Vagabond Tales: How to roast marshmallows over an active volcano

This may sound strange, but one of my favorite aspects of international travel has to do with liability, or rather, the lack of it.

Although the age of personal responsibility seems to have gone the way of the cassette tape and litigation is now just another part of business, believe it or not, there are still a refreshing amount of countries out there where common sense and an acceptance of the risks involved are all that are required for most activities.

This is why you won’t see many people roasting marshmallows over slow-moving lava at Kilauea National Park in Hawaii, but you certainly might see the same at a place such as Volcan Pacaya, an active volcano in central Guatemala where I once dined over the 1500 degree Earth.

Set just outside the colonial outpost of Antigua, a town whose cobblestone streets bustle with Spanish language immersion students feasting on flan and savoring fresh local coffee, Volcan Pacaya has been actively erupting for the past 47 years. The undisputed highlight of the Pacaya Volcano National Park, roasting marshmallows over the active eruption has for years been a cheap thrill of travelers scaling the side of the mountain, and seeing as you could never get away with something like that back home in the US I was understandably keen to try it.For the grand total of $15 I arranged a tour with a company departing from Antigua for a late-afternoon ascent of Pacaya. In a decrepit old van stuffed with fellow adventure travelers, the rusty metal box climbed its way over dusty gravel roads high into the preserve. Local children with dirt-smudged faces swarmed our van upon arrival in an effort to sell us wooden walking sticks, but unfortunately for them I had already spent the last of my quetzals for the afternoon on the bag of sticky white marshmallows ready to be roasted. Had they accompanied me to the lava field I gladly would have treated them.

The lava on the mountainside is constantly shifting, however, and on some days the conditions are better than others for tracking down Mother Nature’s mountainside BBQ. On this particular day our guide Eduardo, a friendly, sun-weathered and semi-toothless gentleman informed us there was a fresh column of lava that was inching its way down the southwest flank of the mountain, so that’s where we were going to head.

Steeply ascending the side of the 8,373 ft. peak, the first hour was spent beneath a sweeping green canopy of forest and mud-soaked trail that had obviously seen a lot of recent use. When we finally rounded the corner to the southwestern flank and could see the whole of Pacaya opening up before us, my disappointment loomed large when it became apparent there was no lava to be seen anywhere.

No te preocupes” Eduardo ensured me. “You cannot see the lava from here, but when you reach the top, it looks black like the rock. From there you can see.”

With Eduardo’s guarantee we raced off down the sub-alpine scree slope until our shoes were full of tiny rocks. Although being buffeted by 50 mph wind gusts, our group nonetheless progressed up the flank of the mountain until reaching a point where the Earth suddenly seemed to be shifting.

Though I found myself standing on black lava rocks hard enough and sharp enough to slice right through skin, just a few feet away the same rocks had taken on the appearance of cake batter being slowly poured into a bowl. Black folds and ripples tinted with flares of orange bulldozed a molten path down the mountainside as I watched Earth being created before my very eyes. For the intensity of the moment, never had I seen such a violent and lethal force move so imperceptibly slow.

It was the faint trace of movement, however, which allowed the marshmallow roast to become a reality. With sticks acquired from the canopy floor beneath us, various trekkers squatted mere inches from a substance which could cut right through our bare flesh. With the nonchalance of a child next to a campfire, our handful of international volcano hikers sat in a semi-circle and dined on roasted Jet-Puffs from 6,000 ft above the valley floor below, all of us firmly taking responsibility for our own potentially dangerous actions.

So even though Kilauea National Park in Hawaii may have the longest running eruption in the United States (and myriad fences and boundaries keeping you at bay), if you want to dine on food roasted by nothing but the Earth, head to Antigua, Guatemala, a place where it’s still possible to gauge your own surroundings and be responsible for your own decisions.

Read more of the Vagabond Tales here.