Volcan De Pacaya: The Guatemalan Volcano Experience

In Australia we are blessed with some of the world’s greatest natural attractions. From the aqua wonderland of The Great Barrier Reef and the countless pristine beaches that speckle our coastline, to the mystifying Uluru and The Northern Territory’s barren Red Centre.

However, despite these breathtaking attractions there is one scene that is sorely missing from our landscape-volcanos. And if these lava spewing mountains really are the pimples of the earth, erupting without warning and requiring a great deal of respect, Guatemala is trapped in a kind of adolescent limbo. And for that I am eternally grateful.

For inquisitive gringos like myself Guatemala offers an array of organised volcano hikes and tours, varying in duration, intensity and overall quality. However, one of the most popular volcano treks in Guatemala is the famous tour up Antigua’s Volcan De Pacaya; a 2,500 metre monster towering over the quaint, cobble stone streets of the city.

volcano1  Volcan De Pacaya is an active volcano which last erupted in 2010, covering Antigua in a thick blanket of ash. This eruption came as a shock to the people of Antigua, and guides tell stories of having to hurry off the volcano as it spat fire and bellowed smoke into the peaceful village below.

Thankfully, it was raining, so as the volcano belched fire and many houses burned, it was extinguished by the welcome rain and many house and people were spared. However, one eager journalist decided that the scoop was more important than his life, and by getting too close to the action his life was unfortunately lost.

The trek itself is truly remarkable, beginning in lush forestation and reaching a barren, lunar-like landscape which can only be described as ‘out of this world’. Steam rises from blackened craters as rocks glow red from surreptitious lava, which covertly flows underneath the volcanos’ rocky surface. img_1773-2

Many tours will also provide marshmallows and a stick, creating one of the most unique roasting experiences going around.

The trek is no marathon, however it certainly is not recommended for the faint hearted. A steep climb will get your heart racing, and a certain degree of fitness is needed if you don’t want to be stranded halfway up a volcano.

img_1752-2 However, for those requiring a helping hand a number of children will be following close behind offering a “Taxi” which will take you as far as the molten rock. This taxi will most definitely look, smell and feel like a horse, though their sense of humour will put a smile on even the most sour of travellers’ dial!

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Antigua: the city of contrasts. Oh, and volcanoes.

After four days of little to no sleep, a short stay in the all-too confronting Los Angeles and picking up an equally exhausted girlfriend, a four-hour flight from LA brings us to the start of our journey through Guatemala and Latin America.

First stop: Guatemala City.

Well, what can be said about Guatemala City? It is a soundscape of bustling trucks and cars, a visual eye sore and smells of-well, shit. This smell was later confirmed by our friendly shuttle driver who apologised, stating “I’m sorry for the smell. Our sewar system is not good”. Great, we have flown over 15,000 kilometres to visit a country that has a permanent stench of human waste.

Alas, a quick escape ensued and one hour later we arrived at one of the most charming town’s I have seen and my reasons for flying to Guatemala were quickly realised.

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Driving into Guatemala’s Wold Heritage Listed tourist magnet, Antigua, is like stepping back in time. From the cobble stone roads which are cursed by local drivers but loved by fascinated travellers, and the Spanish Baroque influenced architecture; to three looming volcanoes which beg to be explored, with the highest standing at over a menacing 13,000 feet above the city. Antigua is a truly captivating scene.

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What is truly remarkable about this place though is not just its surroundings, but the people that inhabit it. From the proud locals who place their city high above any other, to the countless ex-pats and volunteer workers that seem to have fallen in love with the relaxed vibe and have found a new place to call home. It is heart-warming to witness such pride and happiness in a country which is struggling both economically and socially.

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We have a few more days in this magical city, and I am sure that I will feel much like the many suckers before me who have loved and lost. I will miss the friendliness of the people, the contrast of white washed streets with cheerful pastel houses under terracotta rooftops and the gorgeous landscape-as beautiful as it is menacing. But for now it is time to scale an active volcano, while trusting my safety in a man who I can’t understand. Wish me luck!

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