The Volcanoes of Guatemala

Volcan Pacaya – Let Thine Lava Flow!

Volcan Pacaya is one of the three active volcanoes in Guatemala and easily the most accessible. It's quite short, but, like many short people, has a furious nature even in the face of its taller brothers.

I tend to take the road less travelled while hiking. Though there are actually hundreds of people on the volcano, they all took the easy route. Give me a harder but more enjoyablem more special route any day of the week. This is me walking on a three year old lava flow up the side of Volcan Pacaya.

The heat and pressure causes these fissure in the lava. The rocks are sharp, coarse and tough. Falling would guarantee a cut. It was a hell of a lot of fun hopping over them, though!

Up Piquito Pacaya! It's a little dangerous deviating off the path because of collapses and weak rocks, but it's totally worth it for the extra bit of adrenaline from running up a frozen lava flow.

Sweet Fancy Moses! Lava! Molten hot lava pouring forth from the fiery heart of Vulcan himself within spitting distance of poorly prepared tourists?!? Que rico!

And what's the point of lava if not to toast the sugary sweetness of marshmallows? How often does one get to experience that in all honesty? Not often enough. Except for the fact that my hair looks red in this picture, everything you see here is real. It was very, very hot and very, very glorious.

Cooking my noodles didn't really work that well. But it was worth a shot.

On the way down, an Australian and I climbed a little extra to get this shot of us with the peak in the background. Though the perspective may be confusing, we're about 500metres away from the highest point up there.

Volcan de Agua from Pacaya at sundown - my next destination...

Volcan de Agua

In many mythologies, there is often a key event where the hermit/prophet/protagonist forsakes safety and food and disappears up a holy mountain. Moses, feeling like he needs to inscribe something that bit much more concrete, disappeared up Mount Sinai for a few days, appropriately long enough to complete the necessary inscription, and comes back down with some of the most important texts ever composed. Jesus made his way up Mount Tabor and was transmogrified or something like that. Mohammed meditated on Mount Hira for several days a year and was supposedly visited by Gabriel and told to found a religion. Many times through history, prophets, thinkers and leaders have trailed up a mountain, meditated, viewed the world from a higher perspective and returned to ground level with a new vision, a new quest and a new resolve.

There are many holy mountains in the world. Croagh Patrick in Ireland is one I have climbed many times. Many of the holiest places in the world are at high altitudes: Lourdes, the Nepalese monasteries, Mount Ararat with the Ark, Mount Athos in Greece and far too many others to name. Mountains hold a special place in many religions and almost every one has their own. I may not subscribe to these beliefs, but the special nature of high altitudes is not to be underestimated.

The journey is just as special as the destination when climbing. Through pain comes victory. Through determination comes glory. The path to the peak is always glorious no matter how hard, how gruelling or how intense.

Views are not just pretty to look at.  The air is clearer – pure. Transcendental experiences are common. At the top, body and mind fuse. Peace and tranquillity wash over like a cleansing salve, opening up the mind to new ideas, refreshing old ones and providing a perfect platform for further, deeper contemplation.

This is what I experienced at the top of Volcan de Agua.

The Volcano Itself

Volcan de Agua is approximately 3765 metres high, which works out at about 12, 300 feet or so. To put that in perspective, Carontouhil in Ireland is 1,038m; Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest peak is 1, 394m; Zugspitze, Germany’s highest is 2, 962m and Mont Blanc is about 4, 810m beating this climb by a full 1000m. Agua has a very conical shape which dominates the local skyline. In 1541, earthquakes from nearby Volcan Fuego (Volcano of Fire) caused the crater lake at the top of Agua to crack, launching a massive lahar that crushed Central America’s then capital. It is a protected mountain with only mild agricultural development running about a third of the way up the mountain from the village of Santa Maria de Jesus.

Volcan de Agua was last active in the 16th century, when it devastated the nearby area with a mudflow from it's ringed crater.

The Prelude

I was up at 06:00 as usual, stretched out for about an hour and then ate some breakfast. I wasn’t feeling the sharpest, but it was a clear day and that was enough to convince me it was worth it. I met up some others after breakfast for a cup of coffee before heading to the grande mercado and picking up about 5 litres of water, a large bag of bread and bread snacks for a about 8 quetzales ($1), a big bag of salad for another 10 quetzales and some cans of tuna for 5 quetzales a piece. Total cost of the supplies: about $4. This place is crazy cheap if you avoid the (worth it if you can afford it) tourist restaurants nearby. The mercado is huge and has more than enough of everything. Except good cameras.

Behind the mercado is a bus station with a vast variety of lovingly painted chicken buses – old American school buses pimped out and tricked out with fancy decals, boomboxes, graffiti and pictures of Jesus next to a Guns n’ Roses logo. I love these things and they are super cheap, too. For about 3 quetzales, roughly $0.30, they took me out to Santa Maria de Jesus. On the way, we saw a minivan plow into a cyclist and crash into a fence, but we drove off a bit too quickly to catch the aftermath. It looked bad, though. The Americans I was chatting with were horrified, but I missed the actual incident.

