Hiking Guatemala’s Volcanoes
There are a handful dormant and active volcanoes around Antigua, Guatemala. A volcano can be seen from almost any vantage point in the city. The four volcanoes surrounding Antigua are Volcán de Agua, Volcán Fuego, Volcán Acatenango, and Volcán Pacaya.
Volcán de Agua
Volcán de Agua is a dormant volcano that stands more than 12,000 feet. The summit can be reached in 4-5 hours from the town of Santa Maria de Jesus. I understand the hike is less steep and also less interesting than other options as there is no volcanic activity.
Volcan Fuego also towers above 12,000 feet and is very active. It regularly spits smoke from its summit which can be seen from Antigua. The ascents on this summit, however, never get close to the crater.
The most common organized tour packages include hikes to Volcán Acatenango and Volcán Pacaya. Volcán Acatenango, standing at just over 13,000 feet, is the most difficult of the two volcanoes to hike. Most tours offer overnight trips which include the necessary camping gear. The ascent takes 5-6 hours and the hikers spend night hoping that nearby Volcán Pacaya rewards them with a lava show.
Volcán Pacaya is an extremely active volcano that only requires a half day commitment to hike. Tours generally leave at 6am or 1pm. Hotels can easily arrange the excursion which includes transportation and a Spanish speaking guide at the park. The park charges an additional 50 Quetzales entry fee.
Things to Know about the Transportation and Tour
- While I met some interesting Frenchmen on the bus, I think I might have liked a private tour in order to make my own decisions about how to hike the volcano and what to do. We got a choice to stop one place and watch the lava flow down the volcano as the Pacaya was active on this very clear morning, or to hike up a little higher, but it had to be a group decision. We ended up doing both, but I think our hike a little higher may have been limited with time. We made it to the tourist store where many groups were huddled in a circle on the lava rock. I wondered what they were doing, and later found out this is likely the place where people roast marshmallows provided by the guides on the heat producing rocks. We did not do this, and I am unsure why not.
- I’ve heard different thoughts about hiking Pacaya in the morning or in the afternoon. It is generally cooler and clearer in the morning, but it is easier to see the lava glow in the dark assuming the volcano isn’t enveloped in clouds and smoke. I chose the morning hike and got to see Pacaya beneath clear blue skies, It was very active as well, so I was blessed to see the red lava which was very exciting.
- From my experience with tour transportation in Guatemala, it hasn’t been timely. I don’t know if it was due to different road closures in Antigua due to the Easter processions or if they typically run late. The roads were empty at 6:40am when they finally picked me up for the 6am departure, so my guess is they run late. I had to be ready at 5:45am as the 30 minute window of time for pick-up straddles the 6am departure time provided. After we bounced around the streets a little longer collecting everyone, the shuttle stopped at a Café Condesa Express on the outskirts of town (not the one at parque central) where we sat and waited for a while. We found out that last minute passengers can board here. I personally would have traded my late pick up for an extra hour a sleep and a chance to get breakfast by walking to the coffee shop just before 7! It’s worth inquiring about the possible options.
- As I mentioned, the park charges a 50 Quetzales entry fee. I asked my friends who went a few days before me if the park took US dollars as in most places in Antigua. They said, “yes.” They did the afternoon hike in the dark, so perhaps the park had change for them as upon my morning arrival, the gentleman would not take my dollars. I don’t know if I was misinformed, if they didn’t have change, or if they didn’t take $20’s because they are counterfeited and some businesses steer clear of them just as if the bills have a small tear. I suggest having Quetzales.
- The hike is 4km one way and takes 1.5 hours to ascend. Locals at the base of the volcano rent horse rides and walking sticks. The cowboys actually follow tourists up the mountain shouting “taxi” for anyone who might tire. I recommend a walking stick for 5 Quetzales to use on the rocky descent which isn’t even a dollar and helps the kids out.
- The guides have stopped taking tourists that close to the crater and lava, but I heard paying them extra money might result in a closer look.
- It takes about an hour to get picked up, an hour to drive to the volcano, two and a half hours to hike the volcano, and hour to return. In total, it is a 5 to 6 hour trip. We were back by noon.
Hiking Pacaya Volcano
Our guide met us at our bus upon arrival at the park. He walked us to the entry fee station as cowboys with their horses and kids with their walking sticks followed close behind. After paying our fee, we ascended a dusty, dirt road lined by trees, though not shaded.
We enjoyed some lovely views of the valley below and other distant volcanoes before we left the vegetation and followed the trail across barren lava rock. As we continued to climb, the strong wind whipped the clouds from the crater and the volcano was in full view.
