The Truth About Hiking Guatemala’s Pacaya Volcano

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Our 40-person group hiking Pacaya

Before arriving in Guatemala’s Antigua I was told hiking the active Pacaya Volcano was a must-have experience. I read articles and talked to locals, most touting the excursion as exciting and talking of beautiful sunsets and getting to see red flowing lava. Standing at 8,373 feet (2,552 meters) it was one of Central America’s most active volcanoes and one of only three active volcanoes in Guatemala (Pacaya is touted as the most active). And, according to locals, there had been activity just two weeks prior to my visit. I was excited.

After hiking Pacaya myself, I can honestly say this is not what I experienced. While I enjoyed the hike (despite the 40-person group size) and found it provided a decent challenge traversing steep hills, when we reached an endless expanse of flat volcanic rock I was surprised when the guide told us we’d soon be turning around to head back. Where was the lava and smoke? What about the sunset? Why weren’t we going further? While I figured safety would keep us from climbing to the actual crater I was told we would still see the flowing magma. What I saw was nothing but black rock.

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One of the views along the Pacaya trail

Don’t get me wrong, I got to see unique Guatemalan vegetation up close — including the area’s oldest tree at 400 years old. Plus, the volcanic landscape had an otherworldly feel and I’m glad I experienced it, especially for the equivalent of $16 USD including guide, transportation and park entrance; however, I had been promised a finale that wasn’t delivered and it was disappointing.

Maybe it was because two days prior I had hiked the lesser-known Indian’s Nose from San Pedro and had experienced the most surreal sunrise of my life. Sitting above a blanket of bubbling clouds, San Pedro Volcano shrouded in black dragon-shaped clouds and streaked with neon pinks, purples, oranges, yellows and reds, I felt like I was sitting in heaven looking down on Lake Atitlan. Because Pacaya is even more popular and beloved than Indian’s Nose I expected something at least equally amazing, if not more. It wasn’t.

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Roasting marshmallows on volcanic rock at Pacaya

One highlight of the Pacaya Volcano trek I will mention is roasting marshmallows on hot volcanic rock. Without fire, you’ll be able to toast marshmallows over stones using the volcanoes heat steaming up from under the earth. The photo of my boyfriend and I eating marshmallows was probably my favorite photo from the excursion. While I’m happy I got a cute picture out of it, I was hoping my most memorable photo would be of something actually relating to the volcano and its activity.

Am I saying don’t do the hike? No. I found it enjoyable and was glad I did it. That being said, don’t go expecting it to be anything really out of the ordinary. I’m sure there are a number of factors affecting what you’ll see, like the weather and recent activity, but don’t assume you’ll definitely see lava or a smoking crater. If you only have limited time in Guatemala there may be other ways you can spend your time more wisely: hiking Indian’s Nose, having an eco-retreat at Earth Lodge, visiting the Mayan Villages around Lake Atitlan, and going back in time at Tikal, to name a few.

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Some of the many fine chocolates at Antigua’s ChocoMuseo

Antigua Recommendations

So what do I recommend you do in Antigua? Along with simply walking around and admiring the colorful colonial architecture, historic ruins and peaceful plazas, I personally loved the chocolate museum, ChocoMuseo. Here you’ll enjoy free samples of fine Guatemalan chocolate and cacao tea, learn about its Mayan origins and how it helped to end slavery through exhibits, and partake in tree-to-bar and make-your-own chocolate classes. Down the street toward the Central Park you’ll also find the Exposicion de Artesanias Guatemala, where you can learn about Guatemala’s top products and try complimentary samples of chocolate and fruit wine. Another recommended Antigua experience is taking a free salsa lesson at Gloria y Moi Dance Academy, which take place daily at 5pm.

Walking around you’ll also find there’s a rich cafe culture, great for people-watching, sampling Guatemala’s renowned coffee and chatting up locals to practice your Spanish. And when the sun goes down you’ll find no shortage of restaurants and bars offering ambient meals and great music. Keep in mind Antigua is possibly the most expensive city in Guatemala, so those 30 Quetzal (about $3.75 USD) dinners are much harder to find; however, there are a number of lively and inexpensive bars, some of which include No Se, Reilly’s and The Snug.

