Guatemala is home to 37 volcanoes that stand tall over the country’s colonial towns and blue lakes. Most of these volcano are dormant but the Pacaya, Fuego and Santiaguito Volcanoes are active and two of these neighbour Antigua. The most active is Volcan de Fuego, which sits to the west of town. Don’t be surprised if it spews smoke while you are here! For a bird’s-eye view of Fuego, take a look at this volcanic eruption that was captured by drones. In Antigua, you can climb the Pacaya Volcano and Acatenango. The latter is a much tougher hike (and visitors often camp overnight). The reward is a close-up of its neighbour, Volcan de Fuego. For families, Pacaya is a much easier option.
I was curious to check out Pacaya Volcano after friends told us they had ridden to the top with their three kids and roasted marshmallows on the hot rocks at the summit. How much fun does that sound?! Being an active volcano I’m aware that dragging kids up a smoking volcano is not going to bag many responsible parenting awards. However, now that the authorities have tightened up the safety I thought I might score some global school points instead. Forget the baking soda & vinegar experiment, I wanted to show them a real belching volcano!
Pacaya Volcano marks the southern point in the Antigua – Pacaya – Guatemala City triangle and is around 50 km from both cities. We visited as a day trip from Antigua (1 hour and 20 minutes by car) as part of a day-trip tour package.
Walking vs Riding Horses
There are two ways of getting up the volcano – by foot or by horse. Although the trail is only 2.8km long the ascent is extremely steep in parts. We were told that walking up usually takes around 1.5-2 hours and riding up takes around 1 hour. It’s worth noting that horses are only available to take visitors up the volcano and not down. At the top you bid your horse farewell before descending the volcano on foot via a more rocky trail with a lot of loose scree (the horses descend the way they came)
Given that we were travelling with children (aged 9 & 8 years) we opted for horses and were very pleased with our decision! The path, although shaded by trees for most of the way, is narrow, steep and rocky in parts. Thankfully the horses were remarkably sure footed and scampered up like mountain goats.
I should point out, that we were not riding the horses in the truest sense. My horse was tied to the horse in front of it (which my husband was on), and his horse was led by a guide on foot. The children had the same arrangement. So we were essentially transported up the hillside like fat sacks. The guides were very conscious about giving the horses little breaks along the way which also gave us the opportunity to soak up some fabulous views.
One of the most spectacular vistas was that of three volcanoes: Volcan de Agua, Volcan Fuego (active) and the double-humped Volcan Acatenango. Every so often we caught Volcan Fuego spewing out a cloud of black smoke.
The Top of Pacaya Volcano
For safety reasons, tour guides are no longer permitted to take visitors up the tip of the crater to see the lava flow, and rightly so. We are more than happy to keep our distance and spent a few minutes taking in the magnificent views and thanking our dear horses. What we hadn’t anticipated at all was how cold it would be at the top! Tip: bring layers!
From this point, we continued with one guide whilst the other guides returned to the trailhead with the horses. He took us down onto the dark grey volcanic rocks to a sheltered spot where we could roast marshmallows on the hot rocks. Although the rocks on the surface were not red hot (some felt warm to touch) you only had to stick your marshmallow into a small hole for it to turn brown and gooey. Needless to say the kids thought this the best day everrrr!
We spent about 45 minutes at the top before continuing our descent down the other side of the volcano. There was even a souvenir shop selling necklaces and bracelets!
The walk back down took around 45 minutes, helped largely by the huge amount of sugar the kids had just consumed! Remember to bring good shoes and there is quite a lot of loose scree which had us slipping around a bit.
Need to Know
- The best, easiest and safest way to climb Pacaya is to book with an experienced operator
- If you make your own way to the volcano, you will have to hire a certified guide to lead you through the park’s safe areas. You can not climb the volcano by yourself!
- There are rangers positioned around the park with radios to contact the park’s central administration should an emergency occur.
- The entrance to Pacaya volcano is located 1hr 20 minutes from Antigua.
- Take water and snacks with you.
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