Guatemala is a small country with a lot of volcanoes, at least 36 of them actually. At any time there is usually one that is active which makes hiking an active volcano the top of most people’s Guatemala wish list. When my son heard that there was an option to do a Pacaya volcano hike to roast marshmallows on steam vents, he was sold! We set about town looking for someone who could take us to the volcano.
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About the Pacaya Volcano Hike
Located about an hour and half outside of both Antigua and Guatemala City, Pacaya Volcano is said to have first erupted over 23,000 years ago. It is still one of the most lively volcanoes in Central America. The volcano has frequent eruptions occurring almost continuously, but the eruptions to this point are just small bits of ash and spurts of hot lava rocks that tumble gently down the sides.
Due to the predictable nature of Pacaya, and that it is one of the most accessible volcanoes in Guatemala it has become a favorite allowing visitors from both Guatemala City and Antigua to get an up close and personal view.
There are two options for hiking Pacaya volcano – either the day hike up a short, but steep trail lasting only about 45 minutes or an overnight Pacaya volcano hike. This adventure takes you up a longer, slightly less steep trail to where you spend the night under the looming shadow of an erupting Pacaya.
The day hike is billed as an easy hike, while the night hike is sold as a moderate hike. Having done it I would say that neither are particularly easy unless you are pretty fit and not carrying any gear. There are options however to take a horse up the volcano for 100 Quetzales per person. You can also hire a porter to carry your gear if you are doing an overnight hike. Note however that there are no options for porters or horses for the hike down the volcano.
Our Experience on the Overnight Pacaya Volcano Hike
Our initial plan was to do only the day hike, however we were quickly upsold by OX Outdoor Excursions for the overnight adventure. What kid can resist the temptation to tell his friends he slept on an active volcano?
On the day before our scheduled trip I received a message that the other members of our scheduled group had cancelled, which meant our trip was also cancelled. The only option was switch to a day hike at some point in the week or to leave right away. They told us “Be ready in an hour”!
We rushed around to prepare our bags and gear as quickly as we could. We were amped and ready to go on our last minute adventure. Unfortunately, our excitement was soon tempered by a series of unfortunate events.
Preparing for an Overnight Hike at Pacaya Volcano
Our arrival to the shop was admist a bit of chaos as OX had several groups preparing to leave for day hikes as well as the overnight excursion. The awesome part of the tour provided by OX Excursions is that they provide all the gear you will need including backpacks, headlamps and even a fleece! Unfortunately for us, we were the last to arrive which meant we were left with the worst of the gear.
What also wasn’t mentioned was that all of the tents, water, food and other gear for the entire group is evenly distributed between all of the hikers, which can make the bags pretty heavy.
I am a hiker for sure, but I am not super fit and have never backpack camped before. Obviously my 8 year old hasn’t either. Seeing how massive the bags were sent me into a tizzy. I was so worried about whether I could actually carry this old, not fully functioning bag on a straight trail for an hour and a half, much less up a steep volcano!
I was nervous, but ready to give it a go.
Finally packed up and loaded into the car, we set off a bit later then we had hoped but not too far behind the day hikers heading up for sunset.
Traffic & Weather on Our Pacaya Volcano Hike
The cards were not in our favor this day. We got stuck in a massive traffic jam. The kind of traffic that means turning off the car and mingling outside on the side of the road chatting to strangers for 30 minutes kind of traffic.
Apparently, this isn’t completely unheard of, but is also not the absolute norm. In light of our experience, I would highly recommend going earlier in the day rather than risking a late afternoon hike that could be thwarted by terrible traffic.
While I was super disappointed that our adventure was off to a bad start, I kept hope alive that things would turn around.
But at the same time I was panicking inside. How was I going to carry this massive backpack that had to weigh at least 30 lbs all the way up the volcano? I could barely manage to get myself up some of these hills.
Just as we feared, we didn’t arrive until after dark. And to make matters even worse it was pouring rain. We had missed sunset and now had to hike up the volcano for an hour and half in the rain and dark.
Our chances of seeing much went from poor to dismal with the heavy cloud cover and rain. But our guide said you never know how the weather is at the top of the volcano since it is a microclimate with the volcano creating its own weather at times.
I brushed off the negative nelly naysaying cloud that was hanging over my head and upon my son’s urging began the hike up.
The Overnight Pacaya Volcano Hike
After about 25 minutes of straight up hill climbing in very hot and humid conditions, it was clear that my son wasn’t going to be able to go much more carrying his own bag. It was well past dinner time and approaching his bedtime. He was exhausted. One of the several horses following us was soon given a little rider to make his effort up the volcano financially sound!
I continued on, huffing and puffing for another 20 minutes or so before it was also clear that I wouldn’t be able to carry on. My bag was super heavy, the waist belt was broken and I was feeling dizzy from hunger. So I also gave in and got a horse. Turns out, it was only for about 20 minutes, but it was definitely worth it to not have to walk that last steep bit. In hindsight, I would have just preferred to get the horses from the start since it’s the same price no matter how far along you hop on.
My 8 year old always makes the best of any situation, so he enjoyed searching out spiders, bats and caterpillars with his head lamp from on top of the horse. The rest of the group was moving at a much quicker pace, so we didn’t have much time to enjoy the beautiful surroundings.
Finally arriving to our camp spot for the night, we were enshrouded in clouds with no view to speak of. It was after 8pm, so we quickly set up the tents and heated up our spaghetti dinner.
The Night Light of Pacaya Volcano
Just as we were giving up on seeing anything for the night, a quick clearing of the clouds revealed stars above our head and the amazing Pacaya Volcano spewing lava above us.
Our guide suggested that this could be our only chance so we hit the trail at almost 9:30pm. We weren’t quite sure what we were doing so we didn’t grab anything but our cameras and a headlamp. Mine quickly ran out of battery as I struggled to get up the slippery thick volcanic rock that was our trail.
A long day of running around with little food had finally caught up to both of us. My son became scared when he saw a sign saying that going past the sign could result in death. He went only a bit further before saying he had had enough! Fine by me. As cool as it would be to get within 20 meters of the lava spewing, I was way too exhausted and cold to keep trekking in the pitch black of night.
Instead we found a spot to just chill with one of the guides. We sat listening to the booms of the volcano about 200 meters above us and watching the red fiery drops swirl around above us.
In the distance we could also see Fuego spewing lava at quite a force.
Was this one moment worth the frustration and irritation of the day? Was all the messiness worth it to hear the booms of lava exploding a mere 200 meters away? Cian says yes. I am still undecided.
The rest of the group headed up even further, getting a mere 20 meters away from the lava rocks spewing out of the top! Some said they felt very nervous up there and were glad they only spent a short time there. I am not sure if the 45 minute additional steep hike they did would have been worth it, but if you are fit, it would be worth a go I am sure. We enjoyed our few minutes of quiet watching from a distance.
Hiking Down Pacaya Volcano in the Morning
The plan was to get to bed and wake up at 4 am for sunrise over the volcano. When I woke up at 5:15, it was cold and cloudy and no one had come to wake us up yet. So much for seeing sunrise. Instead we were able to sleep until 6 am before packing up and heading back down.
So less than 12 after after arriving to the volcano we were already heading down. No sunset views. No sunrise views. Only 30 minutes of private time with Volcan de Pacaya.
The hike down Pacaya only took us about 45 minutes in the morning. It was a bit steep, but there were a few really nice view points that we had missed in the night since it was dark. We were happy to have a walking stick to help steady ourselves and give the knees a bit of a break heading down.
Was it a cool experience? Yes. Could it have been better? Yes definitely.
Will my son always have a memory of sleeping on an active volcano. Yep. And while he doesn’t quite see this as a lemon story, I am still not sold.
Hike Pacaya Volcano – Overnight or Day Only?
The overnight hike was definitely an experience. Had things gone in our favor it could have been amazing! But from what the guides tell me, you just never know what you will get there. Now I understand why some of their clients go back over and over again. You may get a clear night, or you may be forced to hike up and back down again with no view of anything. The weather forecast cannot be predicted since it is a microclimate.
Overall for a family, I would be hesitant to recommend the night hike unless you can be assured of a few things. I would make sure that your group is limited to your family and/or no more than your family and another couple of people. Our group was small by OX’s normal standards, but was not a group conducive to families as it consisted of eight 20 something year old girls who were all together on a larger tour making us feel like the odd ones out as well as not able to keep up with them physically.
Additionally, I would make sure that the sleeping arrangements are well organized in advance so that you are not sleeping in a small tent with strangers. Our accommodation got bungled up leaving us to sleep with strangers. Apparently the company had sent a 2 man tent for just myself and my son but wires got crossed and we ended up with the girls crammed in a 4 person tent.
Three, I would make sure to clarify if you will get to roast marshmallows. The salesman at the shop assured us we would get to, however our guide said they never roast marshmallows on the night hike. I am not sure what the reality is, but we did not get to, which was a huge disappointment. For that alone, I would have rather gone on the day hike.
As far as difficulty, I think they are probably about the same minus having to take the gear with you for the night hike. The day hike is also supposed to be a shorter, but steeper hike taking around 45 minutes. The overnight hike takes around 1.5-2 hours. However reading some other reviews, people suggest that it took 2 hours even on the day hike. That hike also has very little shade, whereas the night route is mostly tree lined which is great to keep you cooler.
Overall my son was happy he got to sleep under the volcano and experience a night like he had never had before and may never again. Now he wants to return for the day hike just so he can roast marshmallows!
Things to Know Before You Hike Pacaya Volcano
- The Pacaya volcano hike is steep, hot and humid. If you can, take your time, taking breaks often.
- Weather changes rapidly at the volcano, so bring rain clothes, fleece and a packable down jacket just in case!
- If in doubt of your ability to hike Pacaya Volcano, just take the horse. It is the same price (100 Quetzals at the time of writing) if you start on the horse at the bottom or halfway to the top.
- The horses go down a different way so you must walk down with all your gear (for night hikers) regardless of how you go up.
- Buy a cheap wooden walking stick (5 Quetzals) from the kids selling them at the beginning. It will come in handy especially for the hike down the volcano.
- Bring plenty of water and snacks for both the day or night hike.
- If you plan to spend the night at Pacaya volcano, make sure your kids have their own backpacks or that you are able to carry all of their gear as OX Outdoor Excursions does not have kids gear other than possible fleece jackets or sweaters.
- Depending on which company you go with, you might need to bring your own materials for making marshmallows and s’mores!
- Meals are provided for the overnight hike – banana bread with peanut butter for breakfast and a spaghetti dish for dinner. (But if you are starving like we were, there is a great local place just near OX Excursions called La Sarten that serves a great breakfast.)
There are tons of outfitters who take you up during the day, but only a few that are allowed to stay overnight. Check around town for the options. If you plan to go for the day, you can go with any of the organizers as most of the guides are about the same.
Overall, I am giving OX Excursions the benefit of the doubt to say they are a reputable company who really does aim to provide a great experience. Since we were less than thrilled with how things worked out for us, they did not charge us. In general we thought the guides were fantastic under the circumstances. I would definitely give them another shot and hope for a better experience. That said, there are TONS of options in Antigua, so you can also easily shop around.
Here are some other tour operators that you can book in advance if you do not have time to wait until you arrive.
- Pacaya Volcano Hike (6 hr tour)
- Guatemala Pacaya Volcano Tour
- Pacaya Volcano & Hot Springs Tour from Guatemala City
- Pacaya Volcano & Hot Springs with Lunch Tour
What do you think? Would you consider sleeping on an active volcano?
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