Antigua Stories and Tips

Climbing Volcano Pacaya

Hiking into the clouds Photo, Antigua, Guatemala

The guidebook warned against climbing Pacaya without a guide. I got the impression that there were bandits around every corner, ready to jump out of the bushes at any time. So we signed up for a guided tour with Gran Jaguar.

When we showed up the next morning at 5:50am for the tour, we were dismayed to discover that there were 25 people on the tour! I guess this was not to be a low-impact excursion. We were to be herded up the mountain in a pack.

The bus took us to the park entrance, where we had another unpleasant surprise. Apparently, the 25Q (US$3) National Park entrance fee was not included in our tour price.

The hike started out mellow, as a stroll in the woods with many breaks for the guide to point inconsequential sights, more as a filler, it seemed, than anything else. One highlight was a stop at an overlook of three other volcanos: Fuego, Agua, and Aguacatan. Fuego was erupting at the time, and the steam and ash cloud rising up from the summit were impressive. It made me think that perhaps I was hanging out at the wrong volcano.

Farther along the hike, we got our first glimpse of Pacaya. The top was shrouded in clouds, and I remembered our viewless volcano climb of the previous week. I desperately hoped that this climb would not end the same way. "Please clear, please clear," I thought.

Directly around us was clear, however, and the landscape was captivating. An immense hardened lava flow wrapped around the base of Pacaya, devoid of any life, but looking alive with movement itself because of its lines and texture.

At last we got to the final stretch – an incredibly steep and ashy climb. As we ascended, we seemed to slide one step back for every two steps forward. The loose ash was hard on the ankles, and the elevation gain was hard on the lungs. But the worst part by far was the wind. Lower down, we hadn’t felt any wind, but now it was relentless. And the higher we climbed the worse it got. Our eyes were watering, our noses were dripping, and our faces were stinging from being hit with flying sand and pebbles.

Just below the summit, we stopped for a snack behind some large rocks. During the brief respite from the wind, I could feel the heat from the volcano radiating up through the rocks. The warmth was a welcome contrast to the biting wind.

After one last steep climb, we were at last at the summit. And... we were in the clouds. I felt the disappointment set in. I just was not having luck climbing volcanoes here in Guatemala. No views. I couldn’t see anything around me, including into the crater. But I could feel the heat from the crater and could smell the sharp sulfur odor, almost overpowering at times.

The wind at the summit was the most ferocious I had ever been in. I literally was knocked to the ground more than once. It was a bit scary with the steep dropoff into the crater, with no guardrails, of course. Dan tried to hold me up, but it was easier just to hug the ground. It was actually pretty comical. A huge group of people clinging to the ground, trying to stay just a bit longer in case the clouds might clear. There was also an abundance of a phenomena that I call "front butt." Looking back at the pictures, folks pants were being blown so full of air by the wind, and that combined with the front pants seams, made for what looked like a huge butt where their belly was supposed to be!

When we could stand the wind no longer, the guide led us down. But we went down a different way than we came up. He took us to a wide straight path that went almost directly down the mountain. He pulled us together and told us that there was only one way to go down – we would have to run. Run?! What?!

Then he demonstrated. With one large jump, he was 20 feet down the trail, and he kept run-jumping down to a flatter spot. He turned and motioned us to copy him – and whatever you do, he said, don’t try to stop! That is when people get hurt.

The more daring of us went first. Yippee! I cannot tell you how much fun this was. Who cares about having no view at the summit! Who cares that we were herded up the mountain en masse! Who cares! This was a blast!

I laughed and laughed all the way down, the wind pushing tears out of the corners of my eyes. I wanted to do it again! One by one, our group made it to the bottom of the run-jump ramp, each person with a huge grin hanging on their face.

The remaining hike out was mellow and pleasant. We looked back at Pacaya and saw that the summit cloud had cleared. Oh, well. We had our chance and were content to smile and chat with local folks coming up the mountain on family excursions.

I would say that the Pacaya hike was worth the price for the guide and bus ride, but that the guidebook was wrong. There were enough tourists, families, and security people on Pacaya that this trip seemed to be safe to do without a guide.

Price with Gran Jaguar = US$7 pp

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