Recently I went on a trip to Antigua, Guatemala and had the opportunity to go to the top of an active volcano just a short distance away from the city called Pacaya. One of the main reasons we chose to visit Antigua was the proximity to active volcanoes because ever since I saw the Ring of Fire IMAX when I was a child I have been fascinated by volcanoes and lava.
So we reserved our spot to go to the volcano and they gave us a slip of paper that told us to pack snacks, water, a flashlight (we signed up for the afternoon/night hike) and wear running shoes or hiking boots. The tour group picked us up at our hotel and we were off for our one and a half hour ride in a van packed with people on winding roads – for a girl like me who gets a little car sick, keeping the window cracked was important on this drive.
When we arrived at the base of the volcano, we were immediately met by the children who live in the village at the base of the volcano, with hands full of walking sticks and “ponchos” telling us to buy these things from them. The “ponchos” mostly turned out to be garbage bags but it was rainy and the thought of a long hike in the rain for those in our group who did not bring rain gear probably made garbage bags look like a reasonable idea! The children demonstrated how sturdy and good their walking sticks were and said “stick for you?” One man (pictured) did not want a stick but this little boy followed him for about the first 10 minutes of the hike. You might also note that this man was not wearing appropriate footwear – socks and sandals seem like a very bad choice on a rainy day up a volcano – but maybe that’s just me.
Our guide told us that the trip to the top of the volcano was going to be at most 1 hour and 45 minutes. The rain decided to stop a few minutes into our trip so we were able to pack up our rain gear and continue on our journey. The first hour or so of the hike was on steep, narrow dirt paths in the forest; as you can imagine it was pretty muddy after the afternoon rain. It was at this point that I knew it was going to be my fate to have very muddy pants before our ride home. With no lighting along the path the journey back down the volcano was sure to be a slippery adventure.
With about 30 minutes left in our trip up to the top we walked out of the forest and the landscape changed completely – suddenly there were no more trees or life of any kind – only black lava rocks as far as the eye could see. The path we took across was mostly made of tiny tiny rocks, which is very much like trying to climb uphill in a sandpit or on a treadmill – you use a lot of energy without making much progress. The altitude change made it harder to breathe and I kept having to take little breaks, but with a glowing river of lava in sight it was definitely no time to quit.
When we reached the top, the heat radiating from the lava beneath the thin crust of cooled lava felt a lot like the beginning of a sunburn on my skin. We used our trusty sticks to tap the surface in front of each step to be sure the crust would not crack beneath our weigh – sometimes the tap would cause a whole patch of crust to fall in – yikes! Certain cracks exposed glowing lava flowing beneath – it was incredible! I’m including some photos below but I realize now it’s pretty difficult to get the sense of the lava flowing from any of the photos – but believe me – it was an awesome experience and I would recommend it to anyone who has the opportunity to see an active volcano up close. It was completely worth the wacky van ride and trying uphill journey!
A WORD OF ADVICE FOR ANYONE INTERESTED IN TAKING THIS TYPE OF JOURNEY - When we made it back to the bottom of the very muddy mountain in the dark of night (and yes, I did manage to slide down a bit of the trail on my rear end) I realized that my running shoes were a slightly different shape! The heat of the surface near the flowing lava heated the puffy layer of rubber in the soles of my shoes and as I tromped down the mountain the softened layer shifted and my shoes were newly lopsided. Perhaps hiking boots would have been a better choice. Oh well, I guess you learn something every day! Also, note that the stick you may “purchase” at the bottom of the volcano will likely be more of a “rental” when you return to the bottom and the same children who 3 hours earlier had sold you the stick will be welcoming you back to the village by saying “stick for me?” It probably wouldn’t fit in your luggage anyway.
A diorama of the volcano and our path up to the top.
I was laughing while sliding backwards down the slope trying to pose for this one!
Look! That’s real lava glowing in there! It was very interesting to see the folds of the surface of the cooled lava flows.
One spot I tapped with my walking stick and decided not to step.
This guy in our group was close enough to the river of lava to set his walking stick on fire – it was incredible!
Our guide brought a bag of marshmallows to the top and handed them out so that people could roast them over the lava.