Hiking Pacaya

by Kshaunish Jaini

The small South American country of Guatemala is known all over the world as an ecological hotspot, owing to its vast forests and amazing biodiversity. The word Guatemala itself is derived from a Nahuatl phrase that translates to ‘a place of many trees’. Coupled with this rich biodiversity, Guatemala is also the birthplace of the great Mayan civilization that once extended all over the Mesoamericas. The Mayans are believed to be one of the most advanced ancient civilizations in the world, with wonderful achievements in the arts of building, astronomy, mathematics and language. One can only speculate how much of the Mayan spirit still exists in modern day Guatemala. For an answer, one can perhaps turn to the great Guatemalan landscape that has not just witnessed, but also participated in the centuries of changes between these two points in time. And what better witness can one find, than the great Pacaya volcano, that has been fuming for the past 23,000 years.

Guatemala is a country that is replete with volcanoes. There around 37 volcanoes in the country, out of which four remain active at this point in time. They are Pacaya, Santiaguito, Feugo and Tacana. Guatemala is a part of the Central American Volcanic Arc - a chain of volcanoes that extends parallel to the Pacific coastline of the Central American Isthmus, covering Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and northern Panama. It is not uncommon to see a volcano huffing and puffing on the horizon as you drive on a Guatemalan highway.

Hiking Pacaya

Photo by Kays

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The Pacaya Volcano

Volcan Pacaya is 23,000 years old and has erupted at least 23 times since the Spanish invasion of Guatemala in the 16th Century. It rises to an elevation of 2552 meters, and is categorized as an active complex volcano, which means that it is characterized by a mixed landform consisting of related volcanic centers and their associated lava flows and pyroclastic rock. The Pacaya volcano has literally shaped the land around itself. About 1100 years ago, a massive eruption resulted in a landslide that that travelled more than 25 kilometers away from the mountain, covering the land with volcanic rock and ash, all the way down to the Pacific coastal plain. Today, the Pacaya volcano stands at the center of the Pacaya National Park - an area conserved for its unique ecosystem and biodiversity by the Guatemalan government.

After being dormant for a century, Pacaya erupted violently in 1965, and has been erupting continuously since then. In 1998, several eruptions emitted lava, debris and ash at a height of 1500-5000 meters. In 2006, an increase in volcanic activity resulted in rivers of lava flowing downhill from the Pacaya summit. In May 2010, a major eruption occurred, with ash rain and tremors all the way up to Guatemala City. The last reported activity on the Pacaya volcano was on 2nd March 2014.

Volcano Hike Pacaya

Volcano Hike Pacaya. Photo by Amsler

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How to Get to Pacaya

Volcan Pacaya lies around 30 kilometers away from the capital Guatemala City and also the city of Antigua. It is accessible from either city by car/bus which takes you to the base of the hiking trail that leads into the National Park for a nominal fee. Here you will have to procure the services of a guide who would take you further along the trail. Entry to the park would cost about 50 Quetzal (7 USD). You can also cover the trail on horseback, which would cost you about 300 Quetzal (40 USD).

The trail is a medium difficulty climb, with parts that can get quite steep at times. After about an hour and a half of hiking, the fuming volcano summit becomes visible. Due to the recent activity, hikers are not allowed to go beyond a certain point midway up the volcano. Instead, the guide takes you to a flat lava river basin made up of black pyroclastic rock that resembles an otherworldly landscape. Here if you are lucky, you might catch a glimpse of a lava stream right beneath your feet. The rock is so hot that roasting marshmallows is a favorite tourist activity at this point!

Volcano Hike Pacaya

Hiking Pacaya Volcano. Photo by Kai

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Things to Keep in Mind While Hiking Pacaya

  1. Respect the fact that you are climbing an active volcano. Obey the guide and do not stray away into inadmissible territory
  2. Wear thick soled shoes. It is not uncommon for soles to melt while stepping on hot rock.
  3. Time your hike in a way that you can witness the sunset from the top of Pacaya. Its a sight to behold.
  4. Carry marshmallows!
  5. The locals sell sturdy hiking sticks at the base of the mountain. They are a helpful investment during the steeper parts of the trail.
  6. Do not forget to carry water.

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