Upon getting closer, a less traveled trail led toward the volcano. We followed our guide over the sharp uneven molten rock for a better view. As we stood there, lava tumbled down the volcano’s side. It mostly looked like a small rock slide kicking up a dust storm, but occasionally we were able to see the red glow of the active lava. It was so exciting. Even the guide was pointing and yelling, “Mira Mira” (look, look).
We were pretty far away, but one hot lava rock landed relatively close to us, though not close enough for us to be in danger. After watching for 10 minutes or so, we continued up a little further to the lava store where we stopped briefly. Many groups hung out around here roasting marshmallows, and another group appeared to be hiking over the ridge to another town.
Upon our return down the mountain, we stopped a few more times to catch a glimpse of lava activity. We saw one group who had gone very close to the lava’s path. When we watched the lava changed trajectory slightly, we saw them hustling down the trail!
While I would have liked to get a little closer, I was quite pleased to see have seen any the activity at all. I didn’t really want to tear myself away from the mountain yet, but it was time to hike down. I was happy to have rented a hiking stick for 5 Quetzales as I occasionally slid along the gravely, steep path. Overall, it was an easy hike for an avid hiker, and the morning trip to Pacaya was worth the early wake up call!
Another place to hike near Antigua is at Hobbitenango which is an Eco Hotel with a restaurant and bar owned by an American and Guatemalan. The project came to fruition when the owners realized there was some illegal deforestation taking place on their friend’s land. They notified the National Forestry Institute of Guatemala who eventually took control of the situation. As a thank you, the land owner donated the already cut trees to Hobbitenango who has utilized these natural resources, along with plastic bottles, wine bottles, and other local materials to construct an eco-friendly village run completely on sun and wind energy.
The original concept was to open a backpackers lodge where camping is available along with the two cottages. On opening day, however, over 300 locals came to visit. As such, Hobbitenango tends to cater to these folks, in particular on the weekend when they visit most.
Generally, Hobbitenango is free to visit, but on Sundays, they operate an open house and charge a fee to see inside the buildings. I visited on Easter Sunday and was slightly confused by the “open house” policy as the lodging cabin weren’t open. The restaurant, bar, swing and midway with hatchet throwing, archery and other games were all open, but I thought they were open on a regular basis anyway, so this was still a source of confusion for me. Perhaps, all of this is only open on Sunday, and otherwise only the two cottages are available for booking and the surrounding land is available to hike.
I was looking for a nice walk through the woods and some tranquility for the afternoon. I believe going on a holiday weekend was a mistake. Erring on the safe side, the owners of Hobbitenango suggested that I only take a 15-minute walk on the lower trail, because the thieves come to the forest on weekends when they are not working and more specifically when visitors are in town for the holidays. Being a tourist on a holiday weekend wishing to be safe rather than sorry, my options were limited quickly. I figured I sit and read my book instead, but despite being on a hillside, the area is rather condense and there wasn’t much seating to relax with a book.
By the time I paid for transportation, the entrance fee, and the lunch, I didn’t find my visit truly worth it, especially with the unique shuttle system. Shuttles leave Antigua every two hours beginning at 8am. I took the 10am shuttle which arrives at a parking lot at the base of the hillside. A one lane, four-wheel drive road leads from the parking area to Hobbitenango, thus traffic coordination is required. We had to wait at the parking lot for a while until the traffic from the top came to the bottom of the hill or walk up the 27% grade which I wouldn’t recommend as the road is too narrow for pedestrians and trucks.
The return shuttle left from the parking lot at every two hours beginning at 9am. For the 1pm shuttle at the bottom, it required coordinating with the 4×4 trucks to get visitors to the parking lot in a timely manner. Not only was there a line which required passengers to queue up early, some people thought the departure left at 1pm from Hobbitenango, so that left many visitors sitting in the hot shuttle in the parking area below waiting for them. I felt like most of the four hours I allotted for lunch and tranquility turned into waiting for shuttles, so I didn’t find it to be the most fun experience. In fact, I left two hours earlier than I had planned.
Having said this not all was lost. I did met a girl named Ana that is a cashier at a bank in Guatemala City. She was in Antigua with a friend for the day. We practiced our Spanish and English together and plan to still communicate, so hopefully my fluency in Spanish will improve as I use it more. I asked her if she enjoyed Hobbitenango. She nodded her head sideways, no.
I believe there is a way for everyone to enjoy the property. I am happy that the locals have a place to go for the weekend that is fun for them as there is not a whole lot for them to do elsewhere. For tourists, however, I think the best option would be to stay one weekday night. It would be fun to see the cottages and safe to hike on the trails when the thieves are working their regular jobs. In addition, without the open house activities, the location would likely be very peaceful offering spectacular views of the surrounding countryside. If I were to return, this is what I would do for a better experience. ETB