From the town of Antigua, Guatemala we could see three volcanoes. The one that dominates the view is Volcán Agua. It lords over the town looking just like a volcano should—conical and rising straight from the ground with nary a foothill to block its impressive girth.
The first full day we were in Antigua, we took a taxi to Cerro de la Cruz where we were struck by the view of Agua Volcano fronted by the Spanish colonial city of Antigua. Before we even left Montana, I knew I wanted to climb a volcano in Guatemala, but I knew Agua wasn’t the one. It’s impressive from the ground, but I’d read of people being robbed on the way up if they didn’t bring a guard. Not exactly a family-friendly volcano hike.
I started looking for a volcano near Antigua, Guatemala that would work for us. I wanted a nice hike. I didn’t want it to be too long, since Finn, though fully capable, will only walk so far. I wanted an experience that would make an impression on the boys and their parents. I wanted to learn about the volcanic ecosystem and the villages living in its shadow. Bonus points if the volcano was active (but not dangerous). That’s a tall order, but I signed us up for a Volcan Pacaya walk with Old Town Outfitters in Antigua and got just what I wanted.
There are three active volcanoes in Guatemala – Volcano Pacaya, Volcan de Agua, and El Fuego, “Fire Volcano”—and 30-37 extinct or dormant volcanoes, depending on your source. The reason for all these volcanoes past and present is that Guatemala sits on three tectonic plates – the North American plate, the Cocos plate (on the Pacific side) and the Caribbean plate on the south end of the country. When one of these plates moves, the land erupts in earthquakes and volcanoes.
Because we are such hot weather wimps, I knew we wouldn’t be doing a lot of hiking in Guatemala. Based on our Guatemala itinerary, Antigua was the coolest place we would be visiting, thus the best for hiking. Everywhere else, we would focus on water sports or cultural experiences. And of all the attractions in Guatemala, volcano hiking has to be at the top of the list.
We met our guide, Alex, at the Old Town Outfitters office/store in Antigua. It was an easy five-block walk from our hostel and since we were the only ones on the tour, he didn’t even mind that we ran a little late. (Our breakfast at the hostel took FOREVER).
Alex grew up in Antigua and was instantly hospitable and friendly. We could have managed a Spanish tour, but his perfect English made it a lot easier on us. Alex has done a lot of Volcan Pacaya tours and expertly answered all of our questions (and you know we had a lot of questions).
Hiking Pacaya Volcano
We drove about an hour to the trailhead in the village of San Francisco de Sales and Alex navigated us through the kids renting walking sticks and the men offering horse rides. We met our park guide, Mono or Monkey, and used the clean restrooms before heading up the 8,373-foot volcano on a steep, dusty trail. (You are required to hire a park guide to escort you up the volcano, so even if you arrived on your own—perhaps by chicken bus—you would need to pay someone to take you up the volcano.)
Monkey was an awesome guide and Alex did a great job translating his Spanish for us and adding to our knowledge. I think we got at least 50% more information having someone translate. Monkey put “Mayan makeup” on the kids – he rubbed the sap of an orange plant on their faces, apparently, just like the Maya did. And he stopped every few minutes to tell us about the plants, animals, and volcanology that make this one of the best places to visit in Guatemala.
Monkey and Alex told us all kind of fascinating stories about the villages (in San Francisco de Sales you can cook food in vents in the hillside), escaped lions roaming the hills, and what Pacaya looked liked before the last couple of eruptions. I won’t share all the stories, so you can be surprised on your own Volcan Pacaya tours.
Most of the hike was in the trees and then we got to an opening with a straight-on view of Volcan Pacaya. A small puff of smoke came out of the top and we would hear occasional rumblings from up there. There is lava running down the other side of the volcano, but we couldn’t really see it.
That first view of Pacaya is really striking and the rumbling and smoke exhalations let us know we were standing on an active volcano. From the top of a little hill we could also see El Fuego, Acatenango, and Agua volcanoes.
Hiking an Active Volcano
It used to be that Volcan Pacaya was a great place to see an active lava flow. I mean, people standing right next to red, molten lava with their shoes melting. That’s not the case any more, but we did hike to a huge, dried lava flow. One of many beautiful places in Guatemala, the lava flow fans out in a sea of black, cresting rock. I’ve walked on the lava fields at Craters of the Moon, but this was extra special because there was a huge, volcano looming overhead. This had to be one of the best things to do in Guatemala.
You can’t hike to the top of the volcano and peak over the crater, unless you get a special permit. Even then, you probably can’t peak over the crater. We stopped at the bottom of the lava field and walked across to the Lava Store. Seriously, a souvenir shop on a volcano. The jewelry is made by local people out of coconut and lava rock. It’s a pretty cool way for people living in the volcano’s shadow to make a little money. There’s also a snack shop where you can get…snacks and marshmallows.
Roasting Marshmallows on a Volcano
Why marshmallows? That’s one of the fun things about climbing Volcan Pacaya; the lava flow is recent enough that it is still hot underneath. You can roast marshmallows in the vents. They are more melted than roasted, and squeezed into a cookie, they are delicious. When you have a chance to roast marshmallows in a volcano vent in Guatemala, you do it, no matter how touristy it is.
Alex set up an amazing, fresh lunch and Old Town Outfitters not only met our vegetarian needs, but provided a really delicious lunch. Black beans, pico de gallo, queso fresco, tortillas made my Monkey’s wife who was staffing the snack shack, guacamole, papaya…so good.
After wandering around on the lava field a bit and eating lunch, we headed back down Volcán de Pacaya via a different route than we came up. We got a glimpse of some of the lava slowly moving down the other side of Pacaya, but in the daylight, it just looked like a black ridge. We also got to see just how far the lava from the last eruption spread—it was huge!
We decided Pacaya is one of the best places in Guatemala for a family or anyone to hike a volcano. It’s probably the easiest Guatemala volcano hike, but it still felt like it took a little effort to get there.
Old Town Outfitters also leads trekking tours on Acatenango Volcano and other places; kayaking and rafting, mountain biking, climbing, and other outdoor adventure tours.
What to Bring on Your Volcano Hiking Tour
- If you go with Old Town Outfitters, they provide the lunch and marshmallows. Otherwise, bring your own or money for the snack shack.
- Two liters of water. We filled our reusable water bottles and treated the water with a Steripen.
- Hiking shoes (not sandals)
- Rain jacket or wind jacket (we did not need these, but it’s apparently not always as hot as it was on our hike day.
- Money for guide tips and souvenirs
Know Before You Go
Unless you ride a horse, you need to be in decent shape. That said, there are all sorts of people up there, you just have to be willing to go slow.
4 km each way- we did a through hike, but you could go up and back the same way.
Day trip from Antigua
Midweek is less crowded than weekends.
Climbing an active volcano is a bucket list item
Old Town Outfitters is the guide service we used and highly recommend.
* Old Town Outfitters gave us a discount on our hike, but my review and story is my own opinion, as always.