Just like skiing and mountaineering are a part of the culture of the Swiss Alps, volcano hiking is a huge part of the culture in Guatemala. The country has 37 officially named volcanoes—three of which that are still active. It is not uncommon to be driving by one of these in the distance and seeing a puff of smoke pop out from its peak.
We actually saw this happen a half a dozen times from an active one locally known as Fuego Volcan. Though this “Fire Volcano” offers a hike, it is known for treacherous slopes that should be reserved only for the fittest. A more popular choice (and slightly less challenging) is to hike Guatemala’s Pacaya Volcano (aka: Volcan de Pacaya).
By the way, just to add to the adventure, it’s an active volcano too!
Guatemala’s Pacaya Volcano Hike:
What to Expect
Introduction to the Pacaya Volcano
Volcan de Pacaya is located just an hour and a half drive from Guatemala City (an hour and fifteen from Antigua). It first erupted over 23,000 years ago and is currently one of the most lively volcanos in Central America.
Though the volcano has frequent eruptions that have been seen from Guatemala City, these bursts usually spew only small amounts of ash—just enough to make the rocks hot enough to toast marshmallows on, which you will literally get to do. So, if you are expecting to see red lava running down from the peak, that’s probably not going to happen.
NOTE: Before you head to the volcano, and depending on your interests, determine whether the authorities permit hiking to the summit at that time. It depends on the volcanic activity,
About the Volcano Pacaya Hike
The Volcano of Pacaya is one of the most accessible volcanoes in Guatemala, which makes it very popular. You will be sharing the trail with many others. This, along with the food stands that you will find on different segments of the trail and the marshmallows you will get to toast on the heat of the volcanic rock, make the experience much more fun. Bring some graham crackers and chocolate if you want to make your marshmallow a s’more!
Level of Difficulty
Pacaya stands a whopping 8,373 feet tall and the trek has an elevation gain of around 1,500 feet. I had read some blogs before taking the flight to Guatemala and got the impression that the increase in elevation on the Pacaya Volcano hike would be a piece of cake or near enough. But then the sign at the entrance declared it to be a medium difficulty hike, and that was more like it. Maybe even harder than that.
The hike started at the welcome center in the hamlet of San Francisco de Sales and took about 2 hours to hike to the top. The steepness combined with the altitude and trail length proved to be on the more difficult side. Even myself, who has a decent fitness level, needed to take frequent breaks along the way—like every few minutes.
The good news is that even if you aren’t the fittest you can still get to the top, with a little bit of help. To aid your efforts on this hiking excursion, you have a few options – to rent a horse (approximately 300 Quetzal, $40 USD) or purchase a walking stick (5 Quetzal, $0.7 USD). The sticks must be purchased at the beginning of the hike, but the horses will follow you for about a quarter of a mile to see if you get tired. After fifteen minutes, I was kicking myself for not buying a walking stick!
Luckily, rest stops were strategically placed every five minutes or so. Some of these were picturesque lookouts, while others were just a bamboo bench. It didn’t matter, even a tree stump would have been a welcomed breather.
At one a women sat with her child who was completing his homework, a row of oranges in front of them. For a measly 3 Quetzal (39 cents) you could order a Guatemalan tradition, naranja con pepita—an orange with ground pumpkin seeds and salt. Once I ordered my orange, the mother put it through her manual peeler, taking away the thick rind and leaving a healthy pith. She then topped it with a sprinkle of salt and ground pumpkin seeds. It was simple, yet refreshing and delicious.
After almost two hours and an elevation increase of just over 1600 feet we reached our destination. Though we were not at the tippy top of the volcano, we were at the point where sections of lava rock was warm to the touch and certain crevices were burning.
Our smiling faces confirmed the happiness of our success.
There is a 200 Quetzal ($27 USD) expense to enter the national park and hire a mandatory guide. Plus, bring some extra money if you plan on renting a horse, for tips, food stands along the way and purchasing marshmallows to toast (bring your own graham crackers and chocolate if you want to make your marshmallow a s’more!). It is best to bring Quetzales since exchange rates for $USD are very poor.
Best Times to Visit
As for the best time of the year for undertaking the hike of the Volcan de Pacaya, this would be November, or the beginning of the dry season in Guatemala. At this time, the surrounding countryside is still green from recent rains, and verdant forests make a contrasting backdrop to the bare volcanic landscape. The entire span of the dry season (which lasts until April) is usually considered the second best time for taking a Pacaya hike.
Booking a Tour
Though it’s possible to navigate your way to the volcano, it is easiest to book a tour. From a major city, it can take up to 4 buses to get there! There are various tour companies in Antigua and Guatemala City that organize half-day trips to the Volcano of Pacaya, which last up to 4 or 6 hours (transfers + hiking). You can typically book them directly with your hotel concierge. If you are a planner like me, then here are others that can be booked in advance:
And one important note – some tour companies may advertise the trip with photos where you can clearly see lava rivers, though this typically isn’t the case.
The Pacaya Volcano hike, will put your fitness and endurance levels to a hard test, especially if you aren’t suited to this particular type of activity. So, don’t feel ashamed to negotiate the price of renting a horse. Plus, you will encounter vendors along the way offering refreshments, so you don’t need to bring large stocks of snacks with you.
As we started to travel back to our starting point, I hoped there would be a white stallion waiting for me. There wasn’t. Luckily, the walk back went much quicker.
Though my legs wobbled for hours afterwards.
At least now I can count “Hike a Volcano” as a check off my bucket list. It turned out to be a great addition to my list of the top things to do before you die.
- Keep in mind that you may experience the altitude sickness at this height; to prevent that, spend some time in Guatemala City or Antigua, which are perfect for adjusting.
- Sturdy closed shoes are a must! The rocks are very sharp.
- The weather can be unpredictable, dress in layers.
Where to Stay Nearby
After a very strenuous day, we deserved some relaxation, luxury and pampering. And that’s exactly what we got.
We headed over to the uber trendy Kawilal Hotel, a leader in the sustainability movement practicing efficiency in energy use, water use and material selections. Even the rooms roofs are built with gardens, keeping the inside temperature comfortable without the use of an air conditioner.
Once we settled into our rooms we headed over to their Santa Teresita Spa to do a therapy circuit in their thermal baths.
Here we sipped on fresh fruit smoothies as we immersed our bodies in thermal water pools of different temperatures. It is said to improve circulation, relax the bodies muscles and eliminate stress.
I definitely felt my knotted muscles start to unwind.
We capped off the perfect day with dining at the hotels restaurant, Fonda del Castillo. With its modern interior, floor length windows and delicious dishes it couldn’t have been a better way to end such a physical day.
Shopping at Chichi Market in Guatemala’s Chichicastenango
Go Sailfishing in Guatemala
My trip to Guatemala was hosted by the Visit Guatemala, but all opinions are my own.