Pacaya: Hiking an Active Volcano

Like many people who visit Guatemala, hiking an active volcano was at the top of our list of things to do.  Unfortunately, the one we wanted was a little too active.  We had originally planned, months in advance, to do an overnight hike on Acatenango with Gilmer Soy and Soy Tours, who I had read nothing but good things about (mostly from Bex at The Ordinary Adventurer).  The plan was to hike Acatenango and get a great view of the uber-active volcano Fuego right next to it.  The night before, from our hotel balcony, we were able to watch Fuego spew lava into the air and got more and more excited for our trip.

Fuego, the morning of our original hike

Unfortunately, the next day, Fuego was shooting out a ton of ash.  There was an evacuation order for the towns below as of 5:30 that morning due to Fuego’s recent activity, and as we waited to be picked up for our hike at 7:30 we got an email from Gilmer saying the government had shut him down from the hike that day.  Perfectly poor timing on our part, but what are you going to do? All in all, it’s a pretty bad-ass reason to miss a hike, and Gilmer offered to take us the next day when everything cleared up—we couldn’t go because it would have gotten us back to town after our shuttle was scheduled to leave, so we had to part ways.

A quick visual guide to the leg pain we’ll be experiencing

We scheduled a hike to Pacaya (the easier of the local volcanoes) for the following day (see below for more information on this)—we were determined to do some kind of hiking and not waste the gear we brought—and were picked up at 2:30 to make our way about an hour out of Antigua to the easier of the volcanoes.

Before you get into the park, it should be noted that there are a bunch of kids out front selling walking sticks for 5Q (about $0.75 US)—buy one.  It’s not only a great investment, but it helps the locals.  There are also people with horses that they will rent you to get you through the toughest part of the hike, which is about 1,600m of climbing in less than three kilometers, repeating “Taxi! Taxi!”and following most of the way up in case you change your mind.  And while I’m not in the best shape—once two other girls in our group rented the horses, I was pulling up the rear—I never fell so far behind that I felt I needed to get on a horse.

The view from one of the lookouts on the first part of the hike

The first part of the climb up, while the easiest of the volcanoes, was still a bitch.  It was mostly sand and volcanic ash, so getting any kind of decent grip was a challenge to say the least.  It didn’t help that there was a horse behind me, nudging me to go faster.  Clearly, he didn’t know what people from Philly do to horses.  But I huffed and puffed—glad to have quit smoking a year ago—and made it to the top, sweating my ass off and wondering why I brought along a jacket.  After we got to the highest point we’d reach,we went back down and ran into the Lava Store, a small shack with snacks and souvenirs (and beer).  After that, down more sandy ash-covered paths, we arrived at a field of lava rocks.

This wasn’t just like walking into a different landscape—it was like walking onto a different planet. The lush forest that had been shading us the first part of the hike was now replaced by an endless field of lava rock, black and bleak. Heavy fog was rolling in above us and the sun was beginning to set, giving the area an even more eerie feeling. We hiked up a path through the rocks to a small vent on the side of the volcano where we did the most touristy thing possible and roasted marshmallows over the heat, all while catching a few glimpses of actual lava rolling down the mountain above us.

As the sun dipped farther, we made our way back. Luckily, I had a light and Kaitie had a headlamp, so we were fine on our walk. After the rocks, we descended via a sandy path down to where our van was waiting, by now in pure black darkness. We arrived back in Antigua around 8:30, so a six-hour round-trip, tired, happy, and ready for tacos.

Post Script: The owners where we were staying suggested Alex at A Viajar Guatemala if we wanted to book a different hike, so we went there to do a hike up Pacaya for $30US each correction: $15US each for a total of $30US. While we were easily able to schedule the Pacaya hike, Alex tried to push a bunch of other stuff on us, and then even though we had already paid him for the service and were using his company, he started to badmouth Gilmer Soy for no reason, even claiming some random guy sitting next to him was Gilmer’s brother and they didn’t get along, as if that had some bearing on Gilmer’s ability to lead a hike. The whole exchange left a bad taste in my mouth, but we were determined to hike.

The cost ($30US each correction: $15US each for a total of $30US) included a guide but not the fee to get into the park (50Q per person), and a lot of people on our trip seemed extremely unprepared not only to pay the fee, but to do the actual hike (no warm clothes, no snacks, no idea where we were going). Once we got in, our guide turned out to not know any English, but we were able to follow along just fine for what we needed.

Long Weekend in Iceland: Day 1

We arrived at Keflavik early on Saturday morning, tired from a shitty, overly warm flight from Boston that had no air.  After we made our way through the maze that was the airport—mistakenly ending up in a departure area where we couldn’t even buy a coffee—we found our way out and stopped for “breakfast” in what amounted to an airport 7-11, and then we waited around until it was time to pick up our van.

We had decided to rent a van to camp around Iceland for the long Labor Day weekend, taking advantage of some flight deals and also going during a bit of an off-season.  This was also the first time LeeAnne and I had traveled with others, as our friends Beth and Andy were able to join us for the long weekend—somewhat of a feat, as convincing Beth to spend three nights in a camper van wasn’t the easiest thing to do.

When it was finally time, we hauled our stuff across the Keflavik parking lot to Go Iceland, the van rental company.  This included not only our bags, but also the case of beer and bottle of Laphroaig we’d picked up in Duty Free.  Since alcohol is so heavily taxed, it makes sense to stock up in the airport rather than buy it along the route (although we ended up doing both, because beer).

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Lunch of champions

Our first stop was a local grocery store Bonus to pick up food for the trip (everything is expensive in Iceland), and also to stop at an adjoining restaurant for sandwiches, pastries, and more coffee. After loading up, we headed out, admiring the constant countryside despite every minute being overcast and threatening rain (and often delivering).

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The group at Saljandsfoss

Other than needing to camp at Skaftafell campground, we had no plans for the day.  After some driving, we happened upon Seljandsfoss waterfall, which looked nice, so we hopped out to stretch our legs and take some pictures.  The weather was cool and cloudy—but still bright—which is ideal for me.  After a quick trip to the waterfall, we hopped back on the road until we came to the next one: Skogafoss.

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Climbing to the top of Skogafoss

As far as famous waterfalls in Iceland go, Skogafoss is right up there near the top of the list, thought the waterfall itself isn’t nearly as impressive as what’s behind it.  Even though it started to rain, we climbed the metal staircase next to the falls to get to the top.  What I expected to only be a view from the top turned out to be so much more: behind the falls, winding for what seemed like forever, was a beautiful path next to cliffs surrounding the river that lead to the falls.  Even with the rain, the area was magical: it felt like you could walk all day and around every bend would be a different view of something incredible to look at.  Being in the rain, not liking heights; none of it seemed to matter back there.

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Behind Skogafoss

We eventually made our way down, soaked, as the rain let up.  We decided to stop into the adjacent restaurant at Hotel Skogafoss for some drