After spending a few sedentary days in Antigua, I was ready for a little activity. So, I signed up for the afternoon hike to volcán Pacaya. It’s one of Guatemala’s active volcanoes and last erupted in May of 2010. You can still see it smoldering on the skyline.
I had high hopes for this hike. It would be my first time climbing around on a volcano, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I just kept thinking of that Reading Rainbow episode when Levar Burton climbed around the steaming rocks with red-hot lava flowing in the cracks. I was really excited!
I climbed into a shuttle bus with about eight other people and we bounced our way out of the cobblestone streets of Antigua. It was a beautiful hour and a half ride to get to the base of the volcano. I spent the time chatting with my group and taking in the view.
We arrived at the base, met our guide, purchased some walking sticks from some kids, and hit the trail. Then came my first disappointment. Our guide only spoke Spanish. So, for most of the hike, I had to guess at what he was pointing at and telling us.
Every once in a while someone would ask follow-up questions or discuss what he just said in English, so I got the idea. I even got used to that after a while and began to catch on to more and more of what he said.
No one had prepared me for how difficult this hike would be. It’s quite hard climbing up a steep incline through slippery gravel with short little legs. We were continually losing our footing and catching our balance on whatever we could grab, even each other. About 15 minutes in, my legs were covered in volcanic dust from the shins down.
Our canine companions (who probably make the journey several times a day) were even huffing and puffing. To make matters worse, a happy-go-lucky group of Australians bounced ahead of me, chatting away like it was nothing!
Luckily, I wasn’t the only one struggling. A couple of Israeli guys, a girl from the Netherlands, and I took up the rear for most of the hike. We were continually shouting encouragement to each other, offering our assistance, and frequently stopping for water.
I nearly took up the offer for a horse-back “taxi” ride about half-way up. But, I managed to stick it out.
The thought of the beautiful view of the smoldering volcano, possibly oozing red-hot lava helped sustain me during the hour and a half struggle. Imagine my surprise when I saw this instead:
This is it? This is what I climbed up here for? Visibility at the top was about 10 meters. We were all noticeably disappointed as we snapped photos of white nothingness. Then, our guide said it was time to continue on.
What? It’s not over? The hope of seeing rivulets of lava (or ate least seeing something) re-kindled in us and we all followed him eagerly down a steep slope into the thick mist.
Instead of flowing lava, we got deep cracks in the side of the mountain with hot air gushing out. Okay, that isn’t too bad. It’s something volcano-ish, at least!
We spent some time throwing little pieces of paper into the cracks and watching them burn. We also enjoyed cheering on the Australian guy who took his life into his own hands by jumping over the crack, scorching the hair on his legs.
The sky also cleared up right before sunset so we could get a few photos of us close to Pacaya. Our guide took us into the “sauna” which was a cave that felt like an oven. Then, we turned around and made the long trek back.
Needless to say, I was a little disappointed in my Volcano journey. Our guide didn’t even bring marshmallows to roast over the cracks! I felt a little cheated.
If you plan on hiking to Pacaya, I highly recommend taking the morning tour and BYOM. I saw several people’s photos and the sky is much clearer in the morning. Every evening I was in Antigua, there were clouds and fog around all the volcano peaks, but it was quite clear in the mornings.
I don’t regret going on the hike. I did get up close to my first volcano, got a good work-out, met some fun people, saw some great sights, and it was fairly inexpensive. I’m sure I’ll hike another volcano during my time here in Guatemala. The country has 33 volcanoes that are begging to be explored!