Around the Guatemalan city of Antigua, admiring volcanoes is one of the favorite tourist pastimes. For the more adventurous, climbing some of the them is also possible. Among the different volcano related activities offered in the former capital of Guatemala, hiking Pacaya Volcano is the most accessible one.
Prices & Accessibility
About a one hour drive from Antigua or from Guatemala City itself, the base of Pacaya is well marked with a visitor’s center and hikes are organized in a very standardized way. The entrance to the area around the volcano, which is a national park, costs Q50 (USD6.45) and it is only possible to access the park accompanied by a guide. While one may hire someone from the association of guides down by the visitors center, it is probably more cost effective to join one of the already existing groups departing from Antigua. Tickets bought at the many tour companies in town cost around USD8, including mini-bus transportation to Pacaya’s base, along with the group’s guide.
What You Really See in Pacaya
While every other place in Antigua will advertise trips to Pacaya, not every company will make clear what you can expect to do and see on a trip there.
2010 marked the last big eruption of the Pacaya Volcano. Shortly after that and until last year, it was still possible to see lava from up close during your visit. Even though criticism has been drawn because of the obvious dangers that this entails, there’s no doubt that this sounds exciting! Tour companies capitalize on this fire-red idea of a volcano many visitors have in mind.
In 2016, you do not see any red lava while hiking around Pacaya. In fact, you do not climb towards the crater of the volcano itself, as it is still active. Instead, you walk up until a certain point and, afterwards, descend for a little while to a vast area where the floor is made of solidified lava. Now-a-days, the intense black landscape reminds you that, ultimately, Mother Nature is still the one running the show.
Even though you do not see flowing lava around Pacaya these days, this does not mean that this trip is not worth it. The view of the volcano itself is majestic enough to make the one hour upwards climb worth your while. If the day is fairly clear and the volcano’s top is not particularly surrounded by thick clouds, you will be able to clearly see it fuming.
The majority of the climb is done under the shade of trees. For at least two thirds of the entire hike, you do not particularly feel that you are on a volcano, but rather in a forest. The trail is very pretty though. Only after you reach a certain height, you will come across a clear view of the volcano and the black solid lava fields below. From this point onward, you will descend until you reach an area where there’s nothing but dark volcanic rock all around you.
Funny enough, there is one small shop down there. The appropriately named Lava Store, sells handicrafts and jewellery that incorporates volcanic rock into its designs. Another 5 minutes walk will take you to a place with several fumaroles blowing hot air. At this point, your tour guide will make you look like a silly but amused tourist, handing you marshmallows on a stick. Some fumaroles will be hot enough to make your candy melt, while others will truly roast them – if you are capable of standing there with your hands close to the heat for long enough, that is!
Pacaya is still one of the most accessible active volcano walks you can experience in the country. For a total of about USD15, lava or no lava in sight, I feel like hiking around Pacaya is a worthy experience to engage in. Particularly if you are not acquainted with active volcanoes and these types of devastated landscapes. Go with the right expectations, and you are likely to have a great time!
Quick Tips for Pacaya Volcano:
• Book the cheapest tour in Antigua without bothering too much about what company you are using. You’ll end up in a van with people from other companies and everyone will get to experience the same thing.
• A ticket that includes mini-bus transportation from Antigua + tour group guide for the hike will cost you around USD8.
• The duration of the trip is about 3.5 to 4 hours: 2 hours on the road back and forth and 1.5 to 2hrs hiking and enjoying the volcano area. Bring comfy shoes!
• Independently of your tour, you will always need to pay for the entrance to the national park, which is Q50. They do accept US dollars at a poor exchange rate of 1USD=7Q so you might as well bring Quetzales.
• There are kids selling wooden sticks to be used as hiking aids. For Q5 (USD0.65) you’ll do your knees a favor and you’ll contribute to the livelihoods of families in the area.
• If you need a horse for the climb, you can easily get one for Q100 (USD13) at the beginning of the hike or for a negotiable price along the way. Either way, keep in mind that the horse will NOT go down the solidified lava field and you will need to walk this part on your own (which is not too bad if you are healthy).
• On your own (with a private guide) you can visit anytime. Tours departing from Antigua happen every morning at 6AM and in the afternoon at 2PM. “Sunset tours” were great when you could see lava as the day would grow darker. As things stand right now, you’re better off starting in the early morning, to avoid the hottest hours of the day.