There are supposedly 34-odd volcanoes in Guatemala, of which Only 3 are active. One, Volcan Fuego, is located within 15 miles of Antigua and regularly belches smoke, as if to warn everyone not to get too complacent. (I keep my bike ready just in case). It is about 12,500 ft high and is too tricky for casual climbers. A second one is located near Xela. The only one that is readily climbable is Pacaya, about 2500 m (8200 ft) high and a little south of Guatemala City. This is a “must-do” tourist destination for those among us who fancy ourselves as being fitter than the masses (whoever they may be). My teacher Alvaro had done it and so had Jenny in our home. I therefore decided to give it a go.
Jenny recommended a morning trip. Alvaro said the afternoon was better. I took his advice. Big mistake, as Jenny gleefully pointed out to me the next evening, after I had recovered. In future, I will listen to women. The story is as follows:
We were supposed to leave at 2 in order to complete the climb before night fall, but ended up driving around Antigua for half an hour and then changing buses (who knows why). So we left at 315 pm.
The1.5 hr drive to Pacaya was quite beautiful, as the terrain is mountainous and the countryside quite green.
This was our armed guard. There have been some robberies in the past. The guards are all very proud of their "escopeta doce" (12 gage shotguns). I think they would injure more tourists than robbers if they were fired.
Traffic jam on the way up.
We started climbing at around 5 pm, at sunset – great views of the ocean and of the other volcanoes.
We reached the small hut at the base of the volcano proper at dusk. By this time our group had grown to about 30 persons, of varying stages of fitness. This is really too much for one group – hence we were slower than normal as we often had to stop and wait for people to catch up. We started the ascent in the dark. It was very windy (as is the case at this time of the year) and rapidly became quite cold. The tour group, BARCO, had recommended that people bring flashlights, walking sticks, good clothing and strong shoes. But it appears these things are optional, so a number of people were lacking one or more items. Not good at all – in my opinion, all these things should be compulsory. One older man (with another group) that was coming down was very lightly dressed and was clearly suffering from the cold. A European visitor produced a spare jacket for him to wear, which I though was a nice gesture,since he probably would not easily meet up with hime again.
The going was rough, and the light went quickly, as so often happens near the equator. One would take 2 steps up and slide one back. The laval rocks were loose and abrasive. A couple of guys ahead dislodged some 20-30 lb boulders which came tumbling down, struck one of the local dogs that was accompanying us, and narrowly missed several tourists. Those without lamps or headlights were in bad shape, and had to rely on others for help. Several people could not make it and stayed back for the next 1.5 hrs, exposed to the strong winds and cold. The volcano is like moonscape, where nothing grows, and is rather like a huge cinder cone made up of loose larval rocks.
We arrived at the crater at 7 pm. It was impressive to get to within 10 ft of the slowly moving molten lava. Rock melts at between 600 and 1000 C (1100 to 1800 F). No one had a thermometer so we had to guess. The guide had brought along a long stick with branches at the end, on which he impaled 6 or so marshmallows at a time. He then proceeded to toast the marshmallows. Not your every day girlscout campfire.
One could glimpse the river of lava be moving below one's perch, and it made me wonder if a tourist ever fell in. Sure would make for a difficult rescue. The extra heat from the lava was welcome as the cold wind had begun to get into one's bones.
The descent was hair raising. I had a headlamp, walking stick and good shoes, but did not find it easy, and fell a number of times in the loose screen. One had to brace oneself on the sharp rocks. Fortunately I had on my bike gloves or I would have suffered more than just a few small cuts. The young Australian woman behind me fell every few minutes during the 45 min descent.
We made it back to the hut with many people complaining of sore body parts. The rest of the descent, along the path was uneventful. We finally returned to Antigua at 1045 pm, about 1.5 - 2 hrs late.
Two days later I bumped into a Canadian couple whom I had befriended on the trip. She had her arm in a cast. She said it had suffered a fracture during the descent, as the local hospital had discovered. They added that quite a few people had had to go to the hospital the next day.
Later I visited the Barco travel agency and the lady was unsympathetic. She said people had been advised to bring the necessary gear. I asked what the group had been so large, as it slowed us down. She shrugged. I added that in my opinion, they should insist on the correct gear, or one should not be allowed to join the group. Such people could be a liability to themselves and to the others, especially if an evacuation were necessary. She didn’t believe me when I reported the injuries. Her guide had told her no-one had suffered any injuries and she believed him. I guess it is possible he hadn’t been aware that people were injured, but then I didn’t see him checking up either. And of course many tourists cant speak much Spanish and he spoke no English.
Some thoughts I came away with were: safety is not of prime importance the the organizers on these trips. So ask around, and always bring enough gear. Don’t be macho, as were some young guys on this trip, and climb without headlamp or stick. Secondly, the travel Agency Barco tries to shave costs. I would not recommend them. Thirdly, climb Pacaya in the morning, as Jenny recommended, not at night. It is pushing your luck.