Standing at 8,300 feet (2,530 metres) over the southern hills of Guatemala, Pacaya Volcano is a force of nature that is revered and often feared by locals and tourists. Dormant for over 70 years, Pacaya began frequently erupting from the early 1960s onwards and has remained an active volcano ever since.
So who would be silly enough to want to hike an active volcano? Well, it’s not as straightforward as dodging falling ash and trying to outrun a river of lava – true disaster movie style – it’s a little more subtle than that.
Let’s dig into the hows, whys and whens of Pacaya Volcano hiking and whether it’s worth your time.
What To Know About Pacaya Volcano
Before you’re unnecessarily put off Pacaya Volcano hiking completely, here are a few things you should know.
Pacaya Volcano eruptions are what is known as Strombolian eruptions or Plinian eruptions. This sort of volcanic activity usually consists of lots of ash, mild lava flow and the occasional wind of debris. This makes hiking the Pacaya volcano not exactly free from danger, yet hair-raising enough to still get that thrill without the life-threatening flee from a Guatemalan hillside.
Pacaya’s most recent eruption took place in late April, early May 2021. This saw mild lava flow down the westerly side of the volcano, but thankfully it didn’t threaten the nearby farmland and communities below. These frequent eruptions only seem to add to the appeal of hiking Pacaya Volcano for lovers of adventure travel.
The precarious nature of Pacaya doesn’t mean that you can’t hike close enough to the top to quench your curiosity. But the three-mile trek, up to an elevation of 1,500 meters promises to be a decent workout. Complete with hot volcanic rocks, distant smoke fumes and an occasional melted shoe sole – hiking Guatemala’s Pacaya Volcano can certainly scratch your adventurous itch.
Best Time of Year for Hiking Pacaya Volcano
As is the case with most tropical and Central American countries, the yearly climate in Guatemala is broken into two distinct seasons; dry and wet.
The choice is obvious, right? Who would want to hike through wet sand, mud and a torrential downpour? Very true, but who would want to suffer in the blistering heat either?
Generally speaking, the dry season in Guatemala starts in November and lasts until April. November is considered to be the best time of the year for hiking Pacaya, just after the rain, but just before it gets too hot to handle. As a shoulder month (which is when I hiked it) you can dodge the hordes of tourists that also want to tick Pacaya off their Guatemala bucket list.
Hiking Pacaya during November also lends itself perfectly for the picturesque photo opportunity and overall pleasant hike. The rains have only just stopped, leaving the landscape lush with green vegetation, a perfect contrast against the grey and black tones of cooled volcanic rock.
Pacaya Volcano Hiking: How To Get There From Antigua (+ Costs)
Like with many tourist hotspots, the price of your experience can range from ultra-budget to catering to those with deeper pockets; the choice is yours.
It is important to mention at this point that independently hiking Pacaya Volcano without the assistant of a tour guide is not even an option. Don’t think this is a tourist trap, cashing in reason; it is far more logical than that.
First off, you’re attempting to navigate an eight thousand foot active volcano; this should be reason enough to want a well-informed local to show you the way! Secondly, an effort is often made to protect national parks, wherever you are in the world. Having a tour guide managing the influx and impact of foreign tourists can only be a good thing.
Let’s take a look at your transport options to suit all budgets.
1. Budget-friendly public transport
Pacaya hiking trips generally begin from the town of Antigua, an hour’s drive west of the volcano and national park. If you’re looking to save money on your Pacaya experience, you can travel to Pacaya using the local bus, which involves a bus change and a rather uncomfortable two-hour journey.
First, you’ll need to take the bus from Antigua and head to Esculintla. Next, take a second bus from Esculintla heading to Amatitlan, ensuring you get off at the entrance to the National Park. This bus journey tends to cost as little as 20 Guatemalan quetzales.
While this is the cheapest option, when added to the obligatory 50 Guatemalan quetzales you have to pay to enter the park and the 200 Guatemalan quetzales for the mandatory tour guide, it may not work out all that cheaper than booking a tour from Antigua after all.
Another thing to consider is safety, you’re more than likely to stand out as a tourists and bus robberies aren’t exactly rare in Central America.
2. Mid-range tours
If you’re willing to spend a little more on your Pacaya Volcano experience (and in a country such as Guatemala, this really isn’t much), you can have a far more relaxed and organised adventure. The majority of visitors to Pacaya organise a tour from the local town of Antigua. There are numerous reputable tour companies in the town and most can be booked online in advance.
The cost of an organised tour ranges from 300 Guatemalan quetzales up to 660 Guatemalan quetzales. Be sure you understand what is included in the tour before parting with your cash, as some won’t include things such as the entrance fee.
Depending on your choice of tour, you’ll leave Antigua at either 6 am or 2 pm, taking an hour to get from the town to the entrance of the national park. The trek to the top and back will usually take around 4 hours, a little longer to stop for photo ops or a bite to eat.
Those of you who choose the later 2 pm start to your tour can enjoy the sunset views over Pacaya Volcano, but make sure you pack a torch for the descent as it can be a little treacherous in the dark.
Also, you’ll be tired and more than ready to get into your minivan and back to the pretty little city of Antigua for your celebratory ice cold bottle of Gallo beer.
