Living in the tropics can make you a little less relatable, especially when most of your family and friends are in the United States. When I was in New York, I could complain about rush hour traffic on the Saw Mill Parkway (a pretty but somewhat overcrowded route that winds through Westchester County) and get easy nods of sympathy. I’d mention cockroaches in our Manhattan kitchen, and the ick reaction was always the same.
Here in Guatemala, I have to carefully edit my gripes. Complaining about an endless stream of sunny, 80˚ December days doesn’t generate much empathy when the person on the receiving end is facing yet another weekend of snow and icy rain. (Can no one understand that I really, truly miss cold, blustery winters? No? No one?! Le sigh…) Further lamenting the hummingbirds that occasionally get stuck in our house and that the palm tree in our front yard makes a mess is typically greeted with radio silence.
Pacaya is one of Guatemala’s active volcanoes and is an easy, one-hour drive from Antigua. It’s a popular volcano climb because it requires only three hours of modest hiking round-trip, and if that sounds like too much of a challenge, horses can take you up instead. As the volcano regularly spits lava, smoke, and ash, you can’t go all the way to the top, just close enough to get a glimpse of the crater from below.
I suggested the Pacaya hike because I knew Lauren and Rachel had probably never climbed a volcano before and trekking up an active one capable of turning into a violent mountain of doom, death, and destruction seemed to me, at least, like the Guatemalan equivalent of visiting Times Square. There are just certain things you should do when visiting certain places.
In spite of understanding the thrill of a volcano hike, though, I still wasn’t enthused. And the reason? Well, it’s one that you likely won’t understand. It’s a reason that may make you roll your eyes and sigh “oh, poor you” while totally not meaning it. The reason… Well, compared to other volcanoes that I’ve climbed, Pacaya sounded dull.
Yes, I’m the kind of annoying person that can compare the difficulty of volcano climbs. After living and visiting myriad South and Central American countries along the Ring of Fire, it happens, okay? It’s not like I’ll bring it up over cocktails, unless, of course, we’re at a tiki bar and then it would totally make sense.
There was snow-capped Villarrica in Chile, which required crampons and icepicks to get to the sulfur-reeking summit (should I mention that I also had a UTI or is that too much information? TMI. Right.). On the top of Nicaragua’s Ometepe, Shon and I were greeted with stinging rains and powerful winds that ripped our ponchos to pieces and caused me to near-stumble into the volcano’s mouth (or so I maintain). In Guatemala, the 13,000-foot Acatenango was an exhausting, eight-hour round-trip trek; its peak featured a barren moon landscape that overlooked another volcano, the ever-erupting Fuego.
Our 8,000-foot Pacaya, by contrast, requiring just three hours total and boasting horses to get you up, sounded like child’s play.
Of course, play is exactly what Lauren had come to Guatemala to do, and so I happily joined her and Rachel on their first volcano excursion–not for the hike, of course, but for the company. I’m so glad I did.
Pacaya lacks adrenaline-pumping thrills, but at a cost of about $12 per person is a perfectly pleasant trek. I had signed us up for a group excursion through a tour company called Atitrans, and our clan of eight set out from Antigua in a beat-up shuttle at 6:00 a.m. on a chilly weekday morning. In a small town near Pacaya’s entrance (the volcano is part of a national park), we met our guide and set out on a semi-steep trail that wound into a humid forest. Though horses accompanied us part of the way, no one in our group chose to use them. Through openings in the trees and over bits of aging corn fields, we had long views of distant volcanoes like Agua, Acatenango, and Fuego, as well as of Guatemala City’s distant skyscrapers.
On breaks along the way, our guide discussed tectonic plates, the surrounding environment, and the violent history of the volcano (named, by the way, for the pacaya tree). In seemingly no time at all (much-needed catch-up conversation can make time pass quickly), the trail spit us onto an expansive lava field of volcanic sand, rocks, and vibrant, hardy weeds.
It was windy and clouds raced past Pacaya’s mouth, which was now visible above us. As we drew near to it—but never quite “close” (the crater lip seemed at least another 20- to 30-minute hike away)—we could see rocks being spit sky high.
We stopped at an outcrop of boulders that had been tossed to their present spot during a major 2010 eruption. Here, hot volcanic steam escaped from small crevices in the earth. We used the steam to roast marshmallows as a small and oddly placed pack of dogs begged for a taste.
The views from the volcano were great, though it was the charcoal gray landscape and the looming crater above us that I found most mesmerizing–and humbling, too. For while our Pacaya trek would never make for an action-packed tale, its stark but impressive natural beauty was still breathtaking. The fact that we made it up–and then later back down–with minimal gear or pain only added to its appeal. Now, I kind of want to do it, again. Let’s see if I can convince another volcano snob I know at home…