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Hiking up volcanic rock at Pacaya

Pacaya Hiking Tips

If you’re going to be hiking Pacaya there are a few things to keep in mind. First of all, the trails are dusty and rocky so sturdy close-toed shoes are a must. If you don’t think you can handle the climb on foot horses are available for about $12.50 each way. At the bottom of the trail, local children sell handmade walking sticks for 5 Quetzales (about $0.63 USD) if you have shaky knees or want a little extra help. While I didn’t use one and had no trouble without, I could see the benefit of having one.

Bring snacks and at least two liters of water per person. Weather can be windy and unpredictable, so dress in layers and bring a wind jacket, hat and scarf. And if you’re going at night — you can choose between a morning or evening hike — a flashlight will make the trek down much easier.

Have you hiked Pacaya? What was your experience like? Do you have another hiking recommendation for Guatemala? Please share in the comments below.

19 Comments

  1. I think your first mistake was to trust a very touristy spot and have great expectations of it. Dont get me wrong, Pacaya can be amazing if youre there at the right time, but having such large groups takes away from the experience. i wouldve suggested a one night backpack climb to Acatenango instead. I know everything there is to know about Guatemala’s unknown and unspoiled spots….Pacaya isnt one of them.

    1. @Frankie: Totally agree. Don’t get me wrong, we enjoyed the hike, especially for the cheap price, but they totally hyped it up into more than it was. We definitely wished we had spent time doing another hike (Acatenango looks amazing!).

      1. Hi Jessie-
        I loved reading your post, thank you for taking the time to write this. I am in Guatemala for a couple of months living in San Antonio. While I understand it is not the number one things to do here, It sounds like a great use of a Saturday- can you tell me which company you booked your trip through?
        Thank you so much!

        1. @Thea: Ah! Unfortunately I’m not sure (can’t remember). I would ask other tourists in your hotel/hostel who they went through, as they’ll have the more current answer anyway. Sorry!

  2. That is too bad you were promised something that they could not deliver. I would have taken the tour as well to see flowing lava. At least the hike was fun and I bet roasting marshmallows on volcanic rock would be a fun experience.

  3. Wow! You must had a great adventure in Guatemala. I was quite surprise about your hiking experience in Pacaya but it was nice to read that you had back up things to do in Guatemala and you all had fun in it. I heard a lot of great things about hiking in Pacaya and I’m glad I had the chance to read this before pursuing our hiking in that place. Thanks for sharing!

    1. @Grace: Guatemala is certainly home to some amazing landscapes and hikes. I wouldn’t say don’t do Pacaya; however, if you’re limited on time I think there are more worthwhile activity options and more worthwhile (less touristy) hikes. Indian’s Nose near San Pedro (Lake Atitlan) is a MUST at sunrise 🙂

  4. I think for that price tag it was a pretty nice experience however our group wasn’t 40 people large so that might have had something to do with it too.

  5. Hi Jessie, I enjoyed your article about Pacaya. I guess for me I was just grateful to be ABLE to hike it in February last year. I sprained my shoulder a couple months before going to Guatemala, so Pacaya was a warm up to see if I could do the big boys Santa María and Acatenango. All went well, thankfully. I enjoyed much of what you did, the great unique flora and the roasting of marshmallows:-). I did climb the two larger ones, which were FANTASTIC!

  6. Hi Jessie – We were in Antigua, Guatemala for the last 2 weeks of July on a Habitat for Humanity build. We are planning to go back in January/February 2017 for a month to teach English in the town of San Antonio Aguas Calientes. Is that were you were and if so where did you stay? We have been unable to find a hotel or rental apartment in the town. Any help would be greatly appreciated. Nancy

  7. I visited Pacaya last month and really enjoyed my experience! Our tour group was small and only around 15 people. I had done a lot of research beforehand and wasn’t expecting to see lava, but walking on the hardened lava fields and roasting marshmallows on the heat vents were both really amazing experiences! I also loved the beautiful views of the mountainous landscape along the trail. I opted to take a horse after almost passing out about 15 minutes into the hike. The hike was much more difficult than I was expecting and the inclines were quite steep and consistent, but I was able to enjoy more of the scenery while being on the horse. All in all, I had a great morning there!

    1. @Brittany: I’ll assume the tour operator makes a difference with this, as well as when you go. I was disappointed because what we were sold was NOT what we experienced. What operator did you use?

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