Guatemala

Lava, tents and marshmallows on the Pacaya volcano

Camping under a beautiful starry sky, roasting marshmallows over lava and impressive bursts of red lava. Sleeping on the Pacaya is a unique experience that you will never forget! In this blog we tell you everything you need to know about the hike, the camping and the volcano, including a handy packing list.

Why is the Pacaya a must?

Have you always wanted to experience an active volcano up close? Want to see the lava flows? Want to experience eruptions? Then the Pacaya has been on your bucket list all this time! Of the three active volcanoes in Guatemala, the Pacaya is the only one that you can safely climb to near the crater. This is your moment to become close and personal with a volcano.

We found the evening hike in the dark one of the most spectacular things we have ever done. The huge lava flows from the top down, the lava splashes from the crater and the thick clouds of smoke. Wow! When it was a bit foggy, it didn’t spoil the fun. The fog, on the other hand, created an amazing red glow through the light and color of the lava.

Three options: morning, afternoon or overnight

There are three ways to climb the Pacaya. The hike during the day is the most popular and then it is also the busiest on the volcano. Tours to the volcano last half a day, so you can choose from a morning or afternoon hike. We recommend that you choose the afternoon hike and specifically ask about the sunset option. It is possible to see the sunset from the volcano. The afternoon hike is the perfect option for that!

At a day hike you will not see the red lava flows or red splashes above the crater because of the daylight. You will mainly be able to see clouds of smoke and feel the warmth between the solidified lava. A day tour will almost never go all the way to the top. If you would like that, inquire about it before booking.

Part of every tour – day hike or overnight option – is roasting marshmallows on the volcano! There are gaps between the solidified lava where you can feel the heat of the volcano. Then you can make perfect marshmallows.

We did the overnight tour ourselves with Ox Expeditions and would really recommend it to you above a day hike. Depending on the weather and the clouds you will then climb to the top of the volcano in the evening or at night. Because it is dark, you have a breathtaking view of the red glowing lava. A unique experience that you will miss during the day.

The hike to the camp

With a van from the tour organisation we drive from Antigua to the foot of the Pacaya. This normally takes around 1.5 hours. But we are unlucky because of roadworks and it takes 2 hours in the end. The guide advises us to keep our eyes open during the ride! Along the way we see more of the country and the guide explains where we pass. The ride takes you past the town of Viejo, the old capital of Guatemala. We also see the damage caused by the eruption of the Fuego in 2018. We see the village that is completely buried under ash and lava flows. You could also clearly see the road that the streams had paved. Like a dry riverbed, so deep and wide!

We finally start the climb up around 4 p.m. The hike takes approximately 1.5 hours. We climb a total of 400 meters to the camp for the night, from 1600 meters to 2000 meters. Especially the first part is steep. The first 100 meters of it are paved, but then the entire route is a dirt road through a forest. The steep part even has stairs in some places, that’s how steep it is. Are you at the lookout point over the other volcanoes? Then you have had the worst and the less steep part follows.

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The Pacaya volcano is often compared to the Acatenango and the hike is described as easy. But don’t underestimate the climb. It is certainly not super heavy, especially not the less steep part. It is mainly less difficult, because the climb takes only 1.5 hours in total. That includes many rest breaks. Is it still too heavy for you? Locals offer their horses at the foot of the volcano and also on the way up. You can therefore have yourself brought up by a horse.

The hike ends where the forest turns into the paved lava, at an altitude of around 2000 meters. That is also where the Ox Expeditions camp is located. Ox has its own piece of land on the volcano, so they were able to build stone, covered dining tables at the camp. You pee in the bushes, they have a shed for number two. The tents are then set up on site, while the twilight starts. While the daylight is decreasing, we see the volcano slowly glowing. The lava flow is becoming increasingly visible and is becoming redder.

In the pitch darkness to the crater

It is cold on top of the volcano and the weather can be changeable. Usually the hike to the top is done in the morning, but if the weather is good, immediately after arriving in the dark already. That evening the sky is clear. The perfect weather to see the summit up close! So we start the hike up immediately after nightfall.

The climb to the top at an altitude of 2500 meters is very heavy due to the loose surface of lava sand and lava stones. The route is never the same. A local guide from the village is always present at this climb to keep an eye on the activity and the lava. And adjust the route accordingly. They work here all their lives and know the volcano through and through.

