Guatemala has 37 volcanoes, 3 of them are active. From Antigua, you can climb several volcanoes, two of them active volcanoes, Pacaya (8,373 feet/ 2,552 meters) or Fuego. From elsewhere in the country, you can climb any number of the other dormant volcanoes. So, while we were in Antigua we decided to climb Pacaya, one of Guatemala’s most active volcanoes. It is close and easily accessible, and a short day hike.
I know you are dying to know, the third active volcano is Santiaguito (8,200 feet/ 2,500 meters) in the Western Highlands of Guatemala near the town of Quetzaltenango.
Antigua and the Volcanoes
From Antigua you can see three volcanoes- Acatenago (13,041 feet/ 3975 meters), Fuego (12346 feet/ 3,763 meters) and Agua (12,339 feet/ 3,761 meters). The massive volcano visible to the south of Antigua is Agua. Fuego and Acatenago are slightly further away but still visible to the west. Fuego is active and throughout the day you see smoke rising from it. (One of Antigua’s many rooftop bars or restaurants provides a great view.) Acatenago actually has two summits, so it appears as though there are three volcanoes.
Pacaya is not visible from Antigua. It is active and has been recording activity regularly since 1965 (there are many recorded eruptions dating back into the 1500’s). It’s last major eruption with substantial lava flows was in 2010. Pacaya is still active and smoke is visible. Many scientists believe it is due for a major eruption again. (It is monitored.)
The history of Antigua is closely tied to the nearby volcanoes. Antigua was once the capital of what was known as Central America (before Guatemala was even a country) before it was abandoned in 1541 following the eruption of Agua, when it spewed rocks and water over the city. This was the second time the city had been abandoned, the present site is the second attempt following an eruption of another volcano which resulted in a hot mud flow destroying the first capital established by the Spanish Conquistadors, a site now known as Ciudad Vieja.
Hiking Pacaya Volcano
Located within Pacaya Volcano National Park, the three-kilometer (1.8 mile) trail is well marked. The hike is a pretty steep climb, but achievable with moderate fitness. Don’t forget the altitude, at (5,200 feet or 1587 meters (you don’t climb to the top of the caldera which is at 2,552 meters) you feel the lack of oxygen.
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If you still want to go to the top, but don’t want to walk, the local “taxi” service is available. Donkeys or burros with guides leading the animal are readily available, both at the beginning and further along if you change your mind.
The hike has several lookouts. One has stunning views all the way to Guatemala City (18 miles or 30 kilometers to the south) on a clear day! You can see the Laguna de Volcano – the lake providing water to many of the local villages, and the geothermal power station which provides energy to these same villages. There is also a great viewpoint for Agua, Fuego and Acatenago volcanos. All of these provide great rest stops on the way up!
And at the top you are rewarded with panoramic views and your first glimpse of the caldera of Pacaya.
The Lava Shop on Pacaya
From the top viewpoint, you head down into the lava fields. You can see vents where steam escapes. The landscape looks like you might imagine the moon, except it is all black as far as the eye can see.
And then you come to the Lava Shop. A most unusual place for a shop! Indeed National Geographic has recognized it as one of the world’s most unusual locations! We were told it is one of only three countries that makes jewelry from lava rocks. (Iceland and the Canary Islands were the other two.) The shop is a local initiative, begun after the last eruption of Pacaya which destroyed the nearby villages. In an effort to get back on their feet and generate some much needed income, the Lava Shop was born.
The shop sells jewelry handcrafted from coconut shells, lava and silver. You can purchase bracelets, necklaces and earrings. You can read the story of the jewelry, Mayan Rebirth here.
Using one of the steam vents, you have the opportunity to roast a marshmallow or two. When you bend over the vent to roast you get an idea of just how much heat is coming out of the earth. In no time your marshmallow is gooey and ready to eat.
Getting to Pacaya from Antigua
Any of the many tour agencies in Antigua sell “transportation and guides” to Pacaya. For about $10 USD or 75 quetzales it includes pick-up at your hotel, transport and a guide for the hike. You will need to pay a 50 quetzales per person entry fee into the park.
We saw much more expensive tours, some as high as $135 per person. This is not a difficult hike, it is signed (including what the guide tells you is written on the signs in English), and the $10 round trip shared transportation and guide, which is provided by the National Park were fine. For $135 the quality of the transportation might be more comfortable but . . .
Tours run at 6 am or 2 pm for sunset. The volcano and the sky tend to be quite clear in the morning. If you do the sunset tour, bring a flashlight for the walk down as it will be dark.
Pacaya, Fuego, Agua and Acatenago can all be climbed from Antigua. Acatenago is usually done as an overnight hike. On the first day you climb part way, pitch a tent, then leave in the dark to reach the summit for sunrise. It provides a view of the other three volcanoes. While we were in Guatemala, six hikers died in an accident on Acatenago Volcano. Restrictions have now been placed on overnight hikes on this volcano.