Climbing up Mesoamerica’s most active volcano at Pacaya, in Guatemala, is tough, but an experience not to be missed - especially the trip down
You can’t see the crater of the Pacaya Volcano until you’re already halfway up. If you could, you might not want to climb it. But by that time, it’s too late and you’ve got to keep going. And you should, because it’s an amazing hike.
Pacaya is the most active volcano in Mesoamerica. It has been erupting constantly since the 1960s and the last big eruption was in 2000, when it covered the entire capital city of Guatemala in grey ash, closing the airport for three days.
The ascent begins in the village of San Francisco de Salis, a small village on the hillside overlooking the Parque Nacional Volcan Pacaya. Entrance into the park, lower down the volcano, costs 40 quetzals per person, but it is in San Francisco that you will find a guide to take you up. It’s a good idea to go with them: they know the best routes and, if you speak Spanish, they can show you trees and plants of interest on the way up. A guide costs 50 quetzals per group.
The first part of the walk starts off nice and slowly on cobbled steps. You can see across the cultivated hillsides of the surrounding valleys. It’s a patchwork of corn, coffee and small vegetable gardens. The cobbled track is kind and gentle but it finishes abruptly and then you’re into the woods. It’s still baking hot under the shade of the trees. The ground is extremely dusty, almost like sand, but powdery. It’s a bit like walking on impacted cocoa.
The trail through the woods climbs quickly and there are lots of tree roots to trip you up. However, horses managed to pick their way between the trees, and with passengers on their backs, so with a little concentration you won't get tripped up. The Pacaya plant that the volcano is named after grows in the small prairies you’ll walk past occasionally and there are also trees with medicinal qualities, as well as a plant that you strip the bark off and chew to give you energy (and virility). It tastes lemony. Just be warned: you’re not supposed to swallow it!
Before you come out of the woods there are some amazing views out across the valley. You can see the two other Guatemala City volcanoes, the Fire Volcano and Water Volcano, and the vast bumpy countryside that spreads away from the capital.
When you make it out of the woods the ground turns to a rubble of black ash. You get your first glimpse of the crater, but it isn’t until you get to the checkpoint overlooking the path up the volcano that you realise it is actually a volcano you’re climbing. It’s enormous.
Climbing up the vast swathe of black rubble looks easier than it is. If you go too fast, you’ll end up slipping down as far as you have managed to ascend. Stick to the larger rocks for a better foothold, but watch out - they are sharp!
By the time you start getting close to the crater, you can see the lava running next to you. It’s a strange sensation of intense heat on your front and then the cold blustering wind on your back. If you make it up early enough, the sight of the volcano towering over you is even more impressive because of the speed that the clouds move behind it. It’s almost like one of those fast-forward sequences from a nature show.
The lava flows can be difficult to see, as the outside turns black almost immediately as it meets the cold air. But throw some rocks at it to break away the crust and underneath it’s bright red and boiling.
The journey down is the best part. You can slide down the rubble almost like skiing. Expect to get very dirty, and once you get to the checkpoint before the woods, stop and empty your shoes of the small collection of stones that you will inevitably have accumulated.
The Pacaya Volcano is situated between Guatemala City and Antigua Guatemala; from either place it costs about $10 to get transport there. From Guatemala City, the chicken bus costs considerably less, but be ready for a bumpy ride.
Since the government has tightened up security on the volcano, tourists have been able to climb it at night to see the lava glowing bright red against the sky. Take warm clothes because it does get windy.
Where to stay
Porta Hotel Antigua: this is a sleek hotel in a restored colonial mansion. The beds are plush, the gardens are immaculate and the original features of the building that have been preserved are stunning.
El Convento: this new boutique hotel is situated opposite an 18th-century Capuchin convent and has brick-vaulted ceilings and a serenic central quad.
Hotel Posada de Don Rodrigo: this hotel is the former mansion of the Governor of Antigua. It is rustically restored and has a resident marimba band for dancing into the night.
In Guatemala City
Hotel Grand Tikal Futura: huge skyscraper of a luxury hotel, right next to a mall in downtown Guatemala City and usually full of Americans. The decor is chic and modern and it has a very good breakfast.
Hotel Vista Real Grand Class: a beautiful luxury hotel just 15 minutes from the airport, with carefully sculpted gardens and a very good restaurant. The beds are incredibly comfortable and some of the rooms even have Jacuzzis.