For years, hiking Pacaya Volcano was the #1 tour from Antigua. Nothing’s more fun than getting up close to molten lava, especially without the rules and restrictions that most other countries apply. But in Guatemala, you were free to poke the lava with a stick or count how long it takes for the soles of your shoe to melt.
Unfortunately, it’s no longer possible to get that close to the lava due to an uprise in volcanic activity and everyone is kept at a safe distance. One closed, word on the street was that Pacaya wasn’t worth it unless you’ve never seen a volcanic landscape before (and I’ve seen plenty of volcanoes before). I believed this collective advice — truly I did — but I climbed Pacaya anyway. After all, I’m always up for a good hike.
The Half-Day Pacaya Volcano Hike
Heading about an hour outside of Antigua, my group made it to the trailhead near San Francisco de Sales and set off. All of us, stubborn as can be, decided not to rent walking sticks or pay for the horseback ride. We’d tough it out the old-fashioned way, especially since it didn’t seem nearly as “hellish” as the girls at my homestay had described it.
From there, though, the trail started steeply uphill. I kept chugging along, knowing it was difficult but that it couldn’t be too bad if it was over in 2 miles. Every once in awhile we’d make it to a designated rest stop, each one of them disappointingly uninteresting on a cloudy day. Others in the group fell back, losing steam, sweating, and debating over taking a “taxi” (horse) for the remaining portion of the journey.
Even though tours no longer lead to lava flows, Pacaya is still very active. It’s current active phase began in 1965 and has been near-constant ever since then; it even erupted in March 2014. Luckily, most of the activity is minor gaseous emissions, steam eruptions, or minor flows, not harming those who live nearby. You’ll feel the heat escaping from underground as you walk through the area.
Roasting Marshmallows on Pacaya
For the frequent volcano visitor (that’s me), Pacaya still offers a unique activity. Getting up close to the steam vents, you can attempt to roast a marshmallow without burning yourself in the process.
Look for a long stick and be sure to rotate the marshmallow evenly — if you pick the right vent, it’ll cook quickly! Mine ended up gooey and delicious, just as expected, but I was afraid to cook a second one. I’m not sure it’s too healthy to be breathing and eating all those gaseous fumes, so once was enough for me.
Sunset on Pacaya Volcano
The hike back starts out tough, as you attempt to climb uphill but do more sinking into the ash than making forward progress. We lucked out with a great excuse to stop and rest before completing the downhill hike back to the van.
I won’t lie and say the hike is easy, or that it’s the best in Guatemala, but it’s not a bad way to spend a half day outside if you’re in Antigua anyway. Just be ready to book a $15 massage once you’re back in town…it’s my preferred way to recover.
Pacaya Volcano Tours
Local agencies in Antigua offer a shuttle to Pacaya Volcano, usually for around 100 quetzales.
If you prefer to include a hotel pick-up and drop-off (save that walking energy for the climb itself!), you can book Pacaya tours in advance. I prefer the afternoon trip so you can stay for sunset. Whether shuttle or the basic tour, you’ll also need to budget separately for the park entry fee.
After my trip, I found out about an awesome full-day combination that includes the volcano hike and nearby hot springs. You’ll hike first then relax in the afternoon. As a bonus, it leaves at a more reasonable hour than the town shuttles (7:30am vs 6am), and since you start slightly later, the trail will be less busy.
* * *
Don’t need another volcano hike? No problem — check out my Guatemala travel guide for more tips and things to do.