After lazing a month away on Costa Rica’s and Nicaragua’s beaches, I got to Guatemala with one goal: Acatenango. I knew I had to prepare for what many of my friends told me was a grueling trek, so I thought I’d start with a lesser volcano. An hour’s drive away from Antigua is the less physically imposing but still pretty cool Volcan Pacaya.
I wasn’t in the best shape of my life after drinking and doing nothing on the beach for the better part of a month, but hey, what better way to start getting back into shape than by immediately hiking a volcano? I chose to do the afternoon hike because I couldn’t be bothered to wake up early. Compromise, right?
Anyway, this is going to be a story about how I made a relatively simple adventure turn into a miserable mess due to my optimistic unpreparedness. Nothing new to see here. I’m a frequent hiker and have completed some difficult treks in the past, so I viewed Volcan Pacaya as nothing more than a warmup for Acatenango later in the week. I went in overconfident and unprepared, but luckily, it wasn’t too bad of an experience. For me, anyway. The girl who decided to go hiking in heels and a white dress and got a bout of diarrhea halfway through, on the other hand…
Hiking Volcan Pacaya
You start the hike a little past the entrance to the park where you pay to get in. You’ll know you’re at the right place when a bunch of local kids start pestering you to rent a walking stick. I was the only one in my group to get a walking stick because I’ve learned that an extra leg is worth what little shame may come with it. That’s probably my number one rule in hiking. Never be too proud to use a walking stick. Once the weather took a turn for the worse later in the day, my walking stick was the envy of everyone around me.
The Volcan Pacaya hike is pretty straightforward. It’s almost all uphill and there are no drastic changes in the terrain. Even though it is uphill most of the way, the elevation never really feels that high. Unlike most hikes where you see more of your surroundings the higher you go, hiking Pacaya Volcano just strangely felt like we were going uphill endlessly only to not really go that high. It shouldn’t take the average group more than two hours to finish the whole thing.
The Elements Attack
Unless, of course, the weather decides to demolish you. For most of the hike, you are exposed entirely to the elements. If it’s sunny out, you’ll get scorched. If it’s raining, you’ll get drenched. Hailing? You’ll just have to sit and accept your miserable fate. Lucky for me, it did ALL THREE so I got the full experience!!! I was sweating hard not even ten minutes into the hike. Shortly after, it started pouring down and the three hiking groups could not all huddle together under the tiny dilapidated shelter along the trail. Since I thought it would be a quick hike, I didn’t pack much. No raincoat, no waterproof bag to protect my backpack, nothing. We were huddled under that shelter for over half an hour and I was drenched. We decided to push on anyway because it wasn’t like I was going to get any wetter than I already was.
The higher we got, the colder it got. There was actually quite a bit of snow towards the top, which I was definitely not prepared for because I was in Guatemala and it was almost summer. So yeah, I was wet and it started getting cold. I got a glimpse of Volcan Pacaya before the clouds started rolling in again and you stopped being able to see anything. Even though I saw what I came to see, the group continued to trudge on because…
Yes, marshmallows. Apparently, you could roast marshmallows over the volcanic heat vents.
Is taking a large group of unwitting tourists for a stroll on an active volcano to roast marshmallows something that would generally be acceptable in the U.S.? Probably not, but when in Guatemala. I was cold and I was miserable and the dogs I befriended on the way up got distracted by everyone and their marshmallows, so I was not happy.
The worst part was that there was the ride back to Antigua to look forward to. Sitting cramped in a van when you’re cold and wet is not that much more enjoyable than being on a volcano when you’re cold and wet.
Was It Worth It?
Although I’ve made everything about Volcan Pacaya seem terrible, it actually was not that bad. My poor preparation skills and unfortunate luck certainly didn’t help. Overall, I wouldn’t consider it something that one has to do while in Guatemala, but if you’ve got time to kill, then go for it. It doesn’t stick out in my mind as something that I really enjoyed doing, which explains why it’s taken 9 months to even consider writing a blog about it. However, with good weather, it is fun and a significantly less painful way (compared to Acatenango) to say that you’ve successfully climbed a volcano.
I never struggled physically throughout the hike, but my friend was exhausted at the end so the difficulty will vary from person to person. If you’re young or in good shape, then this is honestly just like a stroll through a park. Anyone can do it, though. You can spot some small eruptions, mostly sparks, if it gets dark enough. It usually doesn’t get dark enough unless the rain delays you by an hour or two in the afternoon, so don’t bank on it.
Once you’ve successfully done Volcan Pacaya, consider doing Volcan Acatenango.
Or not. Your life might be significantly better if you have just never heard of Acatenango, to be honest.
But it might also become significantly better once you finish it.