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“Pacaya Volcano Climb: Reality Bites.. Tips and the Truth”
Review of Pacaya Volcano

Pacaya Volcano
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Hike to Pacaya Volcano from Antigua
Ranked #5 of 93 things to do in Antigua
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Reviewed December 11, 2009

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.

66  Thank NCPirate49
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.
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Reviewed November 22, 2009

The shuttle for Pacaya volcano picked us all up promptly at 2:30 (not bad for central American time) and went around to pick up as many passengers as would fit in the shuttle, which was basically a minivan like they have on those shows “18 kids and counting.” But in those shows, they have two vans. Well, we managed to fit about 15 people in one, and that’s for the “nice” shuttle services. The chicken busses are a whole other story. Anyway, I had a bumpy trip to the bottom of the mountain. I was equipped with Bonine, to prevent motion sickness, and a beer, just because. I chatted with the other passengers on the way and was excited to start hiking.

I have hiked to volcanoes before. I walked to an inactive volcano in Santorini, were I could look into the crater and see the beautiful scenery; and to Poas, an active volcano in Costa Rica that is basically a warm sulfur pit, rich with blues and greens. But this would be different. This volcano had hot lava, and we could get close enough that we could roast marshmallows at the top. I really wasn’t sure what to expect. We arrived at the bottom, where we paid our entrance fee and then returned to the van. We then arrived at the base of the mountain, where 7 kids with walking sticks attacked us. Well, they didn’t attack us with sticks, but they attacked us with offers… “5 Quetsales. You need?” “estick?” I wanted to buy one from the only girl there, but she didn’t have change for my 10. She looked forlorn when I had to give my 5 to one of her male competitors, so I told her next time she should be sure to be prepared so that she could sell more than the boys. She just nodded, still wanting my 5 Quetzales.

We went up as a group. “Los Lobos,” and in an hour or so, I started to think of us as “Los Locos.” In our group, we had 5 men and 5 women. There was the option of taking a horse up the first portion of the hike, and two of the women opted for that immediately. The rest of us proceeded. Within the first 10 feet, it was clear to me that this wasn’t like my other volcanic excursions. Those were more like walking up mild hills. No, this was Hiking. After the first little portion, which was still paved with steps, the other women and one of the men opted for a horse. There were men on horse the whole way asking “Taxi? Taxi?” and as we went higher and higher, more people gave up on walking and opted for one of these cabs. But I hiked on, the only woman left on her own two feet.

I felt like carrion to the vultures. Now there were fewer people walking, and there were a few horses without passengers as we headed up the hill. I could feel my face getting flush and my skin getting sweaty, despite the cool weather. Every time our group would stop to rest, they would ride up to me on their horses. “Taxi? Taxi? Ahora, si necessitas.” I probably did look like I needed to hop on a horse, but that only pushed me harder. I realized I was the only woman with a bunch of young healthy guys who probably maxed out at the age of 23. But I knew I wasn’t going to get on any horse, especially not on this muddy steep mountain.

I kept walking. The paved steps gave way to a trail full of mud and horse excrement. It was still raining and muddy, and I soon gave up on trying to watch where I stepped. After a few breaks, the mud gave way to sand, and I soon wished I was back on the mud again. The sand actually fine volcanic ash that was very fine. Every time I took a step on the steep mountain, I slid backward a bit. We then took broke through the cloud line, and the rain stopped. We headed to a hill made entirely of volcanic ash, where we did “Ash Skiing,” which basically meant jumping as far and fast as you can down the ash hill. From there, it was straight up, with a mix of ash and volcanic rock. It was treacherous and slow-going, since it was dusk and difficult to see the path. I felt like I wouldn’t be able to make it, and had to pause every five minutes. I couldn’t help but think that my butt had better look fabulous as a result of this extreme workout. I trudged on.

Suddenly I felt it. As the path turned to all volcanic rock, the wind swept the heat down from the volcano. It reminded me of that particular smell in saunas--a dry earthy heat that at once soothes and also stuns your senses. The rocks under foot got larger and larger, and I could feel that they were hollow and seemed frail. They didn’t make the deep thunk that rocks normally make when you step on them. Instead, they had a hollow echo and were so fragile, the guide recommended poking them with a walking stick before stepping, so that our leg didn’t end up down in a lava flow.