Pacaya Volcano Hiking Difficulty Level (Fitness Required)
Although Pacaya Volcano is a major tourist spot and is visited by thousands every year, you shouldn’t be fooled by the effort that it takes to reach the top if you’re not in some sort of decent nick. I’m the last person who’d like to scare anyone out of attempting such a fun activity, but at the same time, many are keen to stress that it is rated moderate and, even in parts, quite difficult. (I have my own thoughts on this in the conclusion of this article).
With an ascent of nearly 200 feet (610 metres) every hour, it is the elevation of the volcano that really takes the most effort. You don’t need to be a super-fit athlete to make the climb, but those with joint problems, severe back problems or those who have a generally poor fitness level, should probably not attempt the climb.
Locals on top of horses will follow hikers up to a certain point of the volcano and scout out those suffering from delusions of Guatemalan grandeur, often rescued by a gorgeous four-footed saviour.
Gear Needed For Hiking Pacaya Volcano
Let’s break down the basic equipment you will need to get up this volcano (and back down), from the more obvious to the easy-to-forget.
1. Hiking boots
The terrain at Pacaya Volcano can be very unpredictable and changes as you climb. The base is a mixture of soft earth and sand, whereas the higher reaches are solidified lava flows and often jagged rock. A good pair of hiking boots are essential to traverse the many types of surfaces at Pacaya. Test them out and break them in as early as possible before your trip; your ankles and feet will thank you later.
2. Windproof coat
You might expect a lava-gurgling volcano in the heart of Central America to be a warm and even hot place, and in most cases, it is. You will, however, need a windproof coat as part of your volcano trekking gear. The closer you get to the top, the more the winds increase and the temperature drops. It’s important to wear layers as you hike as you are able to take them off and put them on as the climate changes.
Like hiking anywhere, it’s important to stay hydrated; taking at least a litre of water with you is advisable. You’ll pass a number of vendors as you climb the volcano, but these tend to be sporadic and will charge you an inflated price for the luxury of cold, or sometimes lukewarm, water.
4. Small change
It’s worth bringing along a little extra cash as vendors set up at different points along the trail – these sell everything from bottled water to marshmallows. Marshmallows? Yup, it has become a must-try activity to roast your marshmallows over the heat of the volcanic rock. A little gimmicky you may think, but we all know we’d give it a try in the heat of the moment…
This is more for those who are hiking Pacaya Volcano during the early or late hours. If you’re planning on going for the glory of the sunset hike, your way down can be hampered by the lack of light, so a torch or headlamp is definitely a good idea.
6. Sun cream
Although it can get a little windy on the slopes of Pacaya, there’s no mistaking that the Guatemalan sun can also catch you out. It’s sensible to pack a bottle of sun cream along with you, or you may arrive back in Antigua looking like a dried up prune.
7. Walking Pole
Known as “cheat sticks” by the hardcore amongst some esoteric areas of extreme adventure travel, but if you’re not interested in a pissing contest, then this doesn’t concern you. Walking poles are a godsend for the tired and weary and underrated for descending hills with dodgy terrain, a true friend to your fatigued core and wobbly knees.
Our tour guide provided us with good old wooden sticks, which did the job. You can go full on fancypants and travel with collapsible lightweight poles though if that’s your cup of tea.
Pacaya Volcano Hiking (My Experience)
When you allow your imagination to get the better of you, whilst planning to hike an active volcano in the heart Guatemala – it usually goes a little something like this (probably)…
…Although your quadriceps feel like a thousand tons of lead, after hours upon hours of brutal uphill hiking, you fight against the odds and clamber your way to the top with the very last part of glycogen reserve in your tired, overworked, aching body.
You stand proud atop the beast that you have just conquered, but it’s bittersweet as you fight back the painful tears as you remember the many good men that you lost along the way.
Suddenly, a stunning latina lady loses her footing and cascades towards the unapologetically savage lava below. You make a valiant dive and catch her by the arm, as she hangs there over the gaping, boiling magma. It’s all on you now, champ.
You both try to ignore the obvious sexual tension, because you know – time and a place and all that. With every last bit of energy you have, you pull her up like the hero everyone knew you were and she gratefully collapses into your big, safe, strong, vascular arms.
Some years later, after making many mixed-raced babies together, you’re at a dinner party and someone mentions the word “volcano.” You fall silent and despondent as it all comes rushing back to you. Because you’re still tight after all these years, she just ‘gets’ it and makes a polite excuse to leave the party.
When you both get home, she understands that you need to retreat to the balcony (overlooking the ocean) with a glass of award-winning Malbec from the vineyards of Mendoza, to gather in your own thoughts. Yet she comes out and gives you a warm hug at exactly the right time, her bouncy curly hair smells like rain as she looks up at you with those dreamy, hazel brown eyes as she whispers; “mi amor, vamos a la cama.”
Aaaaaaand back to reality…
In my honest opinion, the hike is not difficult for even the lowest of fitness standards. My mate and I were carrying a bit of extra timber on our bellies, after woefully letting ourselves go during the Brazil World Cup. We both managed the trek without any issues at all and we put it down to a nice 6/10 workout.
The scenery of the hike is spectacular, so it’s more of a lovely photo opportunity as opposed to a gruelling fitness test. It’s no mystery here ladies and gents – just rock up to a tour company whilst staying in Antigua and sort out a lift and guide for your day of preference.
4 Hours of a cheeky incline walk, aesthetics all around and a sweet sunset with toasted marshmallows. I’ve had worse days!
Maybe I’m probably just being a volcano snob – Mount Yasur set the active volcano bar way too high!