I survived Volcán Pacaya
You know that game called “lava” that most everyone used to play as a kid? It’s the one where you swing and climb and play on a jungle gym, but you can’t touch the ground because it’s molten, hot lava- and if you touch it, you die? Well I played that game (except in real life) on Volcán Pacaya in Guatemala. We jumped, and skipped and ran on solid lava rocks- underneath which, lay real, red-hot lava. It was seriously a childhood dream.
Here’s how the story goes:
It was day five in our road trip adventure around Central America and we had just spent one day in beautiful Antigua, Guatemala. Colorful, Spanish-colonial buildings, ancient cathedrals, horse-drawn carriages, women walking around in traditional Mayan dress called traje, vendors selling mangoes and pineapples on the street, bright flowers spilling over high walls guarding beautiful, Latin homes and street after cobblestone street of fountains, parks and courtyards. Antigua is charming, don’t get me wrong, but I could only stroll down the streets of the tiny town for so long… the surrounding volcanoes, beautiful and green and huge, were so close and tempting. I couldn't wait to hike.
That afternoon I went to a bar/ café with Hilary to get some café con leche, when this British guy walks in with this huge grin on his face, flushed, clearly having just been on a hike. He sits down next to me, introduces himself and after ordering a cold beer (Gallo to be exact… the local Guatemalan beer) says, “I don’t know what you’re into, but if you want to experience the biggest rush of your life, go hike Volcán Pacaya.” And that’s all he needed to say. After downing my coffee and paying five quetzals (about 60 cents), I signed myself up to hike the volcano the next day.
The hike started out at the base of the volcano, where bunches of locals advertise the “taxi natural” (horses that will walk you up the majority of the mountain), to which we said no gracias. Actually getting to the lava takes a good 45 minutes. Hilary, Tracy and I hiked with three travelers from Ireland. The six of us basically ran up the mountain- sweating and breathing hard at 8400 ft. We couldn’t wait to see the lava. Our guide at one point, noticing our faces flushed from exertion, said, “corazón boom boom, como el volcán” which means, “the heart goes boom boom, like the volcano.”
The windy, dirt trail surrounded by trees and greenery eventually gave way to crumbling, sharp, black lava rock. Every step up in the lava rock would slide about two steps back- plus, the altitude was so high that we were basically walking in a cloud. I couldn’t see five feet in front of me it was so misty, which gave the hike an eerie, mysterious feel. The further we walked on the unstable lava rock, the warmer it got. I would occasionally get a gust of hot, dry air that meant we were close to the lava.
And then the guide, a good 50 feet in front of us yells “¡miren la lengua!” referring to a “tongue” of lava that glowed through the clouds- a narrow, bright orange stream of lava flowed down the volcano. The closer we got to la lengua, the more it felt like we were in a sauna. I’d look down, and directly under the rock I was standing on would be moving, real lava. One of the Irish guys we were walking with yelped at one point- the hot lava rock had burned a hole through the sole of his tennis shoe! We were able to hike up dangerously close to the lava- walking eight feet away from the lava wasn’t the smartest idea in retrospect, but it was really incredible (like the Irish guy said who burned a hole in his shoe, “live young and free! We’re only here once!” famous last words, right?).
The guide repeatedly said to be careful, that lava can change its path suddenly and unpredictably. I kept thinking to myself “shouldn’t we have signed some sort of liability waiver before coming on this hike??” As it turns out, the answer was a loud YES, because at one point, this huge ball of lava came loose and almost rolled over several tourists who were taking pictures- but they’re all ok. Fortunately, they got lucky and the lava ball didn’t roll all the way to where they were standing. (Afterward, everyone looked at each other and laughed semi-hysterically… some because they were scared to tears, others because of the sheer exhilaration of dodging a lava ball. How cool is it to say you dodged a lava ball??)
We took some pictures pretending like we were falling into the lava and stuff, sat in silence staring at the molten rock and pondered life for a little while, and then hiked all the way back down the mountain (in the dark). After the sunset, the lava glowed a ghostly red-orange, a striking contrast to the black of the night. After making it home, we kissed the solid, cool ground, showed digital pictures to other fellow travelers in the hostel and proceeded to revel in the afterglow of living our childhood dream of literally, playing over lava.