Guatemala is the land of volcanoes. You can’t go very far in the country without seeing one on the horizon. Antigua alone has four within driving distance, which is why the city is a popular setting off point for hiking excursions. It was one of only a handful of things I arranged in advance for my two-week trip. After all, where else can you sleep on an active volcano? It goes along with the ridiculous places I’ve slept, along with caves and underground mines.
I wasn’t sure which was the best for me but ended up going with Pacaya because of scheduling conflicts and the ability to stay longer. It’s an hour or so drive from Antigua and another hour up the mountain to base camp. You stop a few times along the way to admire the view, drink some water, and have a snack. Once at base camp, we dropped our bags while our guide set up the tents. I’m not much of a camper so I doubt I’d be of much use anyways.
Then we walked down to the lava fields as the sun set over Pacaya. The ground was sandy and rocky, difficult to get a good footing on, but the horses and dogs that live on the volcano kept me company as I fell further behind. I got separated from the group as it grew darker and missed the roasting of marshmallows, but I sat quietly and watched the bubbling and fire as the volcano erupted. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen and photos don’t do it justice. When we got back to camp, we ate hearty portions of pasta and drank boxed wine before calling it an early night. I tried to fall asleep for a few hours but was cold or had to pee, so eventually, I took a sleeping pill. It ended up being one of my best night’s sleep in my life. I couldn’t believe I’d slept a full 8 hours, especially on a camping pad with all my items of clothing bundled around me.
I didn’t end up going to the summit because I had so much trouble with the earlier hikes. The guide informed us that it would be more difficult and they’d be leaving at 4 am, so I gave myself an out. I don’t regret this at all because I had hit my physical limits and those who went experienced heavy fog that made it difficult to see much. I’ve run half marathons, after all, but this wasn’t the same. I’ve talked before about not doing something just because everyone else is doing it, especially if you won’t actually enjoy it, and this fell squarely into that category.
The next day, we had breakfast and packed up. I took my time going back down the mountain, this time with much less in my pack and had little trouble. I was certainly glad I did it as I’m not sure when again in my life I’ll get that close to an active volcano. In fact, a few weeks after I left Guatemala, it erupted and spewed ash. Here’s a link to the Spanish-language news story.
Things to Know About Climbing Pacaya
There are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to choosing a tour operator. First, research the background like you would with anything else. For example, a group of people died on one of the volcanoes the week before I was there and another company left behind one of their guests for over 10 hours. Second, be realistic about your level of fitness. Pacaya is often mentioned as the “easiest” of the volcanoes, especially compared with the beast known as Acatenango, but is not necessarily easy. I found it to be difficult, especially when carrying a massive pack full of gear. Now that I’ve spoken with other travelers, they agree. If you only have time for a day hike, not an overnight, you will likely be rushed by your guide. It’s hard to avoid, especially as different people have varying levels of fitness. I was the last in my group the entire trip and wished I’d had time to go slower.
I traveled with Ox Expeditions and, apart from the fact that I got separated a few times because of my slow pace,
I had a good experience. The tents and gear were of good quality and the food was tasty. The local guide was knowledgeable about the area. As with anything, much of your experience depends on your guide and your group. The company itself was founded in 2004 by an Alabama expat and hires guides from around the world. Even Hamish and Andy of Australian television fame visited with the company. Day trips and overnights run a couple of times per week, but can be arranged if four or more people are interested. They also run tours for multiple volcanoes in a day (whatttt?), biking, surfing, and zip lining tours. Ox also has a hostel where you can stay before or after your trip.
And when it comes to how you should personally prepare, give yourself a day to get used to the altitude of Antigua before climbing. If you’re doing an overnight, or even if you aren’t, pack as little as possible. This doesn’t mean clothing, as you’ll need many layers to stay the night, but extra toiletries can be left behind. If you have trouble with balance even on flat surfaces, as I do, bring a walking stick or buy one from the folks at the base. Men with horses run up and down the mountain to offer to carry you and or your gear for a fee. I ended up paying Q100 to get rid of my backpack and am glad I did. You’ll get a recommended packing list for the overnight, but I needed less water than suggested and left a bottle with the park rangers. I was, however, glad to have my motion sickness bands for the ride there and Ambien so that I could fall asleep. Above all else, remember that this is an active volcano and there is an inherent danger to that.
Last, but not least, I recommend giving yourself a post-climb day off afterward. Since I did the overnight, I got back to Antigua in the morning, took a shower at my hostel, Cucuruchos, and napped. Later, I used the hot tub at Zoola, an Israeli-run hostel with a rooftop bar and great restaurant, to soak my sore muscles. Treat yourself to a schnitzel wrap and a cold beer. You climbed a volcano!