We originally planned on hiking and camping on Pacaya last month, but it decided to blow its top sending enough ash raining down to force the closure of the airport in Guatemala City. We hoped the two big eruptions would release enough pressure that things would calm down and we could still camp on the volcano before we head back home. Things worked out well and we were able to make our trip to Pacaya and see lava last night and this morning.
Sun Dogs and Rain
The weather wasn’t quite as cooperative as the volcano. Brett and I worked all morning and then we saw a sun dog. Carlos, the gardener at the house we’re renting, told us the sun dog was a sure sign that a lot of rain was coming. We didn’t want to believe him, so we looked it up on Google. His story checked out, so we all took rain gear to the volcano.
We booked our tour with Ox Expeditions, who we liked because of the experience a large part of our group had climbing Acatenango and Fuego with them earlier this trip. They were great. They provided us with backpacks, tents, headlamps, lunch, dinner, breakfast, and, of course, transportation.
The wind and rain pounded our little van all the way from Antigua to Escuintla, but then it stopped as we headed toward the mountain. After passing through San Vicente Pacaya and getting our temperatures taken to make sure none of us had a fever (their best approximation for covid testing), we started up the mountain. Not far from town the road forks and 99% of tourists go to the left and up the north side of Pacaya. We went to the right and that made all the difference. All the recent flows have been down the west side of the volcano, and that’s exactly where we went.
Getting a Local Guide
The van stopped en route to buy some firewood, but the earlier rain meant all the firewood was wet. It was hard to find someone who still had dry wood we could buy. We were also picking up a local guide to show us her farms. As it turned out, her mother still had some firewood. We were going to have a campfire after all. The guide’s name was Imelda. She was born and raised right there near Pacaya and had several kids of her own. I’m pretty sure her whole family all lived under one roof – her mother, her daughters, some of her cousins, etc. It wasn’t a very large place, but they made it work.
It only took a few minutes in the van to get to our starting point. We put on our backpacks and headed up behind Imelda. She led us on a crazy winding path that seemed like it may not have really been a path. As we hiked she explained that the roads, paths, and farms in the area had all been destroyed by and filled with lava during the past two or three days. The lava rivers that emerged from Pacaya after the last big eruption finally made it all the way down the mountain and into their village. Where there used to be a coffee farm, there was nothing but lava. Where there used to be a dairy, there was nothing but lava.
Melting Shoes and Burning Legs
We saw the lava. It had stopped being liquid on top in the past day or two, but it was still very hot. The wind was cold when it came from the south and I wondered if I should have brought a jacket. But then the wind would change direction and it felt like a fire-breathing dragon was nearby. It was a really interesting experience. The lava rocks were still moving slowly down the hill. They cracked and crashed in on themselves every now and then making all sorts of strange noises.
Through the cracks the red lava glowed. Sometimes it was glowing so brightly that it looked bright orange, yellow, or some shade of white. Did I mention it was hot? We climbed around on some of the rocks and felt the real heat. Sometimes I thought the hairs on my legs were burning off. Other times I wondered if my shoes were melting. The heat alone could be very painful. And the rocks were not like any rocks I have seen or touched previously. They were more like three dimensional fractals of extremely sharp glass. Sometimes they sounded hollow when you stepped on them. Sometimes they broke or moved when you stepped on them. Sometimes you had to use your hands to help stabilize you as you moved around and that was always bad.
Human hands are not designed or built to handle fresh lava rocks. Even when those rocks are not hot, they are always sharp and odd-shaped. I really needed some thick leather gloves to be doing the kind of maneuvering I was doing. But it was worth the cuts, scrapes, and stabs to see and experience the lava slowly moving beneath the rocks we were standing on.
One of the highlights of the trip was roasting marshmallows and making s’mores over some of the holes in the rock where the hotter lava was exposed. We worked our way around a few holes searching for the right angle to get good shot of someone roasting their marshmallow. Charmaine was fearless and somehow survived the incredible heat coming out of those lava holes to be the model for a few pictures. I often joke that she has iron hands and can reach into a frying pan, pull out a piece of chicken from the boiling oil, and pop it straight into her mouth without even blowing on it. She can’t actually do that, but she does have a <strong>much</strong> higher heat tolerance than I have.
We built a good fire and Imelda went back home to pick up her daughter so she could introduce her to Nate. Her daughter was really cute and made eyes at Nate for hours as they sat around the fire. Nate either didn’t notice, didn’t care, or was too afraid to make contact. It was sort of comical, but also sort of sad. It would have been a great opportunity for him to both practice his Spanish and to practice talking to girls in a completely safe environment. We teased him about it the next day.
The wind and rain picked up after dark and I was glad Ox provided us with such good tents. We stayed dry, but there was little to no sleep to be had. The wind whipped our tents all night. The lava river just a few hundred feet away continued to move and make interesting unrecognizable sounds. The ground was far from flat and not very soft. The pads we had didn’t solve any of those problems. So I figure I slept an hour or two at most, but it was definitely worth it for the experience.
Sunrise from Pacaya
We got up at 4:45 in the morning to hike to a viewpoint for sunrise. From the viewpoint we could see the three taller volcanos in the area all in a row. Agua (12,000+ feet), Acatenango (13,000 feet), and Fuego (12,000+ feet and currently erupting). It was still a bit cloudy, but the sunrise was still filled with color. We built another fire there, made some hot chocolate, and ate some banana bread with peanut butter. I hadn’t ever put peanut butter on banana bread before, but it was really good. I’m sure I’ll do that again.
After sunrise we headed back to camp to play around on the lava rocks a bit more before breaking down camp and starting back down to where the van dropped us off. We stopped and took our packs off at a basketball court on the side of the road while we waited for the van. This proved to be the perfect time to tease Nate and Maebelina for not talking to each other. Then the van came and we headed back to Antigua. This may have been the last big adventure in Guatemala this time, and it’s already over.