Santa Maria de Jesus is a little mountain town with a population of maybe 10, 000 by my guessing. The local Kaqchikels still speak a Mayan dialect up here in between the stalls of the mercado. At about 1600m up, this is the perfect place to begin the climb of Agua because the climb is only about 2100m from the back of the local cemetery.

I had heard warnings of bandits on the slopes and several people had been mugged at machete point on the way up, but I was unconcerned. I left my important things behind in my hostel in Antigua and had nothing of value on me. I met a few locals carrying wood or bringing their horse down and we spoke of the path up. Several warned me that it was a bit dangerous to climb it solo, but I carried on anyway. Machete-wielding bandits would be pretty badass so even if that did happen, there was nothing they could take and they certainly wouldn’t kill me because the local shitstorm would be pretty severe if they did. Just last year, the police killed two bandits on the lower slopes and provide escorts to people on request. I thought the odds of anything bad happening were pretty slim and I was right.

Besides, I’m a fast runner.

The Hike

I began the walk at about 11:00. It was quite bright and sunny and I was in a tee shirt and pants. I sweated quite a bit on the lower levels, but the agriculture soon gave way to pleasantly shaded jungle and the temperature began far more manageable. I had picked up a big bag of oranges in Santa Maria de Jesus and was munching on them as I went up. After about an hour of easy road winding it’s way slowly up, the path narrowed and became passable to horses or feet only. It wasn’t the cleanest path and litter was pretty constant on the way up. It’s a shame because it really subtracts from the experience of watching your step when you’re constantly flicking eyes towards a five year old bottle of Gatorade about 1/2000th of its way through decomposition.

Many locals passed me on the way up, mostly with horses or tools. I made a point of talking to each of them about the trail just to make sure I was on the right path and that there were no dangers ahead. They also gave me several wildly different timeframes for the hike, but this was more a case of pace, I guess.

My thoughts varied wildly on the way up,  but I was mostly concerned with the nature of nature itself. I’d been reading some evolutionary biology the previous night and I picked up a copy of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha in Nicaragua which I was reading for a few minutes at a time when I took a break. Such a book is perfect for solo climbing because it fits in one’s pocket and serves as an ample substitute for real company.

After about three hours, the clouds rolled in. Visibility dropped to about 5 metres in places, the temperature dropped rapidly and a cool breeze necessitated the donning of a warmer jumper. Thick cloud cover followed me all the way through to the top which I made about 4 hours and thirty minutes after I started. I was disappointed that I couldn’t see anything, couldn’t feel my victory when I reached the crater.  The terrain had turned to dead trees and thick grass like that you would find on a sand dune. Rocks were everywhere. I made it to the top, a feeling of completion came over me but it was somewhat reduced by the excessive cloud and low temperature.

The crater was down about five metres from me. I climbed down the rocks to the back of an old church with a trash everywhere. Evidence of camp fires and alcohol covered silty floor of the old crater lake. I walked through the crater, unable to see further than ten metres in front of me, the sweat making me colder. I set about pitching my tent for the night. With the first peg in the ground, I noticed something above me.

The Light

The sun broke through! The cloud dissipated, magisterial light instantly expanded my vision to reveal a complex radar and communications array about 100 metres above me in the perfectly-shaped ring of the crater. I was pitched right in the centre, surrounding by steep cliff on all sides, covered in beautifully green trees and that light yellowish grass in between the boulders. It was so beautiful, I almost wept. I finished setting up, changed out of my cold, sweaty clothes and put on something warmer, grabbed some Nicaraguan chocolate and hopped, skipped and jumped my way up the trail to the communications array. It was like a Bond villain’s base up there. A veritable secret hideout in a volcanic crater, circling the narrow ring around the crater. 50metre towers and dishes blinked with red and white lights or shone with the reflected light of the sunshine.

I realised my entry point to the crater must have been the side that had cracked and flooded the town below all those years before, while my campsite was the silty bottom of the fatally-located crater lake. From the top, I could clearly make out the floodpath down the side of the mountain, a deep gash that blazed a trail down into the clouds below. I thought that was a pretty goddamn cool place to pitch a tent.

I wandered around the communications, chatted briefly in Spanish with the folks stationed up there, making sure it was okay to walk around there. They were dressed far warmer than I and I asked how cold it got at night. They said it usually hit zero. I smirked. This was going to be a cold night.

The ring of arrays was about 200m long. The path was poor and rocky and involved a lot of ducking under wires and supports along the way. The views were stunning. Literally. I was stunned, shocked, immobilised, paralysed by the beauty before me. Volcan de Fuego (about 3763m) and Volcan Acatenango (taller at 3900m) were to the west of me. Volcan Pacaya, the subject of the above post, looked tiny to the west of me. Guatemala City was a massive urban sprawl, Antigua was invisible under the clouds.

