Even with only a few days in Antigua, we knew that there was one thing we just had to do above all else – hike a volcano.
Uniquely, you are spoilt for choice in this region of Guatemala as there are 3 to choose from. However as Fuego and Acatenango required overnight camps, and we didn’t have much time (nor were any of us particularly hardened trekkers) our choice was made for us – it was Pacaya.
It’s not hard to book a trek to Pacaya volcano, every single travel agent in Antigua offers the exact same tour. Figuring that there was unlikely to be anything extra with a more expensive tour, we booked the absolute cheapest we could find.
We had wanted to do a 9am to 3pm trek but hardly anyone offered them, we were told because the visibility was at it’s worst at these times and of course the sun is at it’s hottest. So we were left with 2 choices – 6am or 2pm. If you know us or have followed this blog at all, you’ll know which we picked. Obviously 2pm.
We were picked up and what followed was an intensely boring hour or so drive to the site. When we arrived we bought our tickets and were accosted by local boys offering walking stick rentals. I was sure we should get these but no-one else on our group did so we followed suit. I was sure we’d regret that.
The hike started with a paved trail, which sounds easy but it was an incredibly steep start. Add to the fact it’s hard to regulate your breathing when you first start a hike, and after literally metres we were at the back of our group and struggling.
However the path soon levelled out. If I was a cynical person, I would say that this paved section is purposely steep in order to make you think you need to shell out 100Q for a horse to help you up. But I’m sure that no-one would ever do such a thing…
Once the paved section finished, the gradient became much more manageable, and we stopped several times for our friendly guide to tell us about plants and trees.
The path became narrower but after 45 minutes or so there was no volcano in sight. But then suddenly there was – we reached a clearing and we could see Pacaya. Wait, weren’t we supposed to be climbing Pacaya?
As with a lot of these trips, the reality is a lot different to what you imagine. I thought we would be climbing almost to the top and looking into the crater. But with an active volcano that is obviously not possible. Instead the standard Pacaya trek only takes you to a lava field part of the way up, nowhere near the summit.
Not that it wasn’t impressive mind. After our first glimpse of the volcano, we walked a short distance further, with the material under our feet now definitely lava rather than dirt, and found ourselves at the highest point of our trek, with a great view.
After lots of photos, we started to descend into the lava field. It was steep and very dusty but the cleared path was at least free of razor sharp jagged rocks. I suspect this was the area where you could see molten lava if you were lucky, but we already knew that the volcano hadn’t erupted for some time so there was no chance of that for us.
Next it was time for marshmallows! In several spots, the heat emitting from the rocks was intense, and certain parts were like little ovens, where you could insert your stick and toast your marshmallow. The best bit was that some enterprising dogs had worked out that this is where humans ate food, so they had followed us to this point. One of them even ate a marshmallow off my stick while I was waiting to toast it!
It was time to climb back up, but thankfully there was another way which was even steeper than the way we had come down, and from the other side we were afforded some incredible views of the clouds BELOW us.
With the circle of the lava field complete, we had a quick bite of lunch and started our descent back down the way we came. This was a lot quicker of course, though still surprisingly far, and by the end it had got dark making torches essential (luckily we had one but they didn’t bother telling anyone to bring them!)
And that was it, our Pacaya volcano trek done.
So was it worth it? Yes. It was fairly cheap, and fairly strenuous without being super tough. However if you have done proper overnight volcano treks before, you might find yourself thinking ‘is this it’ with Pacaya. Even I thought this when we reached the ‘summit’, I expected it to be so much longer and tougher.
As mentioned, it really probably doesn’t matter which operator you choose for your trek, unless you are willing to pay a LOT more and get a private guide. We used Lanquin Travel, just down the road from Tropicana Hostel. I’m not entirely sure how much we paid – I think it was 60Q (£5.26) per person and then everyone has to pay a further 50Q (£4.39) entrance fee for the volcano.
Oh and as for the boys with the walking sticks that I was sure we would need? You don’t need them, save your money.