Climbing Volcan Pacaya (Guatemala) 8

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I got into Antigua, Guatemala about dinner time the night before, had a little chow and a beer or two, and hit the sack in my first dorm room hostel of the trip. At about $7 dollars U.S. for the night, I figured it was time for me to get into the occasional hostel routine.

Five beds in my room, but the hostel wasn’t one of those ones where people stumbled into their beds at all hours of the night. I went to bed at about 10 or so and the last person in the room came in about 30 minutes later. While that wasn’t a problem, my bed was right up against the wall right on the street, so every sound, honk, and voice from the street was right next to me. And on top of that, it was a Saturday night and the band playing in the bar immediately next door to the hostel was prone to playing truly poor covers of Pink Floyd songs. “Another Brick in the Wall” really shouldn’t be played with in a hard rock style, with a Spanish accent.

In any case, over the breakfast the next morning, I had chance to sit and talk with two very cool people from Oxford, England. Michael was taking an extended trip through the U.S., Mexico and Guatemala. He’s been on the road for a few months now and was heading back to Xela (pronounced shell-a) later that day with his friend, Stella, to take three months of Spanish lessons. Stella had recently joined him in Central America and was going to head over to Xela with him to take a week or two of Spanish, before she had to head back. They told me that I really needed to take the afternoon hike up the Volcan Pacaya, which gets to the summit around sunset. They said the hike was moderate, but the views were great and you had a chance to get right up to the lava. I took a look at their pictures and decided to go that afternoon.

I booked the trip at my hostel, got into a van with nine others at about two in the afternoon, and our driver took us on the hour-long ride up to the volcano. The hike doesn’t go all the way to the top, but to the portion of the volcano that still has a lava flow coming out of it. I think the volcano is about 2,500 meters tall, and from the signs posted (with my not excellent Spanish), it looked like our hike was from about 1,800 to 2,300 meters or so. That didn’t seem too hard.

Our guide for the afternoon was a 73 year old local who could have sprinted up the trail. I realize I’m not in great shape, but seriously – having a 73 year old guy run circles around you really can set your ego back a bit.

guide at volcan pacaya guatemala
From Volcan Pacaya

When you got there, you were surrounded by small children selling you a walking stick for 5 quetzals, which was about 60 cents. I bought one of those and also a bottle of water, got my camera situated in my fanny pack (or as my new English friends called it, booty bag – I do like that more), and proceeded to follow our guide up the trail.

I never saw him take one deep breath in the entire five hours we spent on the volcano.

I took my first after about 3 minutes of the hike.

The hike up took about an hour and forty-five minutes. The first ¾’s or so was through the forested part of the mountain. The trail was moderately steep – probably about a 25-30 degree incline. The path wasn’t the best and there was a lot of horse shit all over the place, because you could rent a horse to ride up the trail for 75 quetzals.

After little more than an hour you reach what you think, or hope, is the summit. There is a concrete building up there. Anyone on a horse has to dismount. It looks like the summit is just over the crest in front of you. At this point, I was dead-ass tired. Our guide stopped us and we took some pictures of Volcan Agua, which overlooks Antigua, off in this distance.

michael hodson volcan pacaya guatemala
From Volcan Pacaya

Our guide then led us around the corner and we got our first glimpse of our final destination. It not only looked a pretty far way off, but it looked really, really steep (notice the people climbing up on the path to the right).

michael hodson volcan pacaya guatemala near summit
From Volcan Pacaya

As a sidelight, to cheer us up I think, our guide walked us out a different path over the volcanic gravel than the other guides were on. After we got a few hundred feet above the other groups, we then ran down the hill we were on, kicking up dust and such as we ran/slid down the hill. Being that I don’t speak any Spanish, I didn’t understand his explanation, but from the grin on his face, I took it that it was a fun little diversion to put a smile on our faces. It did – but they didn’t last long. It was time to go up the side of the volcano in the final push.

running down the side of volcan pacaya guatemala
From Volcan Pacaya

The path up was really tough going. You were either walking on volcanic rocks, which was easier going, because they didn’t move as much (but then again, it was easier to lose your balance and take a tumble that you really, really didn’t want to take), or walking on small volcanic gravel. Most of us took the gravel route, which seemed safer, but every time you put your foot into the ground and pushed off from your bottom foot, the gravel would slightly give way. So essentially for every two steps you were taking up, you were making about a step and a half progress. And for anyone that has walked in deep sand, you understand how much it saps your energy – and frankly, I didn’t have a hell of a lot energy left.

