Pacaya volcano, Guatemala – how NOT to see it

Before we even landed on the American continent, the visit to the active slopes of Volcan Pacaya was at the top of our list of anticipated experiences. Having stood on Kilauea in Hawaii 10 years ago and gasped in wonder as molten lava flowed past our feet we were excited at the prospect of a repeat experience. This time it was going to be better – we were going at night and pictures we’d seen had whet our appetite for was sure to be a spectacular sight.

Antigua travel agencies

A gentle five minute stroll through the centre of Antigua will pass at least half a dozen tour companies, each selling Pacaya tours as their headline product. The typical tour will last for around six hours, including the 1.5 hour drive to and from the national park. The cost is around $10, with some agencies offering the trip for as little as $8. We didn’t shop around for the cheapest – in fact on the back of a trusted recommendation we intended to shun the cheap tours and opt for a private option, with our own driver to the park and a dedicated guide to climb the volcano. This costs around $45 – still a very reasonable cost for a day trip for two.

We couldn’t however find anyone offering this private tour and rather than waste a precious day going in and out of agencies we ended up booking the standard $10 package.

The two big questions

I asked two questions to the agent:

1. Will we see lava? We were assured that we certainly would.

2. Do we need to bring a torch? We were told it was not required as kids from the village would be selling them for a few cents at the start of the hike.

In both cases I received inaccurate/misleading replies. If you heading to Pacaya on the evening hike, please note:

1. You will NOT see lava on a Pacaya day trip (of course the situation will change in the future)

2. Bring a torch/flashlight – there are no kids selling them when you get there!

In fact, there was a major burst of volcanic activity in May 2010 and no lava has been seen since. This was explained to us by our guide as we sat watching the sunset and as members of the group, one by one, asked him where the lava was.

Climbing Pacaya

The kids that greet the minibus at the start of the climb are selling walking sticks, not torches. They are also incessantly offering ‘taxi rides’ up the slope on the half dozen or so horses that were standing idly by the parking lot. We all declined the offer of the ride and the young boys followed us regardless.

I had been sick for the previous 12 hours and had not eaten anything that day. I had underestimated my loss of physical strength as a result and before too long I had to swallow my pride and make use of the taxi service. I suspect I managed to break some sort of equestrian record in dismounting my ride as my nausea rose to an inevitable conclusion; I made the verge just in time, much to everyone’s relief (not least the horse’s).

We reached the top just in time to witness a spectacular sunset. It might have been a magical moment had we not been sharing it with around 50 noisy others. The temperature dropped quickly and as we layered up we were reminded that we only had 10 minutes to enjoy the view and that we needed to start our descent very shortly.

Unnecessary danger

I am not someone to get annoyed easily but the only words I can think of to describe the organisation of this tour are reckless and negligent. As we descended the slippery sharp rocks on our 1.5 hour return walk to the minibus, total darkness soon enveloped us. The ground, at first difficult to see, soon became completely invisible and we were walking as if blind. Two of our group of 14 had weak torches (they had clearly booked with a different agent or had prior advice), but their light didn’t help the rest of us.

Actually, three had a torch. The guide also flashed one a couple of times, but for the most part he galloped ahead while texting people on his phone. He clearly knew these slopes intimately. Yet despite the fact that most of us fell at least once on our way down (and I can attest that those sharp volcanic stones can do some damage to the palm of a hand that instinctively reaches out to protect a fall) he totally disregarded the welfare of his group.

Presumably he’d just arranged a date, as his only contribution was to keep urging us to hurry, despite us telling him constantly to slow down. I was in no.2 position in our human chain that wound tentatively down the rocky slope, yet more often than not he was out of sight, only brought back by our calls for him to wait.

It was a relief when we made it back to our bus in one piece and I can’t say that the guide received many tokens of gratitude as he left us to go wherever it was he was so keen to get to.

How to do Pacaya

Pacaya is a very worthwhile day trip from Antigua and I would not want to dissuade anyone from visiting (although not worth battling through sickness to do). The views from Pacaya are very impressive and a hike in such a barren environments is something that should not be missed.

At this time however the experience on the day tour is little different from the evening one, and I would certainly recommend this as the more pleasant, easier and most importantly the safer option to take.

If you can take the option of a private tour, you may also be free to enjoy a longer stay at the top without having to rush down to meet the whims of a group guide.

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Freelance travel writer

8 Responses to “Pacaya volcano, Guatemala – how NOT to see it”

  1. Thanks for the warning – that definitely sounds like a guide to avoid!

    February 14, 2011 at 10:41 am
  2. Oh that was unfortunate. Before canceling my planned Guatemala trip, I was looking forward to this. Thanks for the info, so if I ever decide to go, I know what to consider.

    February 14, 2011 at 12:53 pm
  3. It’s very annoying that they still sell those night trips when there’s no lava to see. What’s the point?

    I’ve visited Pacaya back in 2007 with an afternoon trip. This was a great idea because I could take the time to walk around on a decent pace, I saw where I was going and can got really close to the lava and I could enjoy the sunset.

    The guides tend to be reckless indeed, and I’ve met more than one person who had hurt him/herself over there. The key is to take good care of yourself and not to hurry.
    At certain moments we were walking on loose stones next to a lava river, if someone would have stumbled, they would have been burned alive.
    On the other hand, I once visited the Etna on Sicily and there we were not allowed to get anywhere near the place where it got excited…

    February 14, 2011 at 3:18 pm
  4. Nice story! Never trust others haha

    February 14, 2011 at 3:24 pm
  5. Thanks for the comments guys. Agree with you Nicolas, there is no point in selling the night trip, but I guess the full minibuses suggest that there is still a demand (maybe fuelled by a myth that the agents want to keep alive). As with so many sites, I guess it will take a serious incident or two before people crack down on these activities.
    But there is a balance – as you say, where you are kept too far away from the volcano then there is nothing to see and people don’t come. “Volcanoes are not there to provide entertainment” I hear the sensible voice in my head saying…..

    February 14, 2011 at 4:47 pm
  6. common sense #

    if going to be out after dark, take a torch, and spare batteries.

    realise you cant guraantee anything where nature is concerned.

    sounds like a wake up call to use your common sense and stop expecting everywhere to be like the good old usa where everything is so nummbed by the lack of common sense of people and the blame and claim money industry.

    September 26, 2011 at 7:15 pm
    • Agree that common sense is required (as always). We had travelled for a month around central America by that point and had a reasonable grasp of how things work. The issue here was the completely useless advice provided by Antigua travel agency. If they had just been honest and said that they didn’t know we would have bought flashlights in the town. They actually dissuaded us from doing so. Still, a lesson learned…

      September 27, 2011 at 5:54 pm
  7. Sara #

    Thanks for posting your experience. Something I have learned from my family’s five trips to Guatemala over the past 9 years is this: do not expect the standards of services (especially safety standards) to be equal to those in the USA. Taxis and minivan shuttles may be held together with duct tape and coat hangers. Guard rails along mountain roads often don’t exsist. Wooden ladders offered for climbing Mayan ruins may be missing hand rails and steps, and you may find yourself 300 feet or more atop that magnificant temple with an amazing view, but no safety rail and only three of four feet of space to walk on. Guatemala is a developing country. People are going to keep offering that afternoon Pacaya tour because they need your tourist dollar. It may mean the difference between feeding their families – or not. So, be prepared, take your time, take care of yourself as best you can. Enjoy the adventure!

    May 16, 2012 at 4:24 pm