How to Hike an Active Volcano (And Live to Tell the Tale)

On my recent trip to Guatemala, Monica and I decided to do something few have done before: hike an active volcano. Guatemala is the perfect place to do this, as its home to not one, not two, but three volcanoes that are considered ‘active’ – Volcán de Santa Maria, Volcán de Fuego, and Volcán de Pacaya.

The range of difficulty in these climbs varies, with Fuego and Santa Maria reaching heights of over 12,000ft and requiring an overnight trek and/or camping on the climbs themselves. Pacaya offers a more leisurely, easy climb, and while its crater is at an elevation of 8,373 ft, due to its active nature public tours generally take you to a plateau a couple of thousand feet below that which offers stunning views of the craters and the surrounding landscape.

Planning

While you can book guided tours to Pacaya in advance, we did ‘what the locals do’ and just showed up. This required a drive from Antigua, where we had spent the morning, through beautiful landscapes and up some foothills to the based of Pacaya. As we neared the parking lot, we were waved at to park in different areas, likely to climb a different route. We pressed on, however, to the official visitor center, and parked next to a small tienda.

Upon getting out the car, we were ‘encouraged’ to pay for parking, but Monica told the man standing there we would pay upon returning (apparently thats what you’re meant to do). There were other people milling about asking if we wanted rides on horses (more on that later) or guides, but we continued up to the visitor building.

We had initially thought we could hike the volcano unguided, as its a clearly marked path and Monica had done so before with her family. We were ‘informed’ however that there was a new rule that you must pay a guide to take you up. Whether this was artful business or an actual rule remained unknown as we were introduced to a local guide who initially asked for 200 GTQ (about 27USD) to take us up and back down. Monica negotiated him down to 100 GTQ (14 USD) and we mapped out the route we would take with him. We also paid for a ‘ticket’ to gain access to the volcano.

Getting Started

Our guide leads us up the trail.

Our guide led us through a gate and into the back of the town that adorns the side of the volcano. After walking past some small shacks and houses, we started on a semi-paved path that felt wickedly steep. At this point we noticed a caballo (horse) following us with his owner. Every few minutes the owner would say ‘taxi?’. Monica tells me that the price gets cheaper the higher up you go. I will admit I was tempted, but considering there were two of us and only one horse I wasn’t quite sure how it would work. Luckily, our guide was understanding and we stopped for breaks every 15-20 minutes while he pointed out various landmarks and vistas.

Nearing the Top

Gorgeous views were to be had at the plateau!

After around 90 minutes of hiking, the texture of the ground turned from packed dirt to loose gravel-like powder. This made things arduous, but our guide was encouraging and kept us pressing on. It was well worth it, as after another 20 or so minutes we reached an expansive plateau that afforded gorgeous views of the crater of Pacaya as well as a view across the plains to Volcán de Agua (extinct) and toward Guatemala City.

One of the most moving experiences for me was seeing (and hearing) Pacaya erupting. As you looked up, you could see large black rocks flying out the top, and a few seconds later what can only be described as a ‘heavy gunshot’. It was a sound and sight i’ve never experienced before, and it was awesome to see the power of the earth up close.

Marshmallows?

Monica demonstrates excellent roasting technique!

From the plateau, we hiked down more sandy volcanic dust into the lava flow from Pacaya’s largest recent eruption which occurred in 2014. This eruption produced a large lava flow that ran down the northern and western sides of the volcano, which has since stopped and solidified into a black rocky field that looks similar to what I imagine the moon must be like.

While the lava has cooled to rock, there are still hot spots that cause warm gases and steam to come up through the cracks. Our guide led us to one such spot, at which point he produced a bag of marshmallows and picked some sticks up from the ground. We stuck the marshmallows on the sticks and shoved them into a hole where the hot spot was, and watched the marshmallow cook as well as i’ve seen on any campfire. It was such a cool experience!

Lunch with a View

Not a bad place to have a sandwich (as if there ever is a bad place…)

From our marshmallow roasting session, we hiked back out of the lava field and onto the plateau where we enjoyed some sandwiches we had bought with us. Our guide didn’t seem bothered that we wanted to stop and eat, so we plopped down in front of the crater and enjoyed one of the best ‘lunches with a view’ I’ve ever had. The sounds and sights of the active volcano are ones I won’t ever forget. The sandwich was pretty good too…

After that we headed back down, paid and thanked our guide, paid for parking (at the bequest of a nine year old kid) and headed back to Antigua. We had survived a hike up an active volcano, and lived to tell the tale!

Elbie Pro Tips:

  • If you want the horse ride, make sure you agree upon if they will take you down as well. We saw another group get ‘stranded’ at the top after arriving by horse!

  • Negotiate on price for the guide, but consider their livelihood. Our guide told us he does 3-4 hikes per week, and we got the sense that was his full time job. Money goes farther in Guatemala than places like the US, but consider being generous in your offerings to locals.

  • Don’t be afraid to stop. This was my first time hiking with a guide, so it initially felt like we had to keep up. I realized though, that we could stop when we wanted and take a break without issue.