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Pacaya: The day I became a volcano climber

Pacaya: The day I became a volcano climber

Last Updated on February 11, 2022

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. Even not-so adventurous visitors can become volcano climbers here thanks to the countless deals pushed by infinite travel agencies. 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.hike PacayaWe arrive 90 minutes later to the village of San Vicente, the start of the volcano trail. Within nanoseconds local children engulf the mini-van, trying their best to sell home-made walking sticks for the climb ahead. I decide to invest the 3Q ($0.38) for the stick, mostly for the way back down in the dark. There are two climb times at Pacaya, leaving either at 8am or 2pm. I chose the afternoon climb to experience sunset on the summit and see the lava glowing in the dark.

At this point, we are still far from the top; Pacaya’s peak still out of sight. We won’t actually be hiking straight up Pacaya, starting first at the base of Chino, one of the three summits that make up the Pacaya volcano complex (they are: Cerro Chino (2260 m), Cerro Chiquito (2460 m) and Cerro Grande (2560 m). The path leads first to Chino’s crater and then transfers over onto the path to Cerro Grande, the highest summit.Pacaya horsesStick 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 can not 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. hike Volcano PacayaThis is the first time that I realize that despite the countless package deals,  this hike involves some serious potential danger. Pacaya has erupted around 20 times since 1565, and has been continuously active since the mid-1960s. A major eruption on 28 May 2010 killed a journalist who, ignoring all warnings, climbed Pacaya to get the first images of the eruption. Even on guided hikes, climbers have been injured by falling ash and hot lava streams. In 2021, the volcano erupted for several weeks, much to the delight of visitors – even pizza was baked on the hot lava – and luckily, nobody died and no houses were destroyed by the seemingly endless lava stream. Continuing our uphill climb, I silently plead with the volcano not to wake up during today’s climb.

hike volcano Pacaya

The path gets steeper and steeper until eventually, clearly unneeded, the horses stay behind. We make our way through a patch of trees which still show signs of the most recent eruption. Plants are partially covered in ash, treetops are burnt, and the normally abundant wildlife – birds, pumas, wild cats, snakes and other animals – have deserted the area, taking with them all signs of life.

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.Active Volcano Steam

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.

Pacaya lavaHeading 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.volcanoes in GuatemalaAs 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.

Hike Volcano Pacaya: Practical Information

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.

 

Cost:
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.

If you want to book your hike before you arrive in Antigua, check out the tours above. Make sure to read some recent reviews before booking your Pacaya hike online – the quality of different tour operators varies drastically.

hike Pacaya

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Brittany Thiessen

Tuesday 20th of December 2016

I just visited Pacaya last month and loved it! I wasn't lucky enough to see any red flowing lava, but just walking on the hardened lava fields and roasting marshmallows over the heat vents in the rocks were pretty cool experiences. Thanks for sharing your story!

Dani

Thursday 22nd of December 2016

I talked to a few people who've done the hike recently and they also mentioned that there's no lava anymore.. What a shame :( Still an amazing feeling to hike a volcano. The feeling and the sound of the lava rocks under my feet - awesome :) Happy Holidays, Brittany :D

Steve C

Friday 7th of September 2012

You guys are the first travelers I've run into, who have climbed Pacaya that I know of. I too climbed Pacaya, but 37 years ago in 1975! I was traveling with my brother and another friend on a 5 month trip through Mexico, Belize and Guatemala, R/T from California. We only found out about it from other travelers while soaking in a warm (hot) water stream in a campground near the volcano. We were partying and got so excited about it that we all jumped out of the water and packed our things around 9:00pm. We drove to the small village nearest the site, It's been so long ago, I thought it was called San Francisco, but who knows. We parked and gave the villagers a few bucks to watch our vehicles. It was about 10:00 pm and one guy in our group kinda knew where we should go as he'd been there before. Well, it was dark and there were about a hundred different trails. He said not to worry as they all lead to the same place. Remember, this is back when you just went, there were no guides or tour companies. We arrived at a ridge that over looked the volcano. We pitched our tents and planned on staying there overnight and making the climb in the morning. Well, we all ended up in one tent and started partying again. After we killed a bottle of Jack Danial's (or whatever we had) we got so excited again that we all decided to make the accent that night. It only took us about an hour or so to make it to the top. Now, as it's been 37 years ago, what we saw was quite different then what it must be today! When we were there, there was only one peak with a crater about 150 feet across and about 10 to 15 feet deep. But, the best part was that there was a fissure on the outside of the crater, about 75 feet down from the rim, with another smaller crater, or pool of lava about 15 feet across. I've been a traveler my whole life and have been around the world, through about 67 countries. But Pacaya is by far the most fantastic thing I've ever witnessed! We,maybe 8 of us, arrived around midnight and all sat on the rim and watched the volcano erupt all night. Every 10 to 15 minutes, from dead silence, the ground would start shaking, and there would be a deep rumble that would get increasingly louder, then all of a sudden: BOOM!!! (like a 500 pound bomb) the lava would shoot out of the small crater below us, up into the air about 50 to 75 feet. We were lucky in that the trajectory was slightly away from where we were sitting. It would only last for a minute or so and then everything would be silent again, just a cool breeze blowing fog up from the jungle below. Like I said, this cycle would happen every 10 to 15 minutes, all night! We couldn't get enough of it! It was like seeing God! The next morning just happened to be Easter. And what a sunrise! It was a 360 degree full rainbow of color from brilliant orange on the horizon to a deep deep blue straight up. With all the toxic chemicals coming out of the ground, it was the best sunrise all of us had ever seen. I tried to keep this to a "short story", but the whole experience is really a novel! Your Pacaya story brought back a very vivid memory that I'll never forget. I've got a lot of travelers' memories, but Pacaya stands above all the rest! Have fun on your travels. Always remember, if you come to a fork in the trail, take it! If our paths ever cross, I'll tell you "the rest of the story".

Dani

Monday 10th of September 2012

Steve, thanks so much for sharing your story! What an adventure! I have to admit that I am slightly jealous that you got to hike up there before there were any tour companies or many tourists. I have to say though that I would probably have been scared sh*tless with all the eruptions! I love that you still have such an intense memory of that experience- you even remember the name of the village (I am pretty sure that you're right and it's called San Francisco) It's definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience and so much better than my guided hike up Pacaya! I wonder how much these countries have changed since you went on your trip 37 years ago - have you been back since to see how different they are? What was your favorite country back then?