Antigua is small Spanish colonial city nestled in southern Guatemala surrounded by active volcanoes. From the top of Cero de la Cruz, the small hill just outside of town, you can see the three main volcanoes looming in the background. The most prominent, Volcan de Agua, rises over 12,000 feet just south of the city. To the west sits Acatenango and Volcan de Fuego. Acatenango is the tallest at 13,045 feet and is popular amongst climbers. Finally, there is Volcan de Fuego at 12,346 feet. While her last big eruption was in September 2012, she is constantly active at a low level, including while I was in the city. It’s a beautiful sight to witness, especially at night.
I didn’t have time for the overnight Acatenango volcano climb. It’s something that I kick my butt for not doing this time, but I know when I return to Guatemala again, I will give her a go. Hopefully, Fuego will still be active then. But, I wasn’t going to leave Antigua without climbing at least one volcano.
Hiking Pacaya Volcano in Antigua
My travel companions and I opted for the less difficult and popular volcano about an hour outside of Antigua called Volcan Pacaya. Pacaya lies about 20 miles southwest of Antigua and rises to a height of 8,373 feet. She last erupted in 1965, but she is still active. Most of her activity today is strombolian, or mild eruptions. You would think we would be a bit nervous about climbing an active volcano, but, no, we loved it!
Most tour companies offer two tours a day to Pacaya: a morning and a sunset hike. We opted for the evening hike and it was totally worth it despite the clouds! As soon as you arrive at the foot of the trail, you are mobbed by children renting you hiking sticks and men offering you horseback rides to the top. Some of the men will even follow you with the horse waiting for you to run out of breath and ask for a ride. Not a bad business plan, eh?
I immediately felt the effects of the altitude as soon as we began to ascend the volcano up the steep, rocky path. The trail climbs for a while before leveling out for the first lookout point. The views of the farming valley before were lovely. The brush was lush and green. There was no doubt about it; we were in Central America.
After about a half hour of steady hiking up the trail, we reached a split in the trail. We had the option to visit the cold lava or the one with the hot lava where we could roast marshmallows. The answer was a no-brainer – marshmallows it was!
We slowly descended into the crater. The trail was covered in lava rocks and loose ash, so the descent was a little tricky. Thankfully, I was wearing my running shoes. A couple of my travel companions did not and did not fair well on that part of the trail. We all survived, though! It must have been the thought of melting sugary goodness that kept us from tucking and rolling down into the crater.
The crater was surreal. I’ve seen volcanoes in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, but Pacaya was far different from the ones I had visited during previous travels. I thought we had left Guatemala and entered the moon. The landscape was out of this world!
Our local guide led us over to the corner of the crater where the lava was still hot. He pointed us to the best spot to position our sticks to roast the perfect golden marshmallow. It took a lot longer than I expected, but, hey, it’s a volcano! And, totally worth it!
Sunset was fast approaching, so it was time to finish the last of the trek to the top for the best views of the sunset. The last portion of the trail was steep and all loose ash. It was certainly a calf workout! Unfortunately, the clouds were hanging low, so the sunset wasn’t the epic sunset I was secretly wanting, but that’s life. It was still quite beautiful.
We could see Fuego, Agua, and Acatenango in the distance. Fuego was spitting off smoke and fireballs already. Night began to fall, and we knew it would be another epic night of fireworks from Fuego. As we began our 40-minute descent down Pacaya, we witnessed small strombolian eruptions. It was almost as if someone was shooting off small firecrackers from the mouth of the volcano. While it didn’t match the power of Fuego, it was still incredible to see with my own eyes!
We booked our tour with Tours Atitlan. The 3-4 hour tour with shuttle service to and from Antigua and guide services cost us $12. We booked directly at their office the day before we went. I would rate the trek as medium difficulty. There are some steep parts, and the trail is covered in loose ash in many places. And, you’ll definitely want shoes with a tread.