Hiking Pacaya Volcano is a Must-Do in Antigua Guatemala

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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.

pacaya volcano guatemala trail hike
Starting off on the trail

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.

pacaya volcano hike

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.

becky on pacaya volcano
I made it!

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.

Mine's the blue one on the bottom left.
Mine’s the blue one on the bottom left.

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.

Sunset over Pacaya Volcano
Sunset near Pacaya Volcano

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.

 

 

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Love volcanoes?  Harcore hikers should also consider the much longer trek to Acatenango (also outside of Antigua, Guatemala) or check out my all-time favorite volcanoes in Central America.

Don’t need another volcano hike? No problem — check out my Guatemala travel guide for more tips and things to do.

10 thoughts on “Hiking Pacaya Volcano is a Must-Do in Antigua Guatemala”

  1. It is sad that they have closed off access to the more active parts of the volcano. I would love to get up close access to the actual lava flows; especially at dawn or dusk. While you were there, did you hear of Guatemala considering any additional restrictions to other volcanos?

    1. @Scott, I haven’t heard of other restrictions, but Pacaya is by far the most touristed based on its proximity to Antigua and relatively short climb. I do not personally know of any volcanoes where you can get up close to the lava flows in Central America, but maybe another reader does!

      1. Thanks for the update! I have thought about doing some volcano hopping while in Central America over the next few years; but, from what I’ve read, most places won’t let you get close to the flows. So, I am planning on making a trip to the Big Island of Hawaii next year and finally getting to see the lava flows from the sea.

  2. @Scott, As of March 2014, they were not running the lava flow boat tours in Hawaii (it’s based on where the lava flows are headed). Before you plan a trip specifically to see them, I’d check to see if they’re operating again and make sure you have plenty of other activities planned in case that day is a bust. More info at https://sightdoing.net/volcanoes-national-park-hawaii/

    You might have better luck somewhere in Asia’s ring of fire but I can’t speak firsthand.

  3. Janelle Fernandes

    Thanks for the info. Do you think Toms are ok to do this hike in or do I need something more substantial? Also we only have couple days in Antigua. Do you recommend this or lake atitalan as our 1 and only day trip? I heard there were hot springs near the volcano. Do you know anything about those?
    Thanks much!

    1. @Janelle, I saw others doing the hike in Toms (or similar), but they didn’t look happy. So…I guess it can be done, but I wouldn’t recommend it. I’d suggest something with good traction on the sole and ideally ankle support as well because it’s pretty steep uphill. The hot springs are known as Santa Teresita, which unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to visit. http://www.santateresita.com.gt/

      Atitlan is a looong day trip (3+ hours each way) and I didn’t particularly care for the area, so I’d recommend Pacaya instead.

  4. Pacaya is the first volcano I have ever visited and I went there just last month. I tried my best to do the hike, but like you said, the inclines are steep and my body just couldn’t handle it (also, the high altitude probably had something to do with that!). But I ended up taking a horse and it was such a great experience. I actually feel like I got to enjoy more of the scenery because I didn’t have to focus on hiking. Walking on the hardened lava was super cool and so was roasting marshmallows. It was amazing to me that the rocks could still be so warm even though the last eruption had been two years prior!

  5. I’m going to Guatemala next month and after this post, climbing one of the volcanoes is definitely on my list! I was in Reunion Island last month and did the 2,5 hour hike to the top of Piton de la Fournaise, one of the most active volcanoes in the world. Unfortunately the volcano was peacefully quiet during out trip – no lava and no eruptions, but it was still incredible standing at the top and looking down into the crater! Definitely one of the highlights of my travels ever!

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