Lava Leering: Getting up close and personal with Volcan Pacaya in Guatemala

One of the few places in the world where you can stand just inches away from blisteringly hot lava, Guatemala’s Volcan Pacaya is the country’s most popular and most accessible volcano. Just a ninety-minute drive from the tourist mecca of Antigua, Pacaya offers visitors the chance to roast marshmallows over glowing orange lava, witness the flowing of a long “river of lava” which was formed back in 2006, and even plunge a stick into lava and watch it instantly catch fire.

Is it touristy? Oh, yeah. I guarantee you will not be alone on this hike– almost every travel agency in Antigua runs daily tours to the volcano for under ten dollars. But despite the crowds of tourists that ascend it every morning and night, Pacaya is one of Guatemala’s absolute must-see’s, and not only for the “I stood next to hot lava” stories you’ll be telling when you get home.
The two-hour ascent of Pacaya does not actually go to the 8,400-ft. summit, which is both incredibly steep and volcanically very active, but to a lower, safer area where most of the lava is visible. Here, you’ll find people roasting marshmallows, rocking back and forth to make sure their shoes don’t melt, and just generally marveling at the steaming pools of liquid rock (see bottom photo).
Most tours from Antigua leave at 6 am or 2 pm. The later hike, although it usually carries a greater chance of rain, often affords brilliant sunset views like this one.

If you go…

  • Be sure to wear close-toed shoes, not flip-flops, as the volcanic rock on Pacaya can be sharp and very hot. Long pants are also recommended if you want to avoid singed leg hair.
  • Bring rain gear and a flashlight if you’re visiting in the afternoon.
  • Don’t forget a liter or two of water as well as some snacks for the hike.
  • Purchase a stick for about fifty cents from one of the young boys who will approach you as you begin your hike. Even if you don’t need a stick for walking, it’s nice to be able to drop it into the lava and watch it catch fire.
  • Buy your ticket in one of the many travel agencies in Antigua; it shouldn’t cost more than $7. Tickets can also be purchased in Guatemala City.