Hiking in Guatemala: Pacaya

, June 8, 2012

With nearly three-dozen volcanoes in its territory, it is no wonder that hiking is a popular activity in Guatemala. This Central American country, which was once infamous for its guerrilla wars and death squads, is now one of the most interesting destinations for any traveller wanting to feel the natural wonders of the continental isthmus. If you whish to be immersed by a world of ancient temples, great lakes, old indigenous cultures, or outstanding mountains, it is almost guaranteed that you will not be disappointed. Besides, in spite of recent years of tourism boasting, Guatemala still retains much of an old world feeling to it, making the experience even more genuine.

Now, lets get to the topic of this post: hiking to the top of the impressive volcano Pacaya, a twenty three thousand years old active strombolian volcano, located in the central highlands of Guatemala. Pacaya rises to an elevation of 2552 meters (8373ft) and is surrounded by non-less impressive volcanoes Fuego (Fire) and Acatenango. In spite of being active – the last eruption happened in 2010 -, hiking it is not especially dangerous at the time being, particularly if you know which paths to take. Also, armed robberies stopped being a common problem in Pacaya ever since police presence was increased – on the contrary, hiking volcanoes Fire and Acatenango still presents this risk today and it is not advised except in large groups leaded by a guide.

In spite of this, it is still wise to hike Pacaya with the help a guide, especially if your doing it for the first time. This will both give you a better understanding of the volcano and avoid you getting in areas with sulfuric gases or unstable ground – always a common nuisance in these places.

It was around 9 AM when we started our hike, from San Francisco de Sales, the base at which is located the entrance to the trails. We had left Antigua in a mini-bus three ours before and, unfortunately, I hadn’t had time to get breakfast. Besides the challenge that the hike presented, I was facing two hours of exercise with no food in my stomach. Not a pleasant thought. The idea of hiking while still fasting and with no prospect of finding food at the top seemed somewhat a risky mission. On the other hand, the alternative of postponing the trip was not in the plans. I just had to do it, no matter what. Perhaps I would have a treat at the top.

My head was light, but my steps were firm. After all, at least I wasn’t carrying any weight and the trail was not hard to follow. It was well marked, filled with stones and dusty sand. Gradually it became steeper, and the ground darker and narrower. The view was outstanding. As expected, the more we walked, the more inclined it got. It wasn’t especially dangerous or demanding in terms of agility, but it required some legs effort and steady lungs. For me, it wasn’t exactly easy, especially considering that I suffer from a chronic lung disease. On the contrary, just after the first half-hour climbing my legs already begged for some rest and with each step, breathing became more difficult. I could feel my heart beating close to my mouth – nothing that a few minutes of rest couldn’t fix.

All we had with us was a small bottle of water. It was our only aid to regain some strength, and it was precious when the heat became more intense. After one hour hiking, as we reached higher grounds, the temperature began to drop. By then, the view was as breathtaking as the hike itself. The soil was becoming increasingly dark. We were near the end, close to the last safe reachable point before the summit of Pacaya, at around 2200m. The air was cold and we were enveloped in clouds. The land was no more than ash, and our feet got buried and slipped back at each step. These last few meters were the most difficult in terms of muscle work, but they were the easiest for the mind. After all, we knew that each new step meant gaining a little ground and that soon the ordeal would be over.

Using the remaining strength, I sipped the last drops of water and climbed the final dusty slope. My legs felt slightly overworked and my heart was beating fast, but I was at the top of volcano Pacaya. The hike was completed and the challenge successfully overcame. To top this, there was a pleasant and unexpected surprise: tasty marshmallows “grilled” under volcanic rock. Probably my most unlikely breakfast ever!

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