I have always been into volcanoes since I was a young child and been studying them ever since. It was in the late 1980's when I saw my first volcano which was Etna in Sicily, Italy. We was supposed to go up there at the time but it fell through. I also saw Vulcano days later when we passed by on the boat, and that would be the last I saw of volcanoes for nearly 2 decades.
Fast forward to 2005 and I had increasingly grew interested in Guatemala after I had realised that Pacaya was one of the most easily accessible active volcanoes in the world, and I had always wanted to visit a volcano. I finally flew to Guatemala in November that year where I had encountered culture shock. It was the first time in my life I had travelled to a not so wealthy country and had seen poverty around although not necessarily everywhere I went. But it was nonetheless a fascinating country.
THE DAY OF THE CLIMB
The date was 23rd November 2005 and by this time we had already travelled to Lake Atitlan and Antigua, and done a failed attempt to climb Volcan Agua due to weather. But seeing the volcanoes of Lake Atitlan and Antigua on the way was pretty majestic.
We headed south down the highway from the capital Guatemala City and after a while we had then finally arrived at the foot of the volcano after turning off from the highway where we would then drive up winding roads which would eventually lead the Pacaya National Park entrance. The views of Volcan Agua from up there was amazing.
ON OUR WAY UP
We had arrived at the park entrance and we then had to pay a kid to "look after the car" in the car park and warning to those who are travelling independently to Pacaya Volcano, make sure you pay somebody (usually a kid) when asked in the car park or they will vandalise your car!
We paid our entrance fees and we were on our way up the trail which would take us around more or less 1 and a half hours to reach the top. On the way, as well as passing many tourists of various nationalities we would pass one or two kids offering a hiking stick for a price and also a young man offering a horse to take us to the top.
Just before the trail would take us on a lengthy hike through the forest we had stopped briefly with a view of Laguna Calderas which was an extinct crater filled with a lake. Pacaya is a Complex Volcano and it contains various peaks, craters, and lava domes. The MacKenney cone is currently the active part of the volcano.
END OF THE HIKING TRAIL
After a lengthy hike through the forest the trail ends at the top where it was a heathland and you saw horses and cattle graze in the area. The active MacKenney cone was now only a short walk away and by then I was excited to see an active volcano up close with the prospect of hiking up to the crater. There were often visitors (Guatemalans and foreigners alike) coming and going.
By then we had walked up near to the base of the active cone and the vegetation had got less and less until we came to an area where it was now devoid of all vegetation. We had stuck around for a few minutes before we started the ascent of the MacKenney cone.
CLIMBING THE ACTIVE MACKENNEY CONE
We had started our ascent of the MacKenney cone and the loose volcanic material on the slopes (which I believe was Basaltic Scoria) wasn't exactly making it easy for us. Every step you made you would slide backwards and my shoes would fill with volcanic stones all the time which was really irritating. You also would have to watch your balance as you really could feel the gravity pulling at you.
INTO THE SUMMIT AREA
The ascent took more or less half an hour where we were greeted by 3 American girls who congratulated us for reaching the top. Prior to that, we had passed a dog sleeping in the middle of the trail just yards from the top. What on earth was a dog doing up there on an active volcano?!
Into the summit area now and there was some gentle fumarolic activity coming from numerous cracks and crater walls as well as a thick vapour plume steaming away from inside the actual crater, Sulfur Dioxide was present so I covered my mouth being careful not to inhale toxic gases.
We stuck around exploring the relatively "safe" parts of the summit area for a few minutes. Just near where we entered the top there was an active hornito built upon layers of hardened lava which occasionaly puffed away. I went as close to the crater rim as I possibly could getting dangerously close to the vapour plume which was steaming away from the active crater. The material in that part which I was standing on was relatively loose with some parts of it coloured yellow because it had intense contact with Sulfur. I had wanted to see what was down there inside the active crater but the vapour plume was so thick you couldn't see a thing.
After a while it was time to depart and the first thing which was on our minds was to get down to safety from the MacKenney cone of Volcan Pacaya.
A BRIEF POOR QUALITY VIDEO OF PACAYA'S CRATER RIM TAKEN FROM MY OLD MOBILE PHONE
I must say, getting down from the MacKenney cone was pretty easy and it was quick too. As soon as I got down to the base of the cone I didn't hesitate to sit on a large rock to empty my hiking shoes of numerous volcanic stones which were irritating me.
Minutes later, we took a rest in the picnic area on the heathland where a handful of dogs came up to scavenge from us. I'm not sure if they were strays or if somebody owned them, but we gave them the odd bit of our snacks while we ate. Every now and again some grazing cattle would attempt to approach us but the dogs kept chasing them off everytime!
Back at the park entrance I was exhausted because the climb had took alot out of me and I had then purchased a bottle of Pepsi instead of water, bad mistake! An hour later I started to suffer from dehydration. When we finally arrived home after a while I was in a bad way but I eventually recovered after drinking half a 1.5 litre bottle of water.
At the end of the day, I was a happy man to have fulfilled a dream of visiting an active volcano and climbing right up to the top of it. I got the kick out of it and wanted to do it again!