We were sprinting as fast as we could, leaping and stumbling over slippery rocks of lava. At 2,500 metres, the run was more tiresome than would otherwise have been the case. But we had to keep going.
We could see the precipice ahead of us where the dried lava flow dropped suddenly. Though we couldn’t see what lay beyond, the clear skies there suggested a tantalising view. It may have been the only one we’d get on this hike.
Our guide had already issued a five-minute warning to begin the return trek. That time was almost up. But first, we had to catch a view.
The Volcano Pacaya hike
As our tour bus rumbled along the freeway towards Pacaya Volcano, just 30 minutes from Guatemala’s capital city, speckles of rain splattered the windscreen. The clouds were ominously grey, and I was starting to have misgivings.
Did I really want to ascend a volcano in the rain without any guarantee of a view from the top?
But it was too late to turn back. As we stepped off the bus outside the Visitor’s Centre, the rain had eased off but the fog and chill didn’t look likely to budge.
We met our guide, a chilled-out local named Walter. We also met the troupe of dogs who would follow us enthusiastically to the top, showing off their stamina while we laboured breathlessly uphill. They made things interesting by trying to trip us up as they followed us closely on our heels.
At the base of the hike, Walter introduced us to Pacaya Volcano, commonly labelled Guatemala’s most active volcano.
Pacaya slept peacefully for more than 100 years before rumbling awake with a huge eruption in 1965. A second eruption followed in 2010, expelling ash so thick that it rained down some 500km away.
And then in 2014, it began to spew lava, drawing hikers to its tip to catch some glowing hot lava in real life. Authorities shut down these hikes, but today you can still head to the dried lava flows that sit below the peak.
There, Walter said, we can find a “hot spot” to roast some marshmallows or (here, he pointed to our canine companions) have a hot dog.
A steady uphill trek
Right from the beginning, it was uphill. We endured an hour’s ascension through rolling mists. Though it wasn’t the highest hike I’d ever done (that was at 4,500m at Laguna 69 in Peru) nor the hardest (that was at Colca Canyon), I could feel the breath catching in my throat.
A vibrant green forest pressed in on the path. It reportedly had one of the richest diversity of amphibians and reptiles in Central America. But it was impossible to catch any wildlife through the heavy fog shrouding the trees.
Anyway, I was too busy focusing on getting oxygen into my lungs. The hike may have tested my lung capacity, but by the time I’d got into a rhythm, we’d already reached the highest point.
There, signs described the landscape that should have been before us – volcanos, rolling hills, and valleys. We stared into the blanket of white but could distinguish nothing.
And so we moved on. Down this time, stumbling through slippery scree and running to prevent sliding down on our arses. The forests had vanished; we were standing directly on solidified lava flows.
It was a bleak, monochrome outlook. We were suspended in a bizarre, timeless landscape, dominated only by swirling mists and the desolate, jagged surface of the black lava flows we walked on.
We had no compass nor context for our surroundings. It was hypnotic and haunting. It made for some eery photos.
But I was also a touch disappointed. I couldn’t even locate the last rise to the peak Pacaya Volcano.
So let’s roast marshmallows instead
Walter thankfully let the dogs off the hook and withdrew a huge bag of marshmallows. As our tour group of 25 people gathered around, I explored our surroundings.
I noticed that the mists were starting to thin out, revealing just a cliff face covered in green moss and a few sparse trees. As I walked towards it, I could feel the hot spots under the ground where gas escaped from vents.
I had to stop for a moment and check myself. I was walking on a river of lava, solidified, sure. But once, it was molten, bubbling. And it was still alive beneath the surface.
Of course, I wanted marshmallows too, so once the group thinned out, I skewered my treats and Walter placed them inside a fumarole, drawing out some of the lava rocks from the bottom so I could feel the heat emanating from them. I squeezed them too tightly and burned my hand.
But at least it was hot enough for the marshmallows. Not enough to achieve that delicious, crunchy outer shell. But enough to make it bloated with gooey goodness inside.
I had to down them quickly, having already witnessed a few of our doggie companions snatch the grub from any unwitting hiker dangling their marshmallow too close to the ground.
The skies clear!
