Tours to the Pacaya Volcano
The Pacaya Volcano, located just south of Guatemala City, is one of Guatemala's most popular destinations. Pacaya is still active, but most of the time the activity is low-key enough that it can safely be climbed.
Pacaya's proximity to Guatemala City makes it easy to access and we organize tours for our students almost every week.
The Pacaya is one of many volcanoes that circle the Pacific Ocean in the Ring of Fire. At a height of 2,560 meters (8,400 ft) Pacaya is not among Guatemala's highest volcanoes, but nonetheless the view from the top is spectacular.
Red-hot lava flowing down the flank of the Pacaya Volcano
Volcanic activity in the area around the Pacaya goes back several hundred thousand years, but relatively little is known about it's early history. A huge eruption 23,000 years ago created the Amatitlan caldera, much of which is occupied by Lake Amatitlan today. The Pacaya complex we see today rose on the southern rim of the caldera.
About 1,100 years ago Pacaya's edifice collapsed and caused a huge landslide that deposited debris on the Pacific plane to a distance of up to 25 km (16 miles). The landslide left a large crater, inside of which the currently active cone — the McKenney cone — has grown.
Over the last 500 years the Pacaya has been one of Central America's most active volcanoes. Twenty-three distinct eruptive phases have been recorded since the Spanish conquest. The last one began in 1965 and is still ongoing.
Tours to the Pacaya Volcano
Tours to the Pacaya Volcano are among our most popular activities and we organize them almost every week. However, Pacaya National Park is closed if the volcano's activity picks up and the hike wouldn't be safe, so we cannot guarantee that Pacaya tours will be available at the time you are here.
The tour begins with a 60-90 minute bus ride to the village of San Francisco de Sales, which is located at the foot of the Pacaya. The entrance to Pacaya National Park is in San Francisco de Sales, and this is also where the group meets their local guide. The guides have climbed the volcano hundreds, if not thousands, of times and are intimately familiar with the terrain.
Tour guide leading a group
The path to the top is well maintained and the lower part of it is paved. There are several rest stops on the way up, which give you the opportunity to catch your breath and take a few photos. The view gets better the higher up you get.
Due to the volcano's activity, the area close to the top changes continuously and the path the tour takes can vary from week to week, or even from day to day. It may or may not be possible to climb all the way up to the crater's edge, and you may or may not see lava.
Once you reach the top, you'll have about 15 to 30 minutes to relax, take photos and enjoy the view before the descent begins. The tour bus will be waiting for you in San Francisco de Sales and take you back to Antigua.
What to Bring
Hiking the Pacaya is a lot more fun if you are well prepared, so here are a few things you want to make sure to bring:
- Spending money: The entrance fee to Pacaya National Park, which you'll need to pay at the entrance, is Q50.00 (approximately US$6-7). If you like, you can rent a horse for the way up (about US$10) or round trip (US$15-20). Walking sticks are Q5.00 (approx US$0.70). You can also buy refreshments and souvenirs at the entrance.
- Firm shoes: A good part of the hike is over loose volcanic stones, which have very sharp edges. Above-ankle shoes work best since they give your feet and ankles more support and help to keep volcanic grit out.
- Flashlight: Part of the descent is after sunset and a good flashlight will make it much easier to stay on the right track and avoid obstacles. Make sure the batteries have enough power for at least half an hour of continuous operation.
- Drinking water and snacks: You can buy drinking water and snacks at the entrance to the park, but once you are on the way, there is no more opportunity to buy supplies, so bring what you think you'll need. Don't overdo it, though. The heavier your backpack, the harder the climb.
- Sweater or jacket: It can get very windy at the top and after the climb you might be a little sweaty. A sweater or jacket will definitely come handy to keep you warm.
- Raincoat: During the rainy season it is quite possible that you'll get into a rain shower or two, so don't forget your raincoat.
- Sunscreen: At the top of the Pacaya the sun can be quite strong and it's easy to get sunburned. Make sure to bring sunscreen, especially if you have sensitive skin.
Shoes with thick soles work best as the ground can be hot
What to Expect
- Pacaya National Park is closed if the volcano's activity picks up and the hike wouldn't be safe. Tours can be canceled on short notice.
- There's a restroom at the entrance to the park and one more about halfway up. They are fairly basic, though.
- The guides are very experienced and give explanations along the way, but only in Spanish. They do not speak English.
- If you rent a horse, it will not take you all the way to the top. The ride ends when the mountain and forest are behind you and you reach the fields of volcanic stones and grit. Once the path gets to steep or uneven for the horse, you'll have to depend on your own feet again.
- The kids at the entrance will "sell" you a walking stick, but it's in fact more of a rental. They expect you to return the stick to them after the tour.
- The hike is not technical, but it's very steep in some places and loose volcanic stones don't make the going any easier. Once you get close to the top, you will also feel the altitude.
- On windy days airborne volcanic grit may scratch or damage your camera. Keep it well protected when not in use.
- Vents near the crater sometimes emit sulfurous fumes. Sulfur combines with the water in your lungs to form weak sulfuric acid, which causes a burning sensation that is rather unpleasant and in higher concentrations may be harmful. Try to stay away from the fumes as much as possible.
- Depending on Pacaya's current activity patterns, you may not see lava at the top. Consider the lava a bonus rather than the main reason for the tour.
- You won't have a lot of time at the top to relax, take photos and enjoy the few. Expect about 15 to 20 minutes, maybe half an hour if your guide is in a generous mood.
- Sometimes the guides are in a real hurry on the way down and move faster than you can keep up with. If you lose sight of your guide, keep following the trail, he will wait for you eventually.
Riding a horse on the way up
Fumes are emitted in many places around the crater
- Photo Gallery: Pacaya Volcano
- Video of the Pacaya's eruption in May 2010
- Active Volcano Pacaya — Episode 6
Blog post with a great video by Jason and Aracely, a couple who went on an overnight trip to the Pacaya
- Guatemala Volcanoes and Volcanics
Nice overview of the volcanoes in Guatemala by the U.S. Geological Survey