What to expect when hiking Volcano Pacaya, in Guatemala
Who knew that hiking an active volcano would be possible?
I can’t really say where my obsession with volcanoes comes from. I grew up in Sardinia, pretty much the only region in Italy that is not subject to earthquakes. We have plenty of gorgeous beaches here in Sardinia, but there’s no volcanoes – though there must have been at some point, proof being the many churches built using volcanic stone. Come to think of it, there’s even a couple of beaches with really dark sand.
However, there’s plenty of volcanoes in Southern Italy. Everyone knows about Vesuvio in Naples, famous for the eruption that made time stop forever in cities like Pompei and Herculaneum. And the news regularly report about the eruption of other volcanoes such as Etna and Stromboli, in Sicily.
I have always marveled at the sight (though only through a tv screen) but never thought of getting close to one. It didn’t even occur to me that it would actually be possible to hike a volcano, let alone get close to the crater. I thought they were off limits, or at least only suitable for real adventure junkies and not for the average girl that enjoys traveling and hiking (though to be fair, I hike way more than the average person!).
To read more about my latest hiking trip, head over to my post “What to expect when hiking Poon Hill, Nepal.”
Guatemala And Its Volcanoes
Then I traveled to Central America, without really knowing what to expect, and realized that volcanoes were everywhere. Guatemala was the first country I visited in my 5 months backpacking trip. I arrived thinking of the Maya and of archeological sites like Tikal and Yaxa. I left completely charmed by its natural beauty – the lush tropical forest, the incredible Lake Atitlan, and more…
A 4:00 am earthquake that woke me up was a polite reminder that Central America is one of the most seismic areas of the world. It was the first (and only) earthquake I have ever experienced (despite being from Italy). But at least I realized that I was in a country with a whopping 29 volcanoes, a good bunch of them active and constantly erupting.
In Antigua Guatemala, I found myself literally surrounded by volcanoes: 4 are incredibly close to the city. Every day I could see Fuego (one of the 4 volcanoes surrounding Antigua) throwing smoke. Other travelers I met kept talking about hiking them. In proper unsuccessful backpacker style, having no idea of my whereabouts, I didn’t even know this would be possible, but I decided to investigate further. A quick visit to a local travel agent, and I was booked to hike Volcano Pacaya, one of the most active ones in Guatemala.
The following is a recollection of what a hike on Volcano Pacaya is like, with a few tips to fully enjoy it.
Hiking Volcano Pacaya, Guatemala
Pacaya is one of the many (active) volcanoes located around Antigua, the former capital of Guatemala, and perhaps the most accessible. The last big eruption of volcano Pacaya was in 2010. Until 2016, it was actually possible to see lava from up close during the hike – different tour companies took different routes. During sunset hikes, as soon as it got a bit dark, the volcano could be seen throwing smoke and lava.
I went on a sunset hike precisely with this in mind – though I surely understood that this may be dangerous. And I must say, it was quite a show.
Nowadays, it is no longer possible to climb towards the crater. Hikes go up till a certain point and then down, following an area where the floor is made of solidified lava. The landscape is incredible: the vegetation is very thick to begin with, almost lush. Going up, the floor becomes sandy and vegetation more sparse, and eventually, closer to the crater, it is completely bare.
At some point, the hike goes next to a bunch of fumaroles. That’s when guides hand over to the group of hikers marshmallows and a stick, so that they can be melted. Sure enough, one thing I would have not expected was that I’d be roasting marshmallows on a volcano, one day! But it was fun, and though I am hardly a marshmallow kind of girl, I enjoyed eating mine.
Needless to say, the view of the volcano hiking up was incredible. On a clear day, when the volcano is not surrounded by clouds, it is possible to see it fuming. Once at the highest point, the view of the surroundings (and of other volcanoes) is simply spectacular, especially at sunset.
The hike isn’t long at all, nor difficult – though I have heard of people who, for whatever reasons, found it incredibly hard. I guess it really depends on one’s level of fitness. All in all, it is better to never underestimate the level of difficulty of a hike.
Volcano Pacaya is at about one hour drive from Antigua, and it is part of a national park, whose entrance fee is about 50 Quetzales (less than $7 USD).
Hiking the volcano is only possible with a guide, which can be hired directly at the visitors’ center at the entrance of the national park. However, if one adds up the costs of transportation from Antigua, the entrance fee to the national park, and that of a guide, joining a guided group hike that departs from Antigua may actually be cheaper.
Tours can be booked online, but watch out because some do include the entrance fee to the park, others don’t. The same goes for the tours advertised by the many tour companies around Antigua: it’s important to get a clear understanding of what to expect, not only in terms of what’s included, but also in terms of how the hike is structured.
Having said so, tours are pretty much all the same: they last anything between 4 to 6 hours, which include the 2 hours driving to Pacaya and back. Horses can be rented at the beginning of the hike for less than $15 USD, but keep in mind that they don’t go on the lava fields.
Some may argue that since it is no longer possible to see the lava explosions, there’s little point in doing a sunset hike (the tour leaves from Antigua at 2:00 pm), and it is better to go early in the morning to avoid the hottest hours of the day. I would disagree with that: even without lava, the sunset views from Pacaya are splendid and truly worth it.
Finally, it is possible to go on two days hiking expeditions of volcano Pacaya, where it is also possible to camp near the top and (after a 4:00 am wake up call) see the sunrise.
Gearing up for the hike
- Wear a good pair of hiking boots, as the floor is quite sandy and slippery.
- Carry a wind jacket: once at the top, it gets incredibly windy and as the sun goes down, the temperatures fall as well.
- If going on a sunset hike, carry a torch or a head lamp because the descent will be almost completely in the dark.
- Pack a small daypack with plenty of water for the duration of the hike.
- Carry small change.
Have you ever hiked a volcano? What are your tips to make the most of it?