For years, Pacaya was the “must do” tour outside Antigua. What could be more interesting than getting up close to molten lava, especially without the rules and restrictions that countries ususally place on otherwise fun adventures. 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 and everyone is kept at a safe distance. In 2014, word on the street is that Pacaya isn’t worth it unless you’ve never seen a volcanic landscape before (and I’ve seen plenty of volcanoes before). There are better volcanoes to climb in Guatemala. I believed this collective advice — truly I did — but I climbed Pacaya anyway. After all, I’m always up for a good 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.
For the frequent volcano visitor, which I seem to have become, 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 eelicious, 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.
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.
If you go…
Every agency in Antigua offers a shuttle to Pacaya Volcano, usually costing 80-100 quetzales for the round-trip, depending on your bargaining skills and whether hotel pickup is included. You’ll need to pay a separate entrance fee to the national park (50Q) once you arrive and you can optionally rent walking sticks or horses there (or along the trail). Don’t bother spending too much time choosing an agency; they’re basically all the same and your guide will be provided by the park anyway.
Some agencies will offer private trips at a much more expensive rate ($50+); in my opinion, they couldn’t possibly offer that much value since everyone takes the same trail and it’s not even a long enough trip to worry about lunch. Save your money and put it toward Acatenango Volcano instead.