Conditions on the Pacaya Volcano in August 2017
Current conditions matter—that’s why I want to make sure that the date of my post is clear. There are plenty of older posts floating around about hiking the Pacaya Volcano that can be misleading about what you should expect to see and experience at any given point. We are talking about an active volcano, after all. Conditions change. Scenery changes. Trails change.
As of August 2017, the volcano is active, primarily offering up bursts of ash and cinders with thunderous rumbles from the summit. These are seen in the distance once you reach the top of the national park trail—which only takes you to a relatively small collapsed caldera formed by previous eruptions and lava flows—but well below the most active portion at the summit of Pacaya. Ascent to the crater at the summit is prohibited at this time.
The lower caldera is the highlight of the hike and accessing it involves skidding/sliding down a steep trail of loose volcanic rubble from the rim onto a more level, well-worn trail that snakes across the rugged black terrain. In the bottom of the caldera, steam rises from vents in little puffs and wisps as you make your way to two tiny shacks selling refreshments and souvenirs (yes, really). At times the steam output was thick, creating a dense fog where there had been none only moments before. You can feel unexpected warmth rising from the ground from time to time, with or without steam.
There were no visible lava flows or pockets in the caldera. No red glows. Nothing oozing and crusting. Our guide had said at the beginning of the hike that we might see some lava, but he’s probably been saying that for years, and there is no disputing the fact that it is always a possibility. The truth is though if that’s what you really care about, maybe pick a different volcano.
According to the report below, an evening visit might have made it possible to see glowing lava at the summit. As it was, we heard and felt explosions from the summit during our hike and saw the debris plume.
This is the Global Volcanism Report for the Pacaya Volcano from the week that I was there in August 2017:
INSIVUMEH reported that during 21-28 August Strombolian explosions at Pacaya’s Mackenney cone ejected material as high as 75 m above the crater rim, and during 27-28 August as far as 100 m onto the W flank. Cloud cover sometimes prevented visual observations; explosions could be heard within a 5-km radius.
Geologic Background. Eruptions from Pacaya, one of Guatemala’s most active volcanoes, are frequently visible from Guatemala City, the nation’s capital. This complex basaltic volcano was constructed just outside the southern topographic rim of the 14 x 16 km Pleistocene Amatitlán caldera. A cluster of dacitic lava domes occupies the southern caldera floor. The post-caldera Pacaya massif includes the ancestral Pacaya Viejo and Cerro Grande stratovolcanoes and the currently active Mackenney stratovolcano. Collapse of Pacaya Viejo between 600 and 1500 years ago produced a debris-avalanche deposit that extends 25 km onto the Pacific coastal plain and left an arcuate somma rim inside which the modern Pacaya volcano (Mackenney cone) grew. A subsidiary crater, Cerro Chino, was constructed on the NW somma rim and was last active in the 19th century. During the past several decades, activity has consisted of frequent strombolian eruptions with intermittent lava flow extrusion that has partially filled in the caldera moat and armored the flanks of Mackenney cone, punctuated by occasional larger explosive eruptions that partially destroy the summit of the growing young stratovolcano.
Note: “Stombolian explosions” are defined as those involving hot glowing cinders, lava bombs, and lava fragments.
I did some research before-hand and thought I had a good grasp of what to expect. Almost every blogger I read described the trail as easy. I relied on my fellow bloggers to let me know just how difficult the hike would be. Um…not always a good idea. First things first, Guatemala is a hiker/backpacker haven. There is a large community of nomadic young travelers who spend time traversing the country, and guess what? Many of them are bloggers—young, active, hike-mountains-every-damn-day bloggers. You see them in the airport—deeply tanned, fit, with dirty backpacks and well-worn hiking boots. To them, the trail probably is easy.
Our hosts at the Courtyard by Marriott in Guatemala City had also described the hike as easy. We later learned that “easy” is relative when it comes to describing volcano hiking in Guatemala. The sales director at the hotel told us afterward that they say “easy” because the Pacaya Volcano is the easiest one to hike among the many volcanoes in Guatemala—as in it doesn’t require ropes, pitons, or carrying a tent on your back to an overnight basecamp.
As a guidebook author, I have always tried to rely on a combination of facts and subjective opinions. So first let’s talk about the facts as I can best determine them.
