The most dangerous thing I've ever done

Antigua Travel Blog

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View of Guatemala City from the bus.

Hello all,
Waking up today in Casa Cristina was very nice.  The climate in Antigua is a huge welcome change after my tour of the hottest parts of Central America.  I spent the morning just enjoying SportsCenter on TV, a cruising the internet for future locations.  I did manage to get going for some lunch, and I found a nice, tiny, four table, Korean restaurant that served a Guatemalan version of bulgogi with kimchee for about $5.  I'm not sure how ashamed I should be for not having 'typical' local cuisine whenever possible, but I have been on the road for almost a month now so I will give myself a pass.

I then packed up my stuff for my afternoon trip to Volcan Pacaya.

Let the vending of the sticks and bags begin!
  I had signed up with Aviatur the previous day for 55 Quetzales ($7.20), and when I arrived at the agency at about 2:05pm I was told to hoof it down to the Parque Central to get the bus.  The bus was yet another one of the old US school busses.  Strange because alot of the agencies around town had been advertising cheaper excursions by a few dollars with the nice little mini-bus.  Oh well, that will teach me to ask more questions if I'm concerned about things.  It didn't really matter because air conditioning isn't a big deal around here with the nice climate.

The bus was just about full, and we finally left town at about 2:45pm.  The drive was very scenic and we had a great view of Guatemala City from the left side of the bus.

A beautiful lagoon (whose name I forgot) from the Pacaya lookout.
  We encountered a bit a rain on the way, and when we got our first glimpse of Pacaya it seemed to be free from clouds for the most part, so I was optimistic.  When we reached the National Park tourist center the guide collected our 40 Quetzales admission, and we exited the bus to a group of kids selling sticks and plastic trash bags.  I had read about this previously in a guide book, and the sticks are for climbing and supposedly for putting into lava to burn them up.  There were also some guys with horses pitching the easy way up the trail.  I opted for a stick for 5 Quetzales, and passed on the trash bag hoping that the rain would hold off.  My stick was almost two meters long and pretty substantial so I felt like I got a good deal.  A few others bought a stick, and I think there was one that sprung for the trash bag.
The first lava flow we encountered on the way up.
  We gathered up our group of 23 and followed our guide up the trail.

The trail started out as concrete, and changed to mostly dirt with occasional wooden branch steps along the way.  In retrospect the climb was pretty brutal, and it took more then an hour to get to the base of Pacaya.  I felt pretty good, and the elevation was really not so bad compared to the Bolivian Andes I encountered earlier in the year.  Pacaya is pretty much the lowest elevation volcano in the area at 8,400 feet, but it is by far the most active.  The most recent full eruption was in 2000, but it has pretty much continuously spewing lava since then.  When we got to the base of the volcano we suddenly came upon a amazing older lava flow.  The flow was about 20 feet wide at at least 10 feet tall.

The same lava flow with the Volcan Pacaya is the background.
  I'm not sure how old the flow was, but I am guessing it was post-2000.

We continued up until we reached a point where we had to climb over another larger flow.  The going was tough and the lava was not conducive to the development of a trail, although there were a few ways that were easier then others.  After getting over that flow we had a short strech over regular ground before getting to the volcano itself.  Here is where things got really interesting.  This was NOT like Volcan Arenal, which I visited in Costa Rica.  There you were able to view from about 5km away, and only in the dark was any lava or glowing rocks visible.  This was the real deal, as brought to you by a third world country.

The going was at times very slow, and it wasn't too long before we encountered some hot spots.

A line of people snakes up Volcan Pacaya. We were next.
  Here the cool mountain air got noticably hotter and some of the volcanic rock was hot to the touch.  I had opted to wear my tennis shoes as opposed to my Timberland sandals because I had heard ahead of time about the potential danger of the sharp, hot rocks.  I did wear shorts, but brought the zip-on legs with me in case it got cold at elevation or as night fell.

We continued to go up, and it got to the point where every step I took had me wondering what the hell I was doing.  Some places the footing was better then others, but it was always dangerous.  I reached a point as we crested a small ridge where open, active lava flows were visible less then 5 meters away.  The relatively stable area I was standing on was hot to the touch, and about one meter from my spot an active flow could be viewed under some comparatively cooled and hardened rock.

My stick bursts into flames near one of the lava flows.
  I took my stick and directed it towards a hole bewteen the rocks and even before reaching the orange molten flow of liquid rock it burst instantly into flame.  Thoughts of the extreme amounts of danger I was currently surrounded by filled me with dread and excitement.  One of the members of our group had opted to wear flip-flops for the hike lost one on the way up, and had to hop in place while his friend nearly slid down some loose rock to retrieve it.  Both had some superficial scratches and burns, and I figured that they had gotten off easy.

Most of the group stayed at this point for about 30-45 minutes.  Some ventured even a bit higher, but I stayed put.  I highly valued the relative stability of my dried flow, and was afraid that I would not find such a point further up.

One of the holes right next to my safe spot. Somebody's stick piece guards it to the lower left.
  Another group caught up with us, and David yesterday's bus was amongst the climbers.  As I continued to think about the situation I was in, I wonder if I will ever be in a more potentially dangerous circumstance for as long as I live.  This is exactly what I was searching for when I thought about seeing an active volcano.  When I finally decided to start down again I was pretty much in the middle of the group.  Everybody along the way was fully concentrated on the climb down, and were very nervous about other people tumbling into them.  Because of this I tried to give a buffer zone to the climbers ahead of me.

At one point I lost my footing on some loose rocks and slid down about three feet.  I used my now shortened stick and right hand to steady myself, and in the process ripped a flap of skin off of the ring finger on my right hand.

People and lava. Close.
  I hurt like the dickens and was bleeding quite a bit, but I would certainly take the relatively minor injury and sacrifice some skin to the volcano for the experience I just had.  By the time we got down the volcano itself and over the lava flows it was getting visibly dark.  I cursed my stupidity for not bringing along my little used, recently purchased LED head lamp.  Maybe 10 of the people in the group had thought to bring a light of some kind, and on the walk down I positioned myself between two groups the had lights and made it all the way down without killing myself.

A cold Gallo beer at the ranger station tasted delicious, and some people bought two at a time to slug down.  I gave my shortened stick back to the first kid that asked, and then we all sat around and talked about what we had just experienced.

Me, my stick, and lava. Yes I know my hair is getting long and ridiculous.
  The bus ride back seemed to take quite a long time, and we arrived back to Antigua at about 9:30pm.

What a day!

Later, Phil

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View of Guatemala City from the bu…
View of Guatemala City from the b…
Let the vending of the sticks and …
Let the vending of the sticks and…
A beautiful lagoon (whose name I f…
A beautiful lagoon (whose name I …
The first lava flow we encountered…
The first lava flow we encountere…
The same lava flow with the Volcan…
The same lava flow with the Volca…
A line of people snakes up Volcan …
A line of people snakes up Volcan…
My stick bursts into flames near o…
My stick bursts into flames near …
One of the holes right next to my …
One of the holes right next to my…
People and lava.  Close.
People and lava. Close.
Me, my stick, and lava.  Yes I kno…
Me, my stick, and lava. Yes I kn…
Still a bit of light in the sky as…
Still a bit of light in the sky a…
Glowing lava as night falls on Vol…
Glowing lava as night falls on Vo…
My neverending quest for a great s…
My neverending quest for a great …
Antigua
photo by: monky