Fast Facts About a Pacaya Volcano Hike
Cost to visit: $8 for shuttle to National Park (includes round-trip transportation, guide, and marshmallows), Q50 for park entrance (mandatory fee), Q5 for walking stick rental (optional/negotiable), Q100-200 for horseback ride to the top (optional/negotiable).
Effort level: Moderate – Total distance roundtrip: 5km
Time: Schedule about 6 hours for the entire trip. Open: Daily – 365 days of the year
Height: 2,562.08 meters (8,405.77 feet)
Before visiting Guatemala, the closest I’d been to a volcano was when I visited Leahi Volcano – better known as iconic Diamond Head Volcano, overseeing Waikiki Beach, in Oahu, Hawaii. Because it’s only 760-feet high, it’s mostly impressive because of its beautiful surroundings. I was even more impressed the first time I saw Agua Volcano, as it loomed over Antigua.
Ask a child to draw a volcano, and what will end up on paper is a pretty close approximation to what Agua Volcano (3,760 meters/ 12,335 feet) looks like – an imposing, triangle-shaped mass that dominates the surrounding landscape. Even more impressive is Fuego Volcano, to the east, which tends to put on a fireworks show for visitors occasionally.
Anyone can book a trek up to Agua’s summit – a strenuous 4-6 hour climb not meant for badly out-of-shape hikers, those with bad knees, or the just plain lazy. To see Fuego up close, you have to climb its next-door neighbor – and currently dormant, Acatenango Volcano, an even tougher challenge, requiring a 6-8 hour climb and an overnight stay near the summit.
But don’t despair! If you want to cross off “
CLIMB A VOLCANO” off your bucket list, you can still do that here with minimal strain.
About an hour away from Antigua Guatemala is Pacaya Volcano. The reason why you can’t see Pacaya from Antigua is because Agua Volcano sits directly between you and it – Pacaya can be easily seen from Guatemala City, as it’s only 40 km to the southwest.
While Pacaya Volcano tends to erupt once in a while – in 2010 it blanketed Guatemala City with black ash, like a reverse White Christmas, it’s generally safe to visit.
Arranging a visit to Pacaya borders on the trivial – any travel agency in town can book you a seat on one of the shuttles making the trip to Pacaya Volcano National Park. With promises of getting close to scalding rivers of lava – the travel agency pictures did look amazing, we booked a trip with the cheapest shuttle provider we could find, which ended up being about Q60 per person.
On Our Way
The 12-seat passenger van picked us up near a hotel at about 3:30pm. The van was nearly empty, except for a young couple I later learned were from Australia.
The ride was uneventful, with nothing terribly interesting to see, other than the locals going about their lives in the mostly rural community of San Francisco de Sales, which happens to be located at the foot of Pacaya Volcano. The trip lasted nearly an hour.
As we arrived to the park’s Visitors Center, before we even had a chance to get off the shuttle, we were swarmed by children, each holding long wooden sticks in their hands. At first I didn’t understand why they were so excited about our arrival, but eventually figured out they were “selling” us walking sticks. Well, we’d technically be renting them. Later, we ran into the same children once we descended on the other side of the volcano, where they helpfully offered to dispose of our now-useless walking sticks. At about Q5, I figured they would come in handy, so I “purchased” three.
The park’s Visitors Center is located in a small green building, attended by mostly bored-looking staff. Once we paid our entrance fee (Q50/foreigners, Q20/locals), we were handed off to a chipper guide, who would guide our 45-minute ascent. Our guide led us on the well-marked trail, pointing out facts about the vegetation around us, which I found mildly interesting and forgot all about the minute I climbed off the volcano.
With the young Australian couple literally leaping with every step (I’m sure any resemblance to kangaroos was purely coincidental), I became resigned to the fact I’d be the one to bring up the rear. The fit Australians impatient stares only made me even more embarrassed to be so out of shape. All this happened during the first five minutes of the climb – I was going to be in for a long afternoon.
We stopped quite a few times along the way to admire the view and gaze at Agua Volcano in the distance from various lookout points.
When we arrived at the first clearing, we were joined by two men offering horseback rides to the top. Sensing my distress, my wife suggested I take them up on the offer. At this point, I’d determined I was going to push through even if I had crawl to the top.
In I’m sure is a well-practiced pitch, the man and his horse (Mariposa was her name) followed us nearly to the top, convinced I’d give in once I sensed the onset of a heart attack. The higher we climbed, the lower the price of the ride came down. Though the owner was insistent I take him up on the offer, I didn’t need to be a horse whisperer to know that Mariposa wanted no part of hauling me up.
Eventually, we made it past the treeline and into a stunning landscape reminiscent of Mars – if you’ve seen the movie The Martian (thumbs up, my favorite movie of 2016), you’ll have an idea. Better yet, watch the award-winning Guatemalan movie Ixcanul (see the trailer!), which was actually filmed here. Even if there are no rivers of flowing lava – they cooled off and hardened years ago, the landscape is striking and eerie at the same time.
The guide directed us across the landscape to where a group of tourists were already gathered. Like the children we encountered at the entrance, these tourists all had sticks in their hands, albeit smaller and – curiously – with marshmallows on one end. Turns out it’s a popular pastime to visit Pacaya and roast marshmallows atop one of the many heat vents – the hot fumes produced by the smoldering lava still trapped underneath the hardened rock on top. Oddly enough, I didn’t smell any sulfur, or taste an odd flavor on my roasted marshmallows. The rivers of lava were nowhere to be found – never trust travel agency brochures.
Atop Pacaya, there’s also a small kiosk, “The Lava Store”, selling trinkets and jewelry made from lava rock. Unfortunately, by the time our group made it to the top, the kiosk had closed. If interested in buying lava jewelry, you can find it for sale – at a premium, at Casa de los Gigantes (7a Calle Oriente #18).
After eating enough marshmallows to get a sugar high, we started the descent via the other side of the volcano. This was much faster, but a bit more treacherous due to the loose rocks and sand blanketing the steep path on the way down.
Tired, but satisfied we climbed into the waiting shuttle – not before tipping the guide that accompanied us.
If you’ve never seen a volcano up close, I highly recommend a visit to Pacaya Volcano. It’s accessible, inexpensive, and worth the trip.