The amazingly breath-taking volcano Pacaya was the highlight of my stay in Guatemala.
Situated 30k south of Antigua it rises 2552 metres, or 8371ft into the sky. This very active volcano is a must see. Guides reckon anyone can do it, I say make sure you have a head for heights and an average-to-good level of fitness. It’s not so much the walking; it’s what you’re walking on, namely the old lava, which is very unstable and sometimes hot. However, reaching the summit and standing metres away from flowing lava, you could be forgiven for thinking you have stepped out of reality and onto the set of some discovery program.
Be sure to do the afternoon/evening tour. This will give you the experience of the amazing views in daylight then the fiery red glow of the flowing river of lava by nightfall.
Tours can be easily booked with one of the many tour operators scattered around Antigua, (which makes a great base for the trip) and cost approx Q25 ($3.30).
The tour begins with an hour-long bus ride; this in itself is an experience. An old chicken bus is used, and winds precariously close to the road edges. It rattles and chugs its way up the mountainous region, skimming very close to the edge, with drops that seem to go on forever. The road itself is bumpy and uncomfortable. You pass many little villages along the road side nestled into the mountains—one could only imagine the trips the villagers need to make to get back into the nearby towns and civilization. However they always greet you with a happy smile and a cheerful wave, even on this particular day, which just happened to be wet and windy.
Arriving at San Francisco de Sales, the entrance to the volcano, you will be provided with a well-needed toilet break and a stick to aid your climb (little known to us at this point how useful it would be). Donkeys are also available for part of the hike. This main route is patrolled by rangers (guadabosques), which makes it safer (muggings have been known) and allegedly, this is the easiest way up.
Armed with your stick, and your guide with his machete, you begin your climb. You are mainly on dirt tracks to the first check point. Note: Guides walk fast and you are against the clock to reach the lava by dark. The route is difficult, and getting used to the pace can be initially tough. However, the check points are closely positioned and the guides allow short, but well needed rests.
The dirt tracks, which make up most of the first and second check points, allow you to take in the scenery, forestry and wildlife. This particular day the weather was getting increasingly worse, so views were somewhat disguised. We trekked on though, slowly making our way up the volcano. By the time we reached the third check point, the light was beginning to fade quickly and the ground was changing into crumbling particles of cooled lava remains. Here it was a case of two steps forward and five back as the ground literally disappears under your feet. I began to wish that I had worn proper hiking boots and had brought a torch (a piece of vital equipment that I forgot).