Saturday, April 4, 2009

Volcán Pacaya

With just a few days left in Guatemala we returned to Antigua for some relaxation and some unfinished business. When we were last here at Christmas, our friends climbed Volcán Pacaya and raved about the amazing lava flows at the top of this highly active volcano. Unfortunately, at the time we couldn't join their trip and we've felt since then that we'd missed out. The best way to see it is to camp overnight on top so that there's a chance to see the glowing lava in the dark without the daytime crowds. As this trip only runs every few days, we didn't expect to have the chance to do it. But, as luck would have it, there was a trip going when we were in Antigua... on our last night in Guatemala, to be precise. Never mind that we had to get a bus the next day to Costa Rica! Even better, our friends Ric and Liz, who joined us for the El Mirador trek, happened to be in Antigua and were also up for it. We couldn't really say no, could we?

At the start of the hike up there's a fierce gang of young children who sell sticks to the tourists. The sticks seem unnecessary at first but you soon realise that they're indispensable once you get onto the lava field.

The start of the hike goes fairly easily. It's only about an hour and a half up a well-trodden trail to the camp site. We camped on a small patch of volcanic sand just off the edge of the lava field. Our guide, Kevin, explained that, although it's not a great spot, it has a great view of the other surrounding volcanoes: Agua, Fuego and Acatenango. Not that we'd have known; the "second worst" fog our guide had ever seen on Pacaya descended on us out of nowhere. Rain and fog persisted all night.

After some wine (thoughtfully brought by Kevin), we hiked up at dusk, planning to get to the lava flows just after dark. It's not easy. Because the lava is flowing all the time, the mountain is constantly changing and the lava might be emerging from the surface anywhere. The hike here is pretty tough, with a surface of volcanic rock which varies from sand to medium-sized rocks. Every step up a steep slope seems to slide most of the way back down! The weather didn't help, of course.

The effort is soon rewarded though. One of the great things about climbing Pacaya at night is that a magical red glow is visible over the rise when you get near the lava, and you can tell you're close. Tantalising!

With all the hype of something like this, it's easy to think you might be disappointed when you finally get there. We were not disappointed. As we approached, climbing over recent lava flows and seeing molten rock glowing through cracks in the rock, our jaws dropped to see a river of intensely hot flowing lava running down the mountainside.

The pictures really don't do it justice. Here's a video to give you a better idea of the molten rock actually flowing:

We stayed up for about an hour, toasting marshmallows and hot dogs (for the non-vegetarians). We had the lava completely to ourselves, which made us feel immensely privileged.

Climbing back down in the dark and fog with about 2 metres visibility was not easy. We were all pretty glad that Kevin had decided at the last minute to bring his GPS! We ate dinner (huge amounts of delicious veggie curry), drank some more wine and turned in for the night.

The fog unfortunately meant there was no sunrise to speak of. It did eventually clear soon after dawn though, and we got this fantastic view of the aforementioned three volcanoes.

Getting back, we were all extremely pleased to have been there and to have experienced it.

But that's not the end of the story. We found out today that, on the day we came down from the volcano, Pacaya was closed to the public and placed on "orange alert" by the Guatemalan authorities, fearing a major eruption after highly elevated levels of volcanic activity had been observed. Looks like we were just in time!


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