If you are in and around the beautiful UNESCO City of Antigua in Guatemala, you love hiking and want to try toasting a marshmallow in the bowels of an active volcano then I highly recommend doing the Pacaya Volcano Hike.
The ancient capital of Guatemala is surrounded by Volcanoes, a good number of them still active, Pacaya (aka Volcan de Pacaya) is one of them. There are two options for tours – the Sunrise and the Sunset tour.
The very much active Volcan de Pacaya is situated approximately 45km from Antigua. Frequent small eruptions happen around every 5 years, the last major eruption happening in 2010. At my time of visiting, it was clear enough to see up to the crater and see boulders being spewed out of the top.
The activeness of this volcano is what has kept the surrounding boulder field warm. Granted, it’s not hot on the surface, but one of the boasting points of doing the Pacaya Volcano Hike is that you can ‘toast’ a marshmallow in the ground.
What to wear
The best season to do the Pacaya Volcano Hike is from November onwards when right up to the start of the dry season (January-ish) as the trees, surrounding valleys and their foliage are green. It just looks a bit more picturesque.
Regardless of the time of year, you will certainly appreciate layers of clothing including some sort of windbreaker jacket. The volcano stands at 8373ft high and although you won’t be going all the way up to the top it can get quite chilly in the shade when there is a bit of breeze.
Having done a ton of hikes before, I’ve wised up to wearing a thin pair of running gloves which turned out to be the envy of some of my fellow hikers at keeping the chilly air off my hands. Aside from that, I wore leggings, a t-shirt with a fleece jumper and a scarf.
Foot exfoliation on the go
So, I went and did the Pacaya Volcano Hike in a pair of tennis shoes and a pair of trainer socks. A schoolgirl error I won’t be doing again in a hurry.
In all honesty, these were fine for the majority of the hike up despite the terrain mostly being a mix of shingle and ash.
However, coming back down the volcano was a totally different story – every few steps my tennis shoes (and trainer socks) filled up with ash, grit, shingle and any other aggregate that fancied hitching a ride. Free foot exfoliation anyone?
I regretted at this point not wearing my boots. It was uncomfortable and at times painful. A word to the wise – wear good shoes.
Who is the Pacaya Volcano Hike suitable for?
You’d want a reasonable level of fitness to complete this hike, as the Pacaya Volcano Hike is at altitude, so if you do have lower levels of fitness or respiration problems, then take this into account.
The elevation gain on this route is around 1500ft – you’ll climb up to about 7700ft in total. I’d class it as a moderate level hike, although there is a sign at the entrance which states it’s medium to difficult. Some of the groundings can be loose underfoot.
Depending on the speed of walking, allow between 90minutes – 2 hours to reach the top, much less for the journey down.
As long as you have a reasonable level of fitness you should be ok, there are also walking poles for 5-10 Quetzal (approx. 0.65 – $1.30) and horses to rent at 250-300 Quetzal (approx. $32-38) if you need them.
There was a mix of ages and fitness levels in our group and at no point did anyone feel pressurised to keep up. We just went at a comfortable level with plenty of breaks.
On a plus side – it’s a clearly defined path, so it would be difficult to get lost on the trail.
You can do this trip by yourself, however, by the time you pay for parking, entry and a guide, it’s much easier (and cheaper) to book with a company.
There are loads offering the torus in main town Antigua, but a reputable company is Old Town Outfitters. Who offer two tours a day – I opted for the sunset tour.
Starting from Antigua, the meandering and bumpy 1hr 20minute drive in a minivan with dubious suspension will drop you to the small parking spot where the hike starts.
As soon as you step out of the van you’ll be bombarded by a hoard of children (cuteness sells!) trying to rent you a horse or a walking pole. The kids (and their respective adults) will follow you up the mountain frequently offering you a horse or pole if it looks like your struggling. You certainly can’t knock them for perseverance – it didn’t feel like we were being harassed either, they did keep their distance…until you stopped.
The parking spot at San Francisco de Sales, is also where you’ll find your last ‘decent’ (I use that word in its loosest sense) toilet stop. There’s also a small shop selling some overpriced bottles of water and snacks – word to the wise – take your own!
Onwards and upwards….
In the heat of the sun, you’ll be thankful to remove some layers of clothing here. The air was also very dry at the time I visited, so make sure you take plenty of water. Your reward for your efforts will be the stunning panoramic views.
Usually there are vendors along the route, there is certainly evidence of them, however on the day I did the hike, we encountered none.
The guide will give you plenty of information and tips along the way as well as pointing out surrounding volcanos, some of them smoking away in the distance. *Remember the Volcano Fuego eruption last year in Guatemala, you can see the smoke from her in the distance*
You’ll eventually reach the lava field, which in my head is exactly what the surface of The Moon would look like. The rocks and boulders here are super sharp and jagged hence why it’s a good idea to wear something that covers your ankles to save them from getting scratched up. Thin soled Tennis shoes really weren’t a good idea!
There are a few companies that offer the Pacaya Volcano hike, but we were lucky enough to be the only ones on the route that afternoon. So, we had the place to ourselves.
Planning a trip to Guatemala?
Part of the lava field is shaded by Pacaya volcano which is dominated the landscape here (by the way – you can’t go up the actual crater, and in all honesty, you wouldn’t want to as we could witness lumps of rock being spewn out in the distance).
Your guide will lead you over to a little hole dug out of the rocks, the hole is about 1m deep. At first, he handed us a rock from the wall of the hole to pass around – natures hand warmers – it certainly felt lovely against cold skin! However, I’m not sure I’d be in a hurry to curl up with this in my bed!.
You’re then given a stick and a marshmallow to toast in the hole – hence why the Pacaya Volcano Hike is affectionately called the Marshmallow Hike!
In all honesty, it’s gimmicky, there wasn’t quite enough heat to properly toast the marshmallow – it just gets a little bit warm, but not enough to actually melt it and get that nice caramelised outer shell – but hey! I still toasted a marshmallow at the top of a volcano!
After a short time in the lava field and toasting marshmallows, you’ll begin the journey downwards. At this time of the day the sun is beginning to set, this creates an orange haze in the ash that we are all kicking up and makes for some super cool looking photos of silhouettes against the sun.
The journey down, for me, was just a ball ache. I found it tough on my knees and ankles due to the ash and shingle surface. In addition to this the ash gets into EVERY orifice it can find – up your nose, in your pockets, everywhere!
The sunset views from the surrounding areas were sublime – and surpassed the irritation of my shoes filled with the chaffing grit.
You’ll arrive back to the minivan just before the sun sets for the bumpy journey back to Antigua, where the first thing you will want to do is dislodge the dust from every crevice possible.
Overall a fabulous afternoon doing the Pacaya Volcano hike, with stunning views and chance to toast a marshmallow in a volcano – it’s not every day that opportunity comes around! I’d highly recommend doing this if you are in Antigua.
– Altitude sickness, if you’ve just flown into the area spend a couple of days acclimatising to the region
– Dress in layers including a windbreaker layer. Unlike idiot here, wear decent shoes.
– Take water with you, the air can be quite dry, and parts of the hike are exhausting. Although there might be vendors selling drinks along the way, you can’t guarantee this.
– Take some cash in Quetzals with you to pay for a walking stick or a horse if you need it.
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