Our group eventually made it up to the top and the reward at the top was certainly worth the effort to get there. We made it about 20 minutes before sunset, and although the sunset was obscured by clouds, the lava flow was fascinating. I was the only American in my group, and some Canadians, Israelis, and Swedes were saying that you’d never be allowed to get this close to lava in the States (or be able to climb the side of this volcano with no safety gear) because of liability issues. As a lawyer in the States, I can verify that – but I was glad I got a chance to take these pictures.

In short, for any others out there thinking about taking this climb, some advice:

  • Be in pretty reasonable shape. If you aren’t in moderate shape, don’t worry about looking like a fool – take the horse ride up for the first 3/4s of the trail – the last ¼ is going to be work enough.
  • Go ahead and buy the walking stick. I was pulling myself up the last part with the stick. By the way, you aren’t buying it – those same kids are waiting back at the bottom to beg the stick back from you. Since you’ve no need for it anymore, might as well give it back. It’s a rental.
  • Bring a couple bottles of water.
  • Obviously a camera.
  • Bring some small flashlight for the walk down.
  • It is winter now, but it wasn’t too cold at the top. Bring a light jacket or something for the walk down, but you probably are going to be pretty warm via the work-out anyway.
  • Wear long pants and good hiking shoes. I saw a good number of scraped up legs from the volcanic rock and I can’t imagine doing the climb in sandals, as I saw a few people (idiots) wearing.
  • And I would do the afternoon/sunset climb. They have one that leaves at 6 a.m., but you certainly wouldn’t get anywhere near the top by sunrise, and seeing the lava flow at night for a bit before you walk back down is great.

* O yea — and bring some mashmellows to roast.

Here is my very good friend Ayngelina’s guide to Volcan Pacaya, with her excellent photos also.

From Volcan Pacaya
From Volcan Pacaya
From Volcan Pacaya
From Volcan Pacaya

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About Michael Hodson

I’m an attorney that took off on my birthday in December of 2008 to circumnavigate the globe without ever getting on an airplane. After 16 months, 6 continents and 44 countries, I made it all the way back home. Right now, I am back on the road writing about it all.

8 thoughts on “Climbing Volcan Pacaya (Guatemala)

  • Kyle Unser

    Don’t mean to keep trying to sell you on Panama Mike, but you can climb Volcan Baru and see the Pacific and the Carribean at the same time (on a clear day). Sounds like your trip is off to a pretty good start.

  • Caroline Schupbach

    I would that stick was a good investment for 60 cents…the photos are amazing!Stay safe…

  • SoloTraveler

    Kyle — no need to sell me, I’m excited about Panama. Although I better get in better shape for any more climbs.

  • adam

    I did this same hike last summer! It was absolutely amazing. I was with my Dad at the time and he definitely was glad to have rented the horse ride up.The hike felt like a once-in-a-lifetime type of thing since at the top, you're literally inches from the lavs

  • Ayngelina

    Good lord, I thought I was in decent shape but that volcano nearly killed me. It was an easy climb but I think the altitude got to me as I was gasping for breath the entire time. But it was definitely worth it as the view was spectacular.

  • Laura

    I need to put this one on my list! I hiked an active volcano in Congo back in May but it was foggy so I didn’t get to see much of the lava. Would like to do it again, but haven’t forgotten how tough the hike was and how bitterly cold it was at the top! Maybe when I can forget that, I’ll go again 🙂

  • Juno

    wow, is that real? Awesome. I”ve been to volcano few times but nothing like this. Whoa
    Volcanic rocks are really hard to walk on. I experienced when I climbed up the highest mountain in the country that happens to be a volcano.

  • Trans-Americas Journey

    We just spent some time in Antigua and sadly there is no more flowing lava on Pacaya at the moment. Apparently it stopped a few months back after a relatively large explosion. We were quite disappointed with this news. The best volcano climb at the moment (we didn’t do it) is Acatenango, which is the tallest of the three around Antigua, which makes for a HARD 7,500 foot vertica cllmb, but offers views of nearby smoking Fuego and all the way down to the Pacific on a clear day.

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