoon, as we set off to hike the famous Pacaya volcano.
Pacaya is the most climbed of Guatemala’s active volcanoes, thanks to a combination of its close proximity to tourist-hub Antigua and the relatively easy 2550m climb. The nearby (inactive) Volcano de Agua and Volcano San Pedro at Lake Atitlan, both popular with climbers, soar 1000 meters higher into the air.
Pacaya Volcano Hike
Pacaya Volcano Climbing
Chocolate Truffles Cooking Class in Guatemala
Stick in hand, I begin the hike near the back of the pack, with six horses trotting directly behind me. Their owners hope to serve as taxis for those who cannot make the climb alone. Since I don’t think of myself as much of a mountain climber, I feel a little pressure with the thundering hooves in my ears. The hike starts off easy enough, though the paved path quickly disappears and pretty soon we find ourselves walking through dark volcanic ash. We push ahead, and soon after we get the first glimpse of Pacaya’s peak spouting steam in the distance.
We emerge now above the tree line and reach the first stop – the rim of the Cerro Chino crater, 300 meters below Pacaya’s peak. We circle the rim and descend onto what is now the side of Pacaya itself, with views of Volcano Agua and Volcano de Fuego and the double summit of Volcano Acatenango. I am happy to be climbing in November, as it is dry season and the sky is clear of clouds so that the entire landscape can be seen far into the distance.
I am happy to be climbing in November, as it is dry season and the sky is clear of clouds so that the entire landscape can be seen far into the distance
Finally on Pacaya, the hike leads directly into the sunset. The winds, which can be quite cold, are not very strong. Rough, sharp volcanic rocks crunch beneath our feet. Quite suddenly, the penetrating smell of sulfur invades my nose, and we reach a field of steaming soil. We have arrived at the summit.
We will not actually climb to the very top, an undertaking far too dangerous considering the volcano’s activity. Instead, as the setting sun dyes the clear sky pink and orange, our guide leads us to a two meter-wide gorge where we see glowing hot lava. He tosses a tree branch into the gap. It sets on fire immediately, before even falling in, from the heat of the lava below. This is a perfect spot to roast marshmallows, but I take a step back from the edge, just in case. As I do, the powerful heat pops the lens cap off my camera. It really is incredibly hot.
the powerful heat pops the lens cap off my camera
Heading to slightly higher and cooler ground, we sit down to take in the breathtaking views of the surrounding volcanoes in the changing light of the descending sun. Something about sitting on top of one myself makes me feel more in awe of the many other volcanoes around me.
Despite the steep uphill walk, the 90-minute hike did not feel strenuous, even for the less active members of the group. The way down, in the dark and on an unlit path, proves more of a challenge. Those with a flashlight are definitely better off, though my trusty walking stick saves me a few times from sliding down in the loose ash.
my trusty walking stick saves me a few times from sliding down in the loose ash
As make our final descent back to the village, the kids swarm us again, and I give back the walking stick, feeling proud of my accomplishment. I watched the sunset at 2500m, next to the boiling hot lava and steaming soil of an active volcano, something I never expected of myself before the trip began.
When to go:
There are two guided climbs per day: one leaving Antigua at 6am, and one leaving at 2pm.
The afternoon tour is usually the better one, as it brings you to the summit at sunset, whereas the morning tour reaches the top around lunch time, when it is mostly covered in clouds.
What to bring:
Wear proper hiking boots, not sandals. For afternoon climbers, bring a flashlight for the descent. Bring a jacket, water, sunglasses and a snack – Marshmallows can be toasted over the lava for some S’mores action.
Guided tours from Antigua are around Q55 ($6.90), plus entrance to the national park Q50 ($6). Tours are available at every travel agency in Antigua but all feed in to only a few actual tours, so shop around for the best price.