I circled around to the north east corner (the gap in the crater was almost directly to the north) where I found the most delightful thing: a helicopter crash. It was balanced precariously on the edge of the ring. A tree was crushed underneath it and if you pushed the chopper from the other side, it would wobble quite a bit. The rotors were about ten metres away, the tail section about 50m away down the mountainside. A blue circle with a white star was visible on the tail section, which I think is old US army, but I’m not sure. The electronics were completely stripped from the chopper, all key bits removed. The inside was missing chairs, belts, racks and practically eveything else not fused to the main chassis.

So I climbed on top of it at about 16:30 and practiced yoga and stretched on top of a precariously balanced crashed helicopter on a volcanic rim at 3700m. It was very, very cool.

At about 17:30, well stretched in the sunlight, I made my way to the western side of the rim to watch the sundown over Volcan Fuego and Acatenango. The clouds were at about 3000m, so only their peaks were visible in the descending sunlight. The sky turned more and more orange as the sun lowered itself into the clouds. Two more volcanoes, Santa Maria and Tejamulco, the highest in all of Guatemala became visible in the distance towards the the Mexican border.I sat on the top of a building on the communications array with José who offered me some chocolate and pulled up a seat to join me in watching the view. We were flanked by trees and towers, bathed in the wondrous light of the sun.

Just as I thought the scene couldn’t get any more beautiful, the most epic sunset I’ve ever experienced rapidly improved. Volcan Fuego started spewing out smoke and rumbling, its silhouette positioned almost perfectly in front of the setting sun. José and I felt the deep rumblings and laughed. It was fantastic. The smoke turned a fiery orange as the light lit it from behind. When the sun finally dropped behind the clouds, Fuego was still rumbling away, Acatenango brooded just to its north and I descended down to my camp and got ready to survive a very cold night.

Frozen Throne

I was surprised at just how cold it really got. I wasn’t expecting it to reach freezing point, but sure enough some of my water had iced by morning time. I ate a full meal of salad, bread and tuna with a bit of chocolate. I read for about two hours before attempting to sleep at around 21:30- 22:00. I didn’t sleep very well. Because it was so cold, I had to divert my towels to extra warmth instead of extra comfort so my hips were very sore on the hard ground. It was also very, very cold throughout. I managed about six hours of poor sleep before I rose at 04:30.


Under the starry sky, I wrapped my towel around my head and shoulders for extra warmth, took my lantern and made my way up the craterside to the rim in the darkness. All I could think of was Stairway to Heaven because that’s exactly what I looked like:

So I made my way up to the top and sat myself down in a wind sheltered area to the east of the crater. Volcan Pacaya was silhouetted below me and the grid of lights in Guatemala City was just about visible to the north-east. The moon, a perfect crescent, was low in the sky to the east, too, a bright orange light I’m assuming was Venus just below. The valley below was cloudless and breathtaking.

The sky was starry and starry. Dawn approached, but was a distance off, yet. Black and white were all I saw, in the infancy of the morning. Then red and yellow came to be, reaching out from the horizon, pushing the black back slowly, flooding it with pacific blue. It was the most beautiful dawn I’d ever seen. It wasn’t until 06:00 that the sun finally peeked through, Earth’s rotation letting that marvel shine its light on me, up on my volcano, banishing the cold, the darkness and purifying the land and life before me.

We may be orbiting around the sun, but our solar system is also rotating around the centre of the galaxy at some 800,000 kph meaning that this moment, every moment, is the first time life has been to this part of the universe. That dawn on the volcano felt like that moment. Something completely new. Undiscovered territory, a whole new brand of light that had not shone on me before. I looked out at the sun and I wept. It was too beautiful. I reached out to let it in, I embraced the sunlight. I meditated.

I cannot share all the thoughts that went through my mind up there. But I understand why the prophets found mountains to be such spiritual places. There is truly something special to be found at the summit, beyond the clouds, beyond the follies of the valleys. Enlightenment is a wonderful thing. I believe the human mind is powerful enough to evolve itself simply by sheer power of will. One can raise one’s conciousness simply by wishing it to be raised. Willing it while up a mountain is the perfect place to do so.

Up there in the heavens, alone with the celestial, surrounded by beauty. I wish I had a camera to show you all. Perhaps it is better that I do not. I am with my memories.

One may have climbed a mountain but they have merely ascended into their own mind.



Filed under Brain Food, Dearest Diary of Mine, Soul Food

2 responses to “The Volcanoes of Guatemala

  1. Meg

    This is beautiful. I went to Guatemala in 2000 with my brother. We hiked Pacaya about 2 months after a big eruption — the whole mountain was covered in thick, sandy ash and it was the hardest hike I’d ever done, but incredibly rewarding at the top. Given how difficult I found Pacaya, I couldn’t be convinced to try Agua, but I think I would like to if I ever get back. Reading this made me ache to get back there…tengo que practicar mi Espanol.

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