The temptation to get extremely close to flowing lava is much too strong to pass up, in fact it’s something I never imagined I’d to do in my life. I’ve been really excited about hiking up Volcán Pacaya since I heard about it a couple of months back, and am hopping about the room when we book our tickets, about $12 USD for a complete tour. On the advice of many friends we book the afternoon trip, with the hope of seeing the red-hot lava at night.
We get picked up from our hotel at two in the afternoon and settle into the mini-van for an hour and a half drive out to the volcano. The last half an hour or so we do some serious climbing and are all pretty happy to pile out, ready to hike. Immediately we are swamped by small children trying to sell us all sorts of things we don’t need. A few people in our group succumb and buy walking sticks after the children repeat “is necessary” about 250 times each.
We start walking up the steep dusty path and the enthusiasm of the group drops as the realization of the difficult hike sets in. I’m in my element here and love every minute of it, rushing to the front to talk to people, then slowing down and chatting to others further back. The hiking changes from hot, dry and dusty to small volcanic pebbles then huge volcanic boulders with razor sharp bits all over. We quickly climb above the cloud level and are treated to an amazing view of Volcán Fuego (Fire), which can be seen from Antigua and spits out a huge smoke cloud every couple of hours.
The hiking turns into a rock scramble and then a very congested rock scramble as about sixty or so tourists try to make their way to the top. I’m uncomfortable to have so many hikers on the extremely unstable rocks that are constantly being kicked down to rain on those below. As we near the action the rocks under us begin to get hotter and hotter, to the point where I don’t want to use my hands for balance anymore and I’m sweating profusely. Occasionally a strong sulphur smell wafts past, adding to the general excitement. I stop and have a good look up and see heat haze pouring off the mountain all around me. A guide points to some funny colored rocks I’m standing on and says they were lava last week. Cooooool.
The steep rock scramble
I reach a point where lots of people are milling around and am stunned to see lava less than four meters away. I climb up on a high point and am then about three meters away from the small flow that is slowly sliding down the mountainside. The heat pouring off is immense and when the wind changes it’s overwhelming on my legs and face and I really don’t want to hang around for too long, especially with thirty or forty more people still climbing up.
I move down to a lower vantage point which turns out to be an amazingly good idea as more and more people pack onto the extremely hot, uneven rocky surface. A couple of times people slip and panic trying to get away from the heat and have nowhere to go because of all the people – not a good scene at all.
The lava is really flowing
I stand around on my little platform chatting to various people and roasting marshmallows.
Yep, you read that right.
I roasted marshmallows on lava.
From where I was standing I could poke a marshmallow on a stick through some cracks towards the lava. It only took a few seconds to have it roasted to perfection & I honestly think they were the best marshmallows I’ve ever eaten. I wonder if I’ll ever go back to regular old flame roasted. :D
A few of the guys standing around with me are only wearing very thin-soled shoes and they melt and stick to the rocks, making for some pretty anxious faces and a nasty melted plastic smell. As the sun dips below the horizon the sunset is spectacular and the visible lava increases ten fold in the dusk. The majority of people make their way down and I stay to milk the experience for every second, knowing I can get down pretty fast when I want to.
Getting pretty close now...
A group of people have gone about ten meters further than the rest and upon hearing a report I know I have to check it out. I make my way further up, through a really hot section were between every rock I step on is red hot lava, a freaky experience. At the top is a good standing area where the temperature is bearable and we’re only about 2 meters from the flow of lava, which is significantly more here.
I stand and stare in awe at the liquid rock. It really is amazing and hard to comprehend.
I’m really curious about the consistency of the lava and so I throw a few rocks in to see what happens. It turns out it has a reasonably hard invisible shell and the rocks mostly bounce off or kind of sit on top for a while. Marshmallows and sticks turn to flame instantly upon contact.
I stay for as long as possible, and in the quickly fading light the lava really comes alive, glowing bright red all around us. I could easily stay up here all night, but my group is far ahead of me, so I make quick time on the way down to catch them up.
The view of nearby Volcan Fuego spitting smoke after sunset
Hiking up Volcán Pacaya is a really amazing experience and I’m still grinning like mad thinking about it.
Dan is currently driving his Jeep 50,000km on the Pan American Highway from the Arctic Ocean in Alaska to Tierra Del Fuego, the southern-most point of South America. You can join in his adventure at his website, http://www.dangrec.com