Categories: Central AmericaGuatemala

A Little Climb…Red Hot Lava and an Active Volcano

Mini pandemonium broke out as six of us teetered on a jaggedly tiny ledge of dried volcanic lava – although the top surface of the lava was hard and quite solid under our feet, the heat radiating from every single crevice of the charred gray rock had me feeling like a pot roast in a slow cooker.

Standing nearby was our guide – and though he had just ungracefully deposited six of us here, perching on a lookout spot that you pretty much need help to jump onto, he was now far away helping the other members of our group.

So we stood on the ledge, urgently snapping quick photos of the nearby red hot lava while throwing beseeching looks toward our guide. Giving up though, we had no choice but to cling to each other on the ledge while hoping for a breeze to lessen the intense heat steadily building under our feet.

Climbing Pacaya Volcano in Antigua, Guatemala

Now we’re going to Tarantino this story to find out just precisely why I was standing stranded on a ledge of hot lava rock.

In every country there are a handful of experiences that everyone has done. So, if you’ve been to Antigua, Guatemala, then you’ve probably climbed the Pacaya Volcano. Not to be the exception to the rule, lemming-like I also signed up for the tour, put on my sturdy hiking boots and long pants and pondered this active volcano that currently and regularly spits out chunks of lava.

The hike up Pacaya could probably be really lovely if it weren’t for overwhelming scent of horse manure steaming from the piles lining the trail. Thankfully, a reprieve came three quarters of the way through the hike you reach the lava. This has to be one of the neatest parts of the climb. We paralleled the lava stream and it was such a dichotomy to see the bright green grass sidle right up next to tall and intensely intimidating stream of dark gray lava rock.

Once the grass ends though, it’s time to climb over the lava rock for a closer view of Pacaya. Suffice to say, this is when the hike starts getting dicey. I’m not the only person in the group who shot a mildly concerned look at the prominent “Danger” sign on our path which we passed by with such speed and enthusiasm from our guide that you’d have thought it said “Disney World, Straight Ahead.”

I was eternally grateful for my 5Q rented walking stick as I picked my way across the lava rock, feeling the strange heat emanating from below grow stronger the longer we hiked over the lava rock. Every few minutes I’d hear a loud popping sound and whip my head to the right to catch site of Pacaya spitting out molten rocks into the sky.

Now to clarify, we were nowhere near close to the top of the volcano, that’s just not possible, but as we approached the highest point tourists can safely go our guide beckoned us still further, past everyone else and lured us with the dangling carrot of actually seeing some red lava.

Steadfastly we trouped along behind our guide, the heat was now palpable; I’m from Florida so it takes a lot of heat to phase me, and I was phased. And alarmed.

But I did want to see the red lava.

So as the group continued to pick our way toward the ledge, the first of us to arrive were given a boost and deposited on the rock ledge – red hot lava clearly in sight but still far away. And though I was content with this viewing, others in the group had begun to venture toward other ledges and our guide scurried away to help them keep from killing themselves in the lava quest.

And as we stood there, the breeze died down and the once relatively bearable heat became suffocating. One of the girls looked down at her ankles – she had ignored the recommendation to wear long pants and her ankles were turning alarming shades of deep red and she was in pain.

Mini pandemonium broke out as the six of us teetered on a jaggedly tiny ledge of dried volcanic lava…

Climbing to Safety & Roasting Marshmallows

David, one of the men in our group was nearby and quickly picked his way to the ledge, offering a hand and helping all of us move away from the heat.

We gratefully began to scurry back to the other tourists while our guide continued to seek out “the perfect lava viewpoint.”

Safely back with the other tourists we broke out the marshmallows – using a long stick mini trees of eight marshmallows were deposited into a pocket of heat nearby. Seconds later the marshmallows emerged toasted to perfection – it’s that hot up there. And while I snacked on my granola bar I was happy for the uniqueness of the experience but also quite content to know that I would never feel the need to climb an active volcano again.

Climbing Pacaya Tips

Pacaya is definitely one of those experiences that you just wouldn’t even remotely be able to do back home. And as fun as it is, it’s legitimately dangerous. I’m glad I did it—it’s pretty neat and how many times in your life can you actually visible see red hot lava? But you need to be careful, the week after I climbed to people died on a similar hike to what I did.

Clothing: Take their recommendations, wear sturdy shoes (otherwise they’ll melt off of your feet) and long pants. My super-slick Columbia pants served me well and I was grateful to be wearing them.

Gear: They’ll sell drinks along the trail, but take a flashlight if you are doing the night hike. I feel like the day hike was dangerous enough, but if you’re sold on doing the night hike, get a walking stick and flashlight.

Advice: It truly is dangerous, so listen to your guide, and in some cases, be more cautious than your guide. The two people who died recently, it was a woman off-track exploring with her guide.

This post was last modified on May 15, 2010, 4:21 am