Climbing Volcán de Pacaya

I have now added climbing a volcano to my list of achievements. Volcán de Pacaya is an active volcano situated in the Cerro Grande-Pacaya-Cerro Chino volcanic complex about an hour’s drive from Antigua. A group of us took an afternoon hike with Old Town Outfitters, an excellent adventure travel agency based in Antigua. Our tour guide Victorr picked us up by shuttle in the afternoon and we set off along the road south of Antigua. Passing through Ciudad Vieja, we hit a major traffic jam. The town was holding a parade, and in the distance we could see a glorious statue being carried through the streets followed by hoardes of people. When the traffic eventually cleared, we drove along the streets which were decorated for the parade. Here’s a photo I got through the back window of the shuttle bus.

petal streets guatemala antigua ciudad vieja festival travel

It was absolutely beautiful and made me long to visit again at Easter, when they hold their Semana Santa celebrations. The processions and the decorated streets are supposed to be dazzling. Onward we went; the shuttle bus winding through roads that cut through lush coffee plantations, with the looming volcanoes of Agua, Fuego, Acatenango and Pacaya coming ever closer. At one point, Victorr pulled the shuttle over in the midst of sugar cane fields to show us a rock famous in the area for resembling the profile of the woman pictured on the 25 centavos coin.

We finally reached the visitor centre at the base of Pacaya, a little late now because of the procession. There were dozens of local boys waiting to rent out walking sticks and horses to assist with the climb. Victorr had brought enough sticks for the group, so those boys dissipated rather quickly, but the boys with horses followed along behind us as we set out on our hike, with calls of ‘taxi, chica?’ – I am pretty sure they had me pegged as someone who might need a horse, and after the first 200 feet which were insanely steep, I was pretty sure I might need one myself! Victorr, however, assured us all that the first 200 feet were the toughest, and pretty soon the trail evened out into a steep but do-able hike. Along the way, he pointed out areas of interest, like the crater lake and the geothermal power plant that harnesses the energy of the volcano to provide green energy – he also noted that the majority of the energy provided gets sold, with less than 1% of the energy produced being made available to the local area.

You could feel the passion when Victorr spoke about the area, the people and the volcano. He had represented Guatemala in 2007 in the Blue Planet Run – an around-the-world relay race, to raise money for local villages. When he spoke, you could see the love, generosity and compassion in his eyes – our entire group fell instantly in love with this incredible, endearing, beautiful man. We felt lucky to have met him.

Higher and higher we climbed, the rocky pathways filling up with volcanic scree, the volcanic ash thickening in the ever-thinning air. As we got higher, the elevation started to affect us in differing ways – I was scooping in great lungfuls of air, still congested from a nasty flu I’d come down with the week before I travelled to Guatemala; another girl who had been fighting a violent stomach bug had a relapse and had to disappear into the bushes for a while. At that point, she hopped on a horse to continue up the trail. I resisted the temptation, although the going was tough and I gazed longingly at the horses on several occasions, but the sight of Victorr willing us onward kept me going. The views of the neighbouring volcanoes were spectacular.

Further on, the surrounding scenery changed from lush greenery to scorched fields. Victorr reminded us that the volcano had last erupted violently in 2010, so everything on the slopes of the volcano had been wiped out. All the trees we had seen lower down were less than 2 years old, but things grow quickly in the fertile soil of the slopes. Several cows grazing on the upper slopes of the volcano watched bemusedly as we clambered past them. I wonder what they thought of us.

It was about this point that the boys with horses gave up on me needing a horse and turned back, leaving just the one horse which the other girl was using. I figured we must be close to the top. Now it was getting darker, and the pathway was almost entirely volcanic scree, so for every step forward you slipped 2 steps back. We resorted to dropping down low and scrambling up the last incline. Thick fog rolled in as we made our final ascent, which blocked all views, but somehow created an intensely personal, quiet and mystical atmosphere at the top of the volcano.

Enveloped in the fog at the top of Pacaya

We hung out for ages blanketed in the thick fog. Pacaya was sleeping so we didn’t get to see any eruptions but it was an incredible feeling to be standing on the top of a volcano. Now it was time to descend, and the way down was much easier and an awful lot of fun. I ash-skied down the first part, and then it was back onto the more stable pathway. The light was fading quickly and the swirling fog was getting thicker so we all reached for our flashlights to navigate the steep slopes.

Fog closing in and darkness falling

Outline of the trees through the fog

I was up front of the group with Victorr when I took that last photo. I stopped for a moment, turned to Victorr and said “This is truly magical, Victorr”. He turned to me, his eyes full of emotion and his mouth beaming with a broad smile and said quietly “You feel it too? I knew you would. I feel it every day.”

We made it safely to the bottom with no falls or broken bones, and at the visitor centre Victorr proceeded to pull all kinds of provisions out of his backpack and rustle up the most wonderful meal of tortillas, refried beans, fresh veggies and freshly-made guacamole to die for.

He introduced us to the tastiest green hot sauce I’ve ever tried, Maya Ik – which we all promptly bought at La Bodegona supermarket in Antigua the following day – and had even packed marshmallows for us to toast on the lava, if it had been flowing when we reached the summit. We sat around for ages, feasting on the delicious food, talking, laughing, playing football with the local kids and petting the stray dogs.

We piled unwillingly back into the shuttle bus to make our way back to Antigua, but the night had one more surprise for us. As we were bumping along the road back to Antigua, Volcán de Fuego let forth a giant explosion, sputtering a burst of brilliant red into the dark night. Quite a spectacular end to the day.

If you want to do this trip for yourself, I highly recommend Old Town Outfitters. If you can get Victorr as your guide, all the better!

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About ailsapm

Hi there! I’m Ailsa Prideaux-Mooney. I’ve lived in many places, and travelled to many more. I had a lot of fun getting there and being there, wherever there happened to be at the time. I climbed a castle wall in Czesky Krumlov, abseiled down cliffs to go caving in the west of Ireland, slept on the beach in Paros, got chased by a swarm of bees in Vourvourou (ok that wasn’t fun, but it was exciting), learned flower arranging in Tokyo, found myself in the middle of a riot in Seoul, learned to snowboard in Salzburg, got lost in a labyrinth in Budapest and had my ice cream stolen by a gull in Cornwall. And I’m just getting started. If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read so far, I’d love you to follow my travelogue - wheresmybackpack.com - and remember, anyone who tries to tell you it’s a small world hasn’t tried to see it all.
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10 Responses to Climbing Volcán de Pacaya

  1. thirdeyemom says:

    I climbed Santa Maria and it was awesome! I saw the neighboring volcano erupt and had no idea it was going to do so. I never fainted! It was a wonderful day followed by a trip to the hot springs. It is on my blog if you want to check it out too under my Guatemala posts, thirdeyemom.

  2. lovely story , takes me back to another volcano i climbed at lake panecell, spelling, i might just write up my travel stories, that was before i knew i would be a travel writer, thanks for taking me back to great memories, love your central america stuff

  3. Catherine says:

    I remember how the frist 200m were the toughest of the hike! Amazing views from the top. Great post 🙂

    • ailsapm says:

      Thanks Catherine, glad you enjoyed it. Yes, the first 200m nearly killed me, I though oh boy, if it’s like this the whole way up I’m in serious trouble! 🙂

  4. Yay, Pacaya! I love the fact that they volcano marshmallows for you at the top. It just makes the whole thing even more epic. I’m glad I’m not the only one who struggled on the first bit too.

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