Hiking The Pacaya Volcano: General Guide
Being one of the three currently active volcanoes in Guatemala, it’s no wonder that hiking the Pacaya volcano is one of the most popular tours in the country. This reason, along with the fact that it’s a relatively easy 3-4 hour afternoon out, makes Pacaya such a hotspot for tourists and locals alike.
Standing at an elevation of 2552 metres (8373 feet), it is relatively small in comparison to its active brothers, Fuego and Santiaguito.
Pacaya erupts fairly frequently and effects are often felt in the surrounding towns and villages. It first erupted 23,000 years ago. The most notable recent eruptions were in 2010 and 2014 where ash and debris were ejected as high as 1500 metres into the air. Ash was scattered in Guatemala City and some of the nearby small villages were considerably damaged by the 2010 eruption.
Due to its activity, the volcano’s terrain is an ever-changing environment. Each eruption changes the shape of the summit and seems to add an extra layer of volcanic rock. As you climb you will notice a truly unique landscape which, over the years, has been sculpted by lava flow.
It’s a short but fairly strenuous hike over a terrain of volcanic sand and rock; the ascent should take around 2-3 hours with the descent being about an hour, maybe slightly longer if you decide on the extra hike which lets you ‘ski’ down some of the deeper sandy slopes.
If you’re an experienced climber then this won’t prove to be a challenge in the slightest.
If you’re exercise shy then it’ll be quite tough, but the short distance means that the pain will be over relatively quickly!
A Guide Is ‘Mandatory’
The downside of this hike is that apparently it’s mandatory to go up with a guide, when it really shouldn’t be. I’m not entirely sure about the legitimacy of this claim, especially considering that Acatenango and Santa Maria can be hiked solo (and they are much tougher than Pacaya).
Before we even stepped out of the car we were swarmed by young children and adults alike, both offering us their services. The kids were offering a horse up to the summit which we kindly turned down. We were then approached by a more official looking guide who proceeded to tell us that a guided tour was mandatory due to ‘safety reasons’.
There are also daily tours from Antigua and Guatemala City which head up the Pacaya volcano but I wouldn’t recommend these unless you don’t have a budget limit. I don’t know about exact prices, but I have heard of some charging in excess of $100 which is, quite frankly, a rip-off.
If you don’t have access to a car and don’t want to take an expensive tour then you can take a local chicken bus which will drop you off on the highway next to the junction which leads up to San Vicente Pacaya. The spot to get off is not far after Amatitlán, the driver should have a better idea. From here you can take another, even smaller bus up to the main car park and entrance to Pacaya.
The only annoyance about arriving independently is that you’re charged for parking (if you arrive by car), park entry, AND the guide. These are all separate payments so they do a great job of trying to suck you dry.
At the time of writing, entry to the park for foreigners is 50 quetzales (around $7), a guide will cost you 200 quetzales ($27) which can be split among your group so can be pretty cheap depending on the number of you. If you have a car, parking is 20 quetzales ($3) which gets paid in the small food and drinks kiosk next to the bathrooms. This total is still MUCH cheaper than taking certain organised tours from one of the nearby cities.
After you’re paid your park entry fee, you’ll start the ascent and from here on in your guide should give you a detailed overview and history of the volcano. Ours was extremely pleasant and actually lived in one of the small villages at the foot of the volcano. Please note that if you’re arriving of your own accord and not through an organised tour, then some Spanish is very important. From what I could see, the guides already at the park entrance couldn’t speak any English. A basic level of Spanish should be fine.
As you wind your way up the ashy, mountain tracks you’ll be met with increasingly amazing views of the surrounding countryside. I wasn’t quite so lucky – it was the rainy season so I spent most of the hike getting increasingly damper as we trekked into the clouds. This didn’t bother me at all, it adds a kind of eerie sensation to the hike.
There are several opportunities for you to catch your breath and take in the scenery/surroundings. The trail doesn’t have many steep sections, allowing for quite a pleasant trek. The hardest part, especially if you’re just in the country for a short while, will most likely be hiking at such a high altitude. Unless you’ve acclimatised you will probably notice the lack of oxygen.
The ‘Almost’ Summit
After a 1.5 – 2 hour hike you’ll reach a kind of plateau which, not quite being the summit, is the famous part where you can roast marshmallows from the heat of the lava beneath. This is really popular and probably the main selling point for lots of the organised tours.
The marshmallows should be brought for you by the guide. Due to the volcano’s current activity, the summit itself is considered too dangerous to hike.
After roasting a few marshmallows in some holes in the rocks, which serve as a mini-oven, you should be given some time to explore the plateau and take some photos. There are some nice stalls selling handicrafts (like everywhere else in Guatemala), with these ones specialising in items carved from lava rock.
The terrain on the ‘almost’ summit really does have a kind of Mars like feeling about it. There’s absolutely no vegetation due to the last eruption, in 2014, and most of the rock you walk on was actually a product of this eruption.
Depending on your guide and the weather conditions, you should be given the option of heading up some big, volcanic sand dunes facing the summit. You can glide down these using your feet as skis. It really does make for a memorable experience, just be warned your shoes will end up FULL of sand so take appropriate footwear!
Naturally, the descent is a lot shorter and, when I did it, it took approximately 45 – 60 minutes. My guide actually knew some shortcuts which we decided to take. From what I noticed most groups took the same route they climbed back down as well so it was nice to get ‘off the beaten track’.
Overall, I would highly recommend hiking the Pacaya volcano if you’re visiting Guatemala. It’s not only a fairly easy and short hike, but also a chance to see mother nature truly alive. It’s not every day that you get the chance to hike up an active volcano and toast marshmallows in the heat of the lava!
As always, thanks a lot for reading and please leave any comments or anything that you’d like to add below. 🙂