Don’t Forget the Marshmallows: Scaling Pacaya Volcano
Photos by John Roberts
Feeling the slick rocks slipping and making a clinking sound beneath my feet as I struggled to maintain my balance, I realized that I was hiking on an altogether foreign surface.
Looking around the gray landscape, shrouded by slow-moving mists, I would have believed I was on the moon if I had just woke up and my fellow hikers had told me this was the case.
But we were on a volcano in Guatemala. In fact, Pacaya Volcano is one of the most active and unpredictable rumbling peaks in the Central American country.
On our adventure, though, we just witnessed Pacaya blowing off a little smoke — a gentle wafting stream of gas and a little ash that made a nice backdrop for many of the pictures we would snap during our outing. The views at the top were incredible and otherworldly, indeed.
This was my first trip to Guatemala, and I wanted to explore the nation with a challenging activity. The country features a chain of 33 volcanoes within the Pacific's Ring of Fire. Guatemala also has the highest density of active volcanoes in the world.
So, why not hike up one?
Pacaya Volcano sits within a national park in the town of San Vicente Pacaya, about 30 miles from Guatemala City or the historic old city of Antigua. Shuttles from these towns to the park cost about $15, and you also pay about $6 to enter the park where you find the trailhead.
The trailhead is about 5,800 feet above sea level. Even if you are in good shape, the steep ascent on this well-marked path will leave you huffing and puffing. Be sure to carry water, because it gets hot. We took a few breaks to rest and take pictures as we made our way to the top — about a two-hour journey.
Arriving at the park, we were greeted by swarms of youngsters, smiling and eager to rent us a walking stick for $1. Most in our group snagged a sturdy pole, which helps keep you steady on the tricky terrain.
Horse "taxis" are also available to those who don't want to make the trek under their own power. If you are a horse aficionado, or have limited mobility, this is a cool option.
Once we reached the highest level of our hike, a dizzying 8,400 feet at the base of Pacaya, the volcano’s main cone was on full display, looming over a vast lava field. Her last major eruption was in 2010, when she spewed prodigious destructive lava flows, but the volcano has been steadily active since 1965. We saw small plumes of steam emerging from the peak throughout the day.
After taking in the 360-degree vistas at the base, we navigated loose ash and rock on the trail that crossed over the sprawling lava field. This was a prime attraction of the hike because we would get to roast marshmallows over the hot vent opening below the solidifying field of sharp rocks (solid comfortable hiking shoes and long pants are recommended).
This is where the volcano complex most resembled another planet. Beginning our descent on the opposite side of the mountain from where we started, our group disappeared into a cloudy mist that shrouded the hillside.
We emerged several minutes later, yet another batch of souls to have brazenly scaled Pacaya Volcano, which fortunately chose to remain calm for our visit.
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