Walter gave us our 5-minute warning just as the clouds began to thin. Instead of being able to see just a few metres in front of us, we caught the full extent of the lava flow, a wide river of solidified black lava with ripples and grooves like a glacier.
On the far side, slopes rose sharply to the active cone of Pacaya Volcano at 2,552m, still shrouded in cloud. But following the valley of lava, we saw the drop-off. And so we ran.
Ahead of us, the river of lava dropped steeply downwards, revealing views of the bumpy valley floor, hills and forests and small towns. We turned and saw the peak of Pacaya Volcano, looking pretty sleepy.
But that was OK. We had viewed two distinct personalities up there. The unearthly moonscape of flowing mists which softened the entire landscape, and the dramatic views of the volcano, lava and valley floor.
It was a perfect day. And now we were ready to turn back, sprinting to ensure we weren’t left behind atop an active volcano.
We weren’t. When we rejoined our group, everyone was as mesmerised by this new landscape as we were.
All the details you need to know
While the hike seemed fairly easy to do alone, you can only to it with a guide. You can go on a coordinated tour from Antigua or you can hire a guide at the Visitor’s Centre.
How much does the Pacaya Volcano tour cost?
We booked our tour through Tunik Hostel in Antigua for 100 Quetzal each. It doesn’t really matter where you book it though; there are few branded tours in town and most just round up groups until they have a full bus load.
The cheapest we found in town during our lacklustre search was 88Q. I couldn’t find anyone who offered discounts for groups of people.
But I did read some reviews that complained that the guides only spoke Spanish and barely dished out any info.
Walter was fab – he spoke in Spanish at first but then switched to English when he realised most of the super-eager, up-the-front hikers were English speakers. If that was the result of paying a little more, I’d do it.
Everybody must pay an additional 50 Quetzal at the base of the hike for entry into the national park. Part of this cost pays the salaries of the cleaners who sweep the paths clear of horse manure and dirt for you.
When does the Pacaya Volcano tour run?
The best time to hike Pacaya is during the dry season – between November and April. I did this hike in May when every day of the week was forecasted rain!
You can typically choose between a morning or an afternoon hike. The morning hike leaves at 6am but is generally recommended during the rainy season, because skies are (usually!) clearer in the mornings.
The afternoon hike starts at 2pm. I heard that you stay at the top until sunset and hike down in the dark, which sounds pretty fun if you have good weather!
Some tour companies offer a two-day hike to Pacaya, camping at the top and waking up early to see the sunrise.
How long is the hike?
The hike itself is actually pretty short. Roughly 1-1.5 hours up and maybe half an hour down. It is quite uphill and untrained hikers may struggle.
Having said that, one woman in our group – in her 50s, at least – hiked up on crutches. I’m not even kidding. I wish I took a triumphant photo of her at the top as she waved her crutches in the air. Nothing will hold you back if you’ve got willpower!
The tour in total takes about 6 hours. We were picked up at 6am and arrived back in Antigua around midday.
What does the tour include?
The tour includes the shuttle to collect you from your accommodation, transport to the volcano, a guide, and, of course, the marshmallows.
You’ll need to pay the entrance fee separately and bring anything else you might need. You can rent walking sticks for next to nothing from kids at the beginning of the hike.
You can also rent a horse. Locals will follow you up the path, calling out “taxi?”, just in case you change your mind and decide to hitch a ride to the top.
What should I wear?
We hiked on a cool day and it was cold both at the bottom of the trail and at the top. I’d recommend layers:
- Loose-fitting hiking pants (my friends wore leggings and thick track pants and overheated)
- A tank or t-shirt, plus a thin jacket
- A raincoat
- Close-toed sneakers, preferably ones with good grip
Also be sure to bring enough water for a 2-hour hike, some snacks, and spare change.
Are there shops or stalls along the way?
At the lava flows, there is a small shack called Lava Store. It’s surprisingly charming and tasteful and sells a range of jewellery featuring lava rock from the fields. I rather wish I’d bought something to support the local economy!
I didn’t see any stalls where you could buy water, but on the way day, a woman had opened up a rudimentary stand where she sold orange halves seasoned with ground pumpkin seeds and salt.