Then there was the lava. We had to walk directly past hot glowing lava rocks. If someone tripped or was bumped, they would have fallen hands-first into the rocks. One of the hikers in our group stumbled and began to fall. The guide just yelled “NO NO NO!” and she instinctively retracted her hands. Thankfully, she regained her balance. We were told of people who fell, which wouldn’t be hard considering the terrain, and they sustained third degree burns. Another group was unlucky enough to be caught in a live lava flow, and sustained severe burns on their feet and legs. Keep in mind, this means hiking back down the mountain yourself minus the use of the burnt limb. There’s no helicopter lift here!

Finally, we were at the top and the color of the lava flow was unbelievable. Reddish orange steam lingered over the lava river. And the glow from the mouth of the lava was an intense white hot. We were so close we roasted the marshmallows that the kids below were selling in bags. And wow, they’re the best marshmallows I will ever eat in my life. I was in awe, and realized that I had likely just done the most physically challenging things I will ever do. Two women there said it was more difficult than childbirth, so I can only hope this Volcano was worse. And the view was unlike anything I have ever seen or anything I will ever see again. The three hour hike back in the dark was quiet as we all reveled in awe in our own accomplishments and at the marvel we had just witnessed. See more travel reviews and adventures at: [--].

16  Thank junglelawyer
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.
Reviewed October 18, 2009

The trip to climb the Pacaya Volcano was not billed as dangerous or very arduous. It was! My husband and I are both in our 60s and in good shape but this was the most dangerous and difficult adventure we have ever taken part in. The climb is steep to start with (I work out every day and I was out of breath after five minutes) and only got more difficult. We took the afternoon tour and were stuck in the middle of the mountain hours later in pitch black darkness. We never did make it to the top, where the steaming red, hot lava flows. I do have photos of it tho' because the guide took my camera up with him. Many of the other folks in the group (all in their 20s) said they never would have done the climb had they known how difficult it was going to be.

7  Thank Misstourguide
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.
Reviewed August 25, 2009

While in Antigua last week we decided to try out the Picaya Volano hike. It was very easy to arrange a cheap tour in Antigua and it ended up costing us $10 per person with Silva Travel.

The volcano itself was much cooler than I expected. Lava was gushing out of the side and we were able to come within one foot of the lava. It was so hot that you could only stand near it for a few seconds and I could feel the rubber on my shoes melting to the rock below my feet. Truly amazing!

You can see some of my pictures online at www.chasefoto.com under galleries -->Picaya volcano

5  Thank fotoadventures
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.
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Reviewed July 22, 2009

After arriving into Guatemala City airport, we went straight to Pacaya Volcano. Pacaya Volcano is great for experiencing lava flows up close. You need to purchase a ticket at the turn off of the highway onto the road up to the volcano. There are people wanting you to hire them for your guide here.

We decided to hike to the lava flows as the volcano was smoking at the summit and was to dangerous to visit. People at the lava flows had brought marshmallows and they shared them with us. We cooked our marshmallows from the heat vents near the lava flows. The heat from the flow was too intense to stand very close and roast marshmallows.

The round trip hike took about 3 or 4 hours.

I had read all about the "disappearing guide" robberies and was leary of hiring a guide. We parked in the "lot" outside of the ranger station and paid the lady in the house adjacent Q10 to watch the car. As you exit your car you get bombarded by all sorts for guides and horses.

We planned to do the hike ourselves but the ranger asked if we had been before. We responded that we had not and he highly recommended a guide. I asked him for a recommended guide and the ranger pointed to one and said he was good. Our guide also happened to be leading a horse. He said it was Q70 for a guide up to the lava flows. After a few hundred yards, my wife realized how strenuous it was going to be and asked how much to ride the horse. Our guide said it was Q100 each way, but that included the guide service. My wife felt it was worth the extra and she rode the horse up and back. You still have to hike the last steep part up to the flows, and the guide helped here up the loose lava rock and the tricky solid jagged lava rock.

It's probably too difficult a climb for children younger than 7 or 8 and overweight and out of shape persons. Our guide said that they will take young/overweight/out-of-shape people up in the afternoon to see the flows from a distance. As the sun goes over the other side of the volcano in the afternoon, you can see the lava flows from a distance.

My teenagers and I were fine on the hike, but it seemed longer than a couple of miles they said it was.

My daughter got a few minor scrapes from the sharp lava, but everyone else was careful and didn't get any scrapes. You can reduce the number of scrapes by wearing long pants.

Take a wind breaker/rain jacket for the wind on top.

Take about a liter/quart of water per person so you don't get dehydrated.

9  Thank Mark B
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.

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