The Facts About the Pacaya Volcano Hiking Trail
Elevation: The summit of the Pacaya Volcano has a listed elevation as 8,373 feet—as compared to the nearby 13,045-foot Acatenango volcano (where an overnight at a base camp is required.) But again, at this time you won’t be allowed to hike to the summit of Pacaya.
The visitor center is reported to be at 6,233 feet. It is difficult to pinpoint the elevation of the caldera at the top of the trail—Google maps does not have an estimate—but here is what I do know. The first 35 minutes of the hike I had my iPhone activity recorder in use. During that time, I covered .63 of a mile with an elevation gain of 502 feet.
Knowing that the trail is roughly 2 miles long, and knowing that the steepness of the trail did not vary much, we could assume that the trail most likely rises roughly 650 feet per mile, or 1,300 feet total. That puts the lower caldera and the top of the trail somewhere around 7,500 feet.
Trail difficulty rating: I used a nifty calculator from the experts at Northwest Hiker to help determine the actual difficulty rating based on the estimates above and our park ranger guide’s estimate of a trail length of roughly 7 km. The calculated difficulty falls in the “Challenging” range. While most of the trail was in good condition, the descent and exit from the caldera itself involved a rugged, washed-out trail consisting of loose scree. While no climbing gear is necessary, poles or a hiking stick are highly recommended. Sticks were offered for sale by young boys at the beginning of the trail.
Opinions About the Trail
The first clue that the trail might be something other than “easy” was the fact that the young men offering rides on horseback at the trailhead were quietly persistent. When everyone in our group initially declined to ride, three of the horse providers simply followed along. They had obviously sized us up. These guys walk this trail twice a day and probably had a good idea which ones among us would not complete the climb on foot.
I was the first to concede. Around 35 minutes into the hike with no level spot in sight, I was out of breath, out of strength, and ready to meet my horse—named chocolate. You can purchase a one-way ride, and that is what I recommend. Riding a horse uphill is relatively easy. Riding down a steep incline is an incredibly scary feat. I rode both directions, as did one of my fellow journalists. She chirped expletives throughout the steepest portions of the ride back down.
Don’t get me wrong, the horses were sure-footed, and the guides quite expert, but the trail was steep, and in our case wet. At times I felt like I was living the scene near the end of The Man From Snowy River. Those in the group who walked down also stated their concerns about the steepness; more than one person slipped and fell.
The fittest among our group was a young couple who hike frequently. They expressed the opinion that the trail was indeed challenging. You can follow them on Instagram at @HelloAmerica to see some of their photos of the hike.
- Plan your hike for at least 48 hours after your arrival in Guatemala. Even at 7,000 feet, altitude sickness is a real thing if you live near sea level. And just because it has never affected you before, does not mean it won’t happen. Guatemala City and Antigua are both around 5,000 feet or below, making them ideal adjustment zones during the first couple of days in country.
- Guides are required. You can arrange tours from either Guatemala City or Antigua. These are pretty easy to find; your hotel can probably assist. The tour provides your transportation to the national park where the volcano is located.
- Take hiking poles or buy the wooden stick when it is offered at the trailhead, even if you plan to ride up on horseback. Poles would make the descent into the crater far easier and the walk back down the mountain far more secure.
- Take water and a snack. Don’t let yourself get dehydrated or low on fuel. Part of my problem was low blood sugar. My horse guide recognized the problem and retrieved marshmallows from our ranger leading the group and I instantly felt better.
- Take a raincoat. We got caught in a torrential storm. While August is the rainy season, the sky can open up any month you plan to visit with little warning.
- Wear protective clothing. Think insects, sun, jagged lava rock, and thorny brush. Also, keep that rain issue in mind and consider wearing pants or shorts that will dry fast.
- Wear hiking boots or shoes. The Pacaya Volcano is no place for flip-flops or even smooth-bottomed sneakers.
- Ask your guide if he is bringing marshmallows, if not, buy them yourself in the visitor center. You don’t want to make this hike without the reward at the top of roasting those babies over a volcanic vent.
- Schedule a massage for late in the day after you return to your hotel.
This is a post for The Weekly Postcard Blog Link-up.
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