THE SMALL CENTRAL AMERICAN nation of Guatemala packs a huge number of attractions into an area about the size of Tennessee. Chief among them are the volcanoes which loom over the Western Highlands of the country in a spectacular spine running from the border with Mexico in the north to El Salvador in the south.
While nearly 40 of these incredible geographical features reside in Guatemala, Pacaya is one of the best-known. One of just three active volcanoes in the country, it recorded several amazing eruptions in the last 50 years, some covering nearby towns in a blanket of ash. You’ll be pleased to hear the last eruption took place in 2010, and the volcano now offers a popular daytrip for visitors from both Guatemala City and Antigua.
Just more than an hour by car from each of these cities, Pacaya proves supremely accessible. Regular group tours depart from both Guatemala City, the capital, and Antigua, the colonial city many visitors use as a base. You can make your own way to the welcome center in the village of San Francisco de Sales, pay the 50 quetzales (about $6.50) entrance fee and hire an obligatory guide, with the price subject to negotiation. But it’s more convenient to join a tour with everything included; you’ll usually pay $15–20 with tour operators.
Most tours leave at 6 a.m. or 2 p.m. to avoid climbing during the hottest hours of the day, and you’ll soon see why. Even though the altitude takes the edge off the Central American heat, you’ll still spend two hours walking uphill on black volcanic rock. The summit of the volcano sits 8,573 feet above sea level, and you will gain 1,500 feet in elevation over the course of the hike.
The moderately difficult route features some loose, sandy sections that prove tiring, but the locals are on hand to help out if needed. Local children offer hiking sticks for rent for less than a dollar, and you can choose to ride a mule to the top if you can’t take on the hike. You don’t need to bring much gear aside from a sturdy pair of shoes and a light jacket to keep the wind off your skin, and local people sell a variety of snacks if you need an energy boost on the way up.
While you may have seen photos of red-hot lava running down the slopes of Pacaya, these rivers of molten rock have cooled and solidified since the 2010 eruption. This makes the volcano safer to visit, and the spectacular view over the surrounding mountains and valleys more than compensates for the lack of lava. To appreciate the power of the volcano, many guides hand out marshmallows which you can toast over one of the many vents, providing a tantalizing tease of the energy that sits below the rocks.
One of the best times to visit Pacaya is in November, the beginning of the dry season in Guatemala, when the area surrounding the volcano is lush and verdant with new growth. You’ll climb through the forest on the lower slopes before emerging onto the exposed volcanic rock and looking down over the incredible view below. Your guide will take you to look at the lava “sea” left behind by eruptions, and you can gaze over the volcano chain leading north to Fuego and Acatenango, two other well-known volcanoes near Antigua.
Fuego remains incredibly active and caused mass evacuations in 2018 due to a huge eruption.
Tourists aren’t allowed to climb it for safety reasons, but you can summit Acatenango to look down over the crater of Fuego, which sits nearby. Those with the time to summit both volcanoes should look into staying at the eco-friendly Kawilal Hotel, a lodge in the town of Amatitlán on the road from Guatemala City to Pacaya. The adjoining Santa Teresita Spa offers the perfect place to loosen up those weary legs after a long hike.
Hiking Pacaya provides a great way to appreciate the power of volcanoes without committing to a multiday trip or investing in loads of technical gear. With such great views from the top, easy access and just enough difficulty to make you feel like you’ve achieved something after the hike, it’s no wonder it’s one of the most famous tourist attractions in Guatemala. You can even book a tour online before you travel for the ultimate peace of mind.
Guatemala Info to Go
The closest international airport to Pacaya is La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City. It offers daily flights to U.S. hubs such as Atlanta (ATL) and New York (JFK) as well as other destinations in Mexico, Central and South America. It is possible to travel by bus from the airport to Pacaya, but it involves lots of walking and multiple transfers. The easiest way to transfer is to get a private taxi, an Uber or a shared shuttle service to either Guatemala City center or Antigua.
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