Blessed with a base in Antigua for my three month stay in Guatemala, so many places were so very accessible including the amazing, breathtaking Volcan Pacaya, which was (quite literally!) the highlight. Situated 30km south of Antigua and rising 8371 feet into the sky, this active volcano is a once in a lifetime experience. Guides reckon anyone can do it, I say make sure you have a head for heights and an average to good level of fitness. It’s not so much the hiking that’s the problem; it’s navigating your way over the old lava, which is unstable and sometimes hot! However, reaching the summit and resting just metres away from a glowing red river of Lava, you could be forgiven for thinking you have stepped out of reality and onto the set of some discovery programme.
We began the tour by jumping on an old chicken bus which rattled its way through the mountainous region for a good hour before reaching our start point; I lost count the amount of times I had to close my eyes and hang on to a fellow tourist as it skimmed so very close to the precipitous edge. We passed villages precariously balanced in the mountains where locals popped out to wave us on our way with a happy smile, even on this particular day which just happened to be grey, windy and looking increasingly like it was about to tip it down.
At San Francisco de Sales, the entrance to the volcano, we began our climb. Feeling like a young explorer on her way to discover some new land, I was filled with enthusiasm. To the first check point we hiked mainly on rough muddy ground but on a sharp incline. The guide was on some sort of mission and his pace was killing me. The route was difficult and getting used to the speed was initially tough. The dirt tracks which make up most of the first two check points allow you to take in the scenery, forestry and wildlife. We trekked on making our way quickly up the volcano. By the time we reached the third check point, daylight was beginning to fade and the ground was changing into crumbling particles of cooled lava. Here it was a case of two steps forward and five back as the ground literally disappeared under my feet. I began to wish that I was both wearing proper hiking boots instead of an old pair of trainers and had brought a torch – a piece of vital equipment that I entirely forgot.
As I scrambled, climbed, fell and slid over the unstable, sharp, lunar-like ground, I took a moment’s rest, looked up into the darkness and there, on the horizon I saw clouds of orange-yellow smoke and a tiny thin glowing red line. This was the live volcano doing its job, providing the most stunning backdrop in the night sky. Every so often it wafted a warm, musty gust of air past me, a very welcome break from the cold, wet wind that had been blasting for the last hour! A new enthusiasm came over me and the final tricky section was conquered.
I scrambled over the last large pieces of rock that formed a bank next to this red, bubbling flowing river of fire that now sizzled just yards away; the ground became hot and the cries of excitement from my fellow travellers ignited the atmosphere. Large boulders of molten rock tumbled down the river, melting anything and everything in its path. The heat was truly immense. Everywhere else was pure darkness; I couldn’t see my route down, I couldn’t see the edge or the horizon, only the lava’s glow. A yellowy orange smoke rose from the ground with the very distinct smell of sulphur. As I took a minute to appreciate exactly what I was seeing, I looked up, the clouds cleared momentarily and in the rain and cloud filled night the stars started dancing; perfect little jewels in the sky.
Our decent was fast approaching and as the weather turned into a raging storm, we were urged to hurry down! I started very carefully, still not having a torch and the night being one of the darkest I could remember; I tested the ground before committing my body weight, and used my hands to steady me. I soon realised that this was a total waste of time and of my precious, somewhat lacking energy. So I sat down on my behind and attempted to slide down. Finally I reached the second check point and being back on a walkable surface, I removed the large pieces of rock that had embedded themselves into my behind, hair and hands, took the unwanted souvenirs out of my shoes and started to walk. Well, shuffle, if we’re being honest.
We eventually reached the entrance gate, and café. I got myself a cup of tea and held on to it tightly just to transfer some of its heat. I took off my wet clothes and boarded the bus home, absolutely elated that I had achieved this but unbelievably glad it was over! Volcan Pacaya can only be described as totally out of this world: dangerous, brilliant and absolutely worth every second! My advice: check the weather, get yourself a pair of hiking boots and most importantly do not forget your torch!