The view is spectacular! The lava turns red and orange, both in the lava flow and from the crater. We see the eruptions from so close that despite the cold on the volcano we are very hot here. Sometimes the weather changes for a few minutes and thick fog clouds pass by. It is special to also see those red and orange glows through the fog.

Whether we want to get even closer to the lava flow with the local guide, asks the Ox guide? Yes please! We may climb to the lava flow in pairs with the guide and local guide. We are less than 50 meters from this natural phenomenon. It is very hot and the whole world seems to consist of red fire. An impressive moment.

The journey down, still in pitch darkness, is perhaps even harder. Everything is slippery because of the loose and every few meters someone from the group is lying down. We didn’t need sticks for the climb from the foot to the camp, but now we are happy that we did take it with us. That extra bit of support is very welcome. On the way back down we make another stop to prepare the dessert of our dinner. The famous marshmallows on the Pacaya! So cool to see crevices that glow in red between the stones. Above such a crack a marshmallow is ready in a matter of seconds.

A cold night and the sunrise

Back in the camp we eat our pasta plate, drink a glass of wine and warm ourselves by the campfire. We quickly dive into our tent. We sleep on a mat and have brought an inflatable pillow ourselves. With all our clothes on, including a warm hat, we dive into our sleeping bag. The clothes and sleeping bag keep us warm. It is quite fresh, but we are not really cold.

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Around 5.15 am a part of the group goes up the volcano again for the sunrise. From the Pacaya you can see the other volcanoes of the Antigua well: the Agua, Acatenango and Fuego. That morning the air around those volcanoes brights up in all kinds of pastel colors, a beautiful sight.

Back at the camp we have breakfast with banana bread and around 7.15 we start the descent. It is very easy; we have no problems with our knees or slipping. Even with a few stops we are already down at 8.05 a.m. Around half past 10 we are back in Antigua.

Preparations and tips

The overnight tour to the Pacaya is not offered every day. Before your trip or as soon as you arrive in Antigua, inquire about the planning of the tour organizations. Ox Expeditions is known to do most overnight tours. The great thing about a tour with Ox is that you don’t have to bring everything yourself from home or buy in Antigua. From head lamps to poles and from backpacks to warm clothing, you can borrow it all. Really a big plus. We traveled another two months after the Pacaya and so we carried along hats and thermos for a while in our bag.

Tip: you can also borrow sticks from Ox as long as supplies last. That is highly recommended for the part through the lava rock to the top. Are they up? Then you buy a stick at the foot of the volcano of locals for only 5Q.

The Ox Expeditions overnight tour costs 79 USD. That includes tent, sleeping bag, mat, transport, meals, park entrance and local guide. You can borrow the extra material for free. The meals consisted of a good plate of pasta with a glass of wine in the evening and banana bread with spreads and Nutella with coffee or tea. We also get a sandwich for after the hike, upon arrival at the camp.

On the Ox tour you carry your mat, (part of your) tent, sleeping bag, your own things, your water, your portion of dinner and part of the common food upstairs. You can borrow an Ox backpack for that, just like everyone else in our group did.

Tip: don’t feel like dragging everyone upstairs? You can rent a porter to lift a backpack for you. We have hired a porter together and that cost us 100Q.

Packing list

  • Backpack of at least 55 liters (to borrow)
  • Warm clothing, including a hat and gloves (on loan). We recommend at least two, and no less than three, layers. It is really pretty cold on the volcano, especially at night.
  • Head light (to borrow, but please bring batteries)
  • A windproof raincoat, such as Maartjes jacket from Arc’teryx. It can be quite windy on top of the volcano and without such a jacket it is even colder than it already is.
  • Hiking shoes with a good profile, such as our Keen shoes. We saw others in our group with sneakers or sneakers slipping away more often on the loose lava rock. So we were very happy with our sturdy shoes, especially Sebastiaan, who even found shoes in his size 47 at Keen.
  • At least 3 liters of water (free to top up with Ox filters)
  • Small snacks, such as granola or nut bars. This is not a must, because there is already a sandwich as a snack with the meal package from Ox.
  • Sunglasses and sunscreen
  • Clean socks (also useful as gloves in the cold night)
  • Inflatable pillow (a neck pillow may also suffice)
  • Stick (on loan or for sale at the Pacaya)

Pacaya hike

by Old Town Outfitters