Like most Americans, I had no idea that Guatemala was a hotbed of volcanic activity. For less than $20, you can obtain a private guide to Pacaya, an active volcano with flowing lava fields. I had no idea that this kind of experience existed, and it’s something I hope every person gets to do at least once in their life.
How to Book a Cheap Tour to Pacaya
There are plenty of tours offered around Antigua, the main site for Guatemalan tourism. You’ll notice that some of the tours are offered at 55 quetzales, while the one we got from our hostel Villa Esthela was 75 quetzales. That’s the difference between about $7 and $10 US. I think the latter included the mandatory private guide and the cheaper one only covered transportation. Be aware that it’s required to hire a tour guide because of the dangerous nature of an active volcano with a lava field. Wherever you book, your total price, including the private guide, should be no more than $10 US.
The trip to Pacaya takes about an hour from Antigua. There are plenty of twists and turns and small mountain roads, and you will probably get a clearer view of everything if you take the 6am tour rather than the 2pm tour. There is an entrance fee of about 50 quetzales, or about $6 US. This is not included in the cost the tourist companies will quote you. All in, the total should be about $16 – $18 US.
What to Expect When You Arrive
There are a bunch of little kids who will greet you and try to sell you walking sticks. Though this might seem like a comical sales pitch, they are actually quite good and the route you’ll take is quite steep. If you’re older or have a stronger upper body than lower body, this might not be a bad purchase.
Another interesting feature is the horse taxis that follow you up the trail. The locals have learned that Gringos have a limited tolerance for pain, and for less than $10 US, they’ll take you up to the highest safe point in front of the Volcano. If you want to be frugal, stay strong and don’t fall behind in the back of the group. The horse taxi guys follow large groups of foreign tourists to offer their services. In practice, this serves as an almost irresistible temptation if you’re even slightly out of shape. They will walk the horses six inches behind you and tell you all these great things in English about how relaxing it is to let the horse do all the work. You must have mental fortitude to resist this siren call.
Total Hike Time is Around Two Hours
The typical trip takes a lot of time on the ascent with a very quick descent. You have the choice of seeing the higher vantage point and the various volcanic rock formations or hanging out on the lava fields below. If you’re lucky, your guide will offer you marshmallows to roast over an open lava flow. BTW, that is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. They also have an outdoor store at the base of the volcano with beer, chips, water, and other treats. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why they don’t sell Hersey’s chocolate and graham crackers to go along with the marshmallows. They would make a killing.
I recommend going up to the high vantage point if the view is clear. If it’s smoky or foggy in the area, the lower lava fields are really fun. Also, if you’re physically exhausted by the time you get to the volcano’s base, the lava field is probably the better choice. Be careful standing on the rocks above the lava field, you might melt your shoes, as one girl who took the trip did. Areas around the lava field feel like a sauna, and luckily the flow is mostly covered by cooled volcanic rocks. Definitely this is not a good day to wear open toed shoes.
When In Life Do You Get to See Smoking, Active Volcanoes?
I love going on novelty trips involving nature when I’m traveling. In the Yucatan, we saw shocking, crystal clear underground cenotes. In Belize, we saw bioluminescence in a lagoon, where all the fish glowed in the dark. Finally, in Guatemala I got to check off seeing an active volcano off my bucket list. If you want to see a giant, potentially explosive force of nature, go see Pacaya. You can go for less than what you would pay to see Star Wars in IMAX 3D.
When we were there, the volcano was threateningly smoking. The lava fields were hot and steamy compared to the relatively cool air around them. The volcanic rock was fresh from a recent explosion in 2014. Even though I’m excited for you to see your first active volcano, I really hope it doesn’t erupt. To see an eruption from a safe distance, I recommend staying for a week in Antigua and going to the Cerro San Cristobal restaurant. From there, you can see the Volcano de Fuego (Fire Volcano) erupt frequently. There are fewer amazing experiences than Pacaya available in the world for under $20. Hurry up and check off seeing an active volcano off your bucket list.