Before I went to Guatemala, researching on possible travel itineraries, I came across an amazing activity that I booked straight away: climbing Acatenango volcano. This involved a difficult 7 hours hike, spending the night on top, at over 3900 meters, and reaching the summit in the morning just in time for sunrise. What is special about this, you might ask? Well, right next to Acatenango stands tall Fuego, a volcano that erupts pretty much every 10 minutes. I booked my adventure with Ox Expeditions, one of the safest agencies in Antigua. However, the plan I’ve made at home didn’t go as expected and I managed to get the flu on the flight to Guatemala. The day before my hike I woke up with fever, muscle pain, difficulties breathing, no energy and definitely not ready to climb a volcano.
It started to become very clear to me that my so awaited climb of Acatenango is not going to happen. No matter how many medicines I took, my body was not capable of more than getting up from the hammock. I literally spent most of my Christmas Day in a hammock, in the beautiful garden of Selina Antigua Hostel, where I stayed in Antigua, because of the flu. If you want to stay in an Instagramable hostel I recommend you Selina Antigua, their entire building and gardens are superb. The location couldn’t be more perfect either, 5 minutes walk from St Catalina’s Arch and next to the food market from Iglesia de la Merced. I only paid 120 quetzals/night (about £12). You can check the latest prices here.
I didn’t want to leave Guatemala without doing some physical activity so after going to the local pharmacist and stocking up on antibiotics (yes, my flu came with the entire package, including an infection), as soon as I started to feel better I booked myself on a day hike to Pacaya volcano, the bad boy of the country. Not as high as Acatenango, Pacaya is still a challenge because it constantly erupts violently and, sometimes, you can see the lava on top. After its last eruption, in 2014, the access to the crater has been closed for tourists. Back then, Pacaya erupted so badly that it covered with ash both Guatemala City and Antigua. The ash and debris column raised up to 1500 meters in the air. However, there is still a path going up to the crater and some adventurous tourists still go there. You shouldn’t though, as it’s closed for a reason, which is safety.
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Climbing Pacaya – the guided tours
The best way to climb Pacaya is through a tour, which you can buy in Antigua. All the hostels seem to be selling the same tour, one leaving at 8AM in the morning and another one at 2PM. As the afternoon one coordinates with the sunset, I would recommend this one. You have to also keep in mind that it takes about 2 hours to reach Pacaya National Park, as the traffic in Guatemala is horrendous.
I bought the tour for 120 quetzals (£12), as they had a special 15% off promotion, because of the winter holidays.
As our van reached the parking lot from the volcano, all the 15-people squeezed inside got off and we were directed to the small ticket booth, to pay the 50 quetzals fee to enter the park. This is the equivalent of around £5. You can’t enter the park without a certified guide.
Then we waited. And waited. It seemed that there was no guide to greet us, so they had to go get one from the nearby village. Meanwhile, analysing my breathing and coughing situation in the dusty volcanic ash, I decided that the wise thing to do would be to rent a horse. So, for another 100 quetzals (£10) I found myself on top of Tequila, a horse led up by a boy no older than 7 years old. As the name suggested, my little horsy was not very good with directions, so you can imagine a terrified me riding a horse that wasn’t really walking straight, at some point even bumping into the other members of the group.
“I’m sorry, really sorry”, I kept saying, embarrassed. I was the only one from the group who rented a horse, which wasn’t really something to be proud of, especially that the previous year I climbed Villarica volcano in Chile and a few years back I did the 4 days Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu, in Peru.
The horse is only allowed to go up to a certain point, so from there I had to get off and wait for the rest of the group. Luckily it was just us and another group on Pacaya at that point, which made it quite a special visit as we had the volcano all to ourselves. As I mentioned before, you can’t get to the crater of the volcano. Instead, you descend in a caldera created by the lava rivers with every eruption that took place recently.
Pacaya roasted marshmallows
The scenery here is spectacular, with solidified lava and a small path that goes through it. I followed the guide and my group, only to find myself that I almost couldn’t breath due to the volcanic dust. Damn you flu, I kept telling myself. Luckily someone else in the group had problems with their sore throat so they shared a couple of Strepsils with me, which helped me stop chocking with my own cough. We passed by the tiny “Lava shop”, a wooden hut inside the caldera where someone usually sells all sorts of lava-made souvenirs, but on this day, it was closed. Another 5 minutes and we stopped. Our guide pulled a bag full of marshmallows from his backpack and handed them to us, together with sticks. Because Pacaya is an active volcano, you can roast marshmallows by sticking them inside the lava holes, where the temperature significantly raises and it’s quite hard to keep your hand in for long.
A sunset to die for
From our fun experience with the marshmallows, we moved on, heading up from the caldera, on a different route. The volcanic soil was slippery, and I would take one step up and two down. It felt exhausting, but I was very grateful that I carried my walking sticks all the way from the UK. As you know, climbing Acatenango….
Through coughs and feelings of suffocation, I finally reached the top, about 15 minutes after my group did. I almost begged the guide to wait for me to take some photos, but it wasn’t the case, as everyone was fascinated with the sunset that we spent easily another 15 minutes up there. At the horizon, Fuego was having his normal show, spitting fire and ashes.
The way down was mostly sliding, as the ground was very unstable. Fun though, as long as you could keep up and don’t fall and get your clothes covered in ash.
And there is lava!
Back at the entrance to the caldera, we stopped for a quick sip of water and to take the lava dust out of our shoes. As I was wearing boots I didn’t have this problem, so I went around the corner to take another photo of Pacaya in the golden light, before the sun went down completely. And then, as soon as the cloud surrounding the crater moved away, there it was…. Lava! You can’t really see it in the picture, but you can spot 3 red dots. In reality it was much more noticeable. I did wish that it would erupt, just for a little bit, as I knew it did put on a show a couple of days before, for the evening tours. But I was still very happy to see lava, even if it was just a little bit at the top.
What do you need to know if you want to climb Pacaya volcano:
- Book the cheapest tour you can find in Antigua as they are all the same. You will be picked up by a van from your hostel and receive exactly the same package as everybody else. For more information about finding the cheapest offers, read this guide on how to backpack in Guatemala.
- Do this hike in the afternoon. In the morning it can get very hot and you won’t see the sunset from the top either.
- Bring at least 2 litres of water. Whilst the hike itself is not very long, the terrain is quite steep and unstable as you walk through lava dust.
- Bring walking sticks or rent wooden ones from the children at the entrance of the national park. Your knees will thank you, especially on the way down. And on the way up, they will be a great support to lean on during the steeper parts of the trail. A wooden stick costs 5 quetzals.
- Bring hiking boots if you can. I carried mine from the UK and didn’t regret it, as I had a good grip and didn’t slide as much as the others did. Plus, I got no dust inside them.
- Bring 50 quetzals with you to pay the entrance to the park, which is not included in your tour price.
- You can always rent a horse for 100 quetzals. There will be children with horses following the group on the trail, in case you feel like giving up.
- Bring a jacket. As soon as the sun goes down, the temperature drops drastically.
- Bring a flashlight. When you will descend the volcano it will be dark and there will be no visibility.
- The trail to the caldera is about 2 miles long. However, don’t think that it’s easy. It is very steep, and it will take 1.5 to 2 hours to get to the top.
Have you ever climbed an active volcano? Would you if you had the chance?
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