Pacaya Volcano Climb: December 6th, 2009
I’ve been to Antigua a dozen times. It sits at the base of the towering 8,000+ ft Pacaya Volcano. I’d always wondered what the view would be like from the top. Last time I was here a couple of years ago I had heard that local tour guides had started running tours to the top to see the active lava. I promised myself once I came back I’d give it a shot. Yesterday, during the end of our 1 week stay in Antigua, we booked a guide (at about $25pp) and today we made the attempt. I had heard it isn’t easy and is somewhat dangerous depending on who you speak with. As a matter of fact, I had spoken to a quite a few people who said the climb was the hardest thing they’d ever done which left me a little apprehensive. We were told that the hike is about 2 miles with the first 1 3/4 not so bad but the last ¼ mile… brutal.
We decided on the late day tour rather than the morning tour as we were told that if the clouds part you can see a magnificent sunset. Also, to see the lava in all it’s glory.. you need to see it after dark. On the flipside of that Quatzal is the fact that you have to climb down in the dark. Not something I was looking forward to but .. as “Danger” is my middle name.. that’s what we decided to do. Our mini-bus picked us up at 2pm for the 1.5 hour drive to the base area where we were to climb for 2 hours, stay on top about 30 minutes and watch the sun go down, then descend. The weather was ideal at 72 degrees near the base with sunny, azure skies filled with billowing white cumulus clouds. My attitude is positive. My spirit strong. I’m psyched!
We carried the following: Backpacks with multiple layers of cloths, water, flashlights, snacks, 2 cameras, hiking sticks, and wore real hiking boots. We were told the heat from the lava at the top will make tennis shoe wearers uncomfortable. We took their word for it.
Before I go further let me state the following pertinent details. I am 54 years old and relatively fit. I don’t drink or smoke. I’m not overweight.. Perhaps 2-4lbs over. I hike about 4-6 miles every week on up and down trails off the Blue Ridge Parkway. My wife, who will be doing the Pacaya climb with me, is 13 years younger and in perfect shape ..ie.. slim and trim who does hard work with her horses every day. I’d like to think that we’re a cut above the typical “American” health curve.
Here’s the brutal truth… Pacaya kicked our butts. I made it about ¾ of 1 mile .. not even ½ way and gave up just before a massive coronary and/or aneurism kicked in. Within 200 yards I knew I’d never make it as the grade was brutal. At about ¼ mile I’m dizzy from breathing so hard, but I will myself on. My legs aren’t a problem.. It’s mostly my lungs. I pass a few red faced people with a look in their eyes that says.. “save yourself.. turn back..” I pass Lance Armstrong who looks beaten. A little further up, I see a couple of Maasai tribesman .. breathless. At about the ¾ mile mark I see a couple of Nigerian marathoners calling it quits. It’s THAT tough.
My wife made it another ½ mile or so before she could climb no further on her own energy so she rented a horse to take her to the base of the lava field. Think of it this way.. The climb up Pacaya is 2 miles almost straight up.. It would be like climbing the stairs of oh.. about 7 Empire state buildings end to end except your footing isn‘t as good.. And then when you get to the base of the lava flow near the top.. that‘s when it really gets hard for the last 20 minutes of the climb. Back at base camp afterwards, I overheard professional back-packers/hikers who said it was the toughest hike they’d ever made. They all looked to be around 25-35 or so. Nuff said.
What makes things worse.. The guides who lead the group insist that everyone stay together.. Meaning.. the slowest person has to walk as fast as the fastest climber or the guide. I refused to play that game as seeing lava isn’t worth a stroke so I stopped whenever my heart rate exceeded 330 beats per minute. Apparently.. this idea of self preservation is frowned upon by the local tour guides. Every time I’d stop to rest, the guide would stop the entire group until I caught up… and honestly… I didn’t care. She’d always greet me with a nasty frown. Her concern for my well being was touching.
Bringing up the rear of every group is a local or two on horseback taunting the slowest few… “ Taxi.. Taxi.. $20 US”.. The higher you make it on the trail.. The lower the price goes. The horses are always coming up behind you. You stop. They stop. Their riders hovering over you like hungry vultures waiting for your carcass to admit defeat.
My wife made it to the top with the help of one of the aforementioned emaciated horses. She said the last 20 minutes of the climb was indeed treacherous. Many people fell both on the way up, at the top, and on the way down. One guy showed me his bloody hands where he took a serious tumble into the razor sharp lava flow. Amber got some good pics of both the lava and the sunset and was glad she achieved the summit as was everyone else I spoke with. Was I disappointed that I failed.. Of course, but I know I’ll be back sooner or later and NOW I know how to make it up with little effort…
So between the two of us.. This is our combined “realistic” advice for mere mortals who are thinking of climbing the Pacaya Volcano..
1. No matter what you read here or on other travel sites.. Unless you have something to prove to the world, forget about subjecting yourself to the 2 mile climb from hell. Rent a freakin’ horse at base camp and ride to the base of the lava flow where you‘ll have energy left for the REALLY hard last 20 minutes. You have nothing to prove to your fellow hikers or the rest of the world and you will thank me later.
2. Bring a backpack with some extra clothing. A jacket for sure as you will be soaking wet from all the sweating and you will get cold on the way down. It’s also windy towards the summit.
3. Nobody else mentions this but we agree that light gloves would be very important.
4. Hiking boots are a must.. Not tennis shoes or flip flops.
5. A walking/hiking stick is a prerequisite. We hike regularly and brought our own collapsible LEKI walking sticks but no one else did. If you don’t have one, you can rent sticks from the dozens of locals who rent them as you get off the bus.
6. Take water and snacks. You’ll need both, although you can buy drinks and snacks at the base camp store. FYI.. They do NOT accept US dollars or credit cards there.
7. If you can afford it.. Hire a private tour service (at about twice the price) for the hike because if you go for the cheaper method .. like we did.. you’ll run into lots of downsides including the aforementioned disgruntled hiking guide who will insist on dictating the pace. Anther downside of going with a large group.. While the 1.25 hour drive to the site from Antigua isn’t bad even in a mini-bus crammed with 16 people (like ours was), .. the ride back isn’t as pleasant. Picture this…On our return trip the mini-bus filled with 15 people who had just sweated more than they ever had in their entire life. Some had, in the course of their upbringing, discovered the virtues of deodorant.. Some hadn’t. It’s an enclosed environment.. with the windows closed and the heater on because it’s cold after dark. The stink is thick. Our driver is insisting on cranking up his Mexican-polka CD which consists of (as best as I can tell) nothing but the same repeated bass riff…. And although the roads back to Antigua are treacherous and poorly lighted .. Our driver is on his cell phone the entire drive.
We paid for our tour through AVIATUR Travel Agency in Antigua. We just walked up the day before. It’s located over by the Arch maybe 50 yards from Frieda’s restaurant. Fernando runs the place and speaks English. Nice guy with reasonable prices. Total cost was less than $25USpp or so.
For a complete trip report for our Asheville to Antigua to Copan to Antigua .. Let me know..(--) Our side trip to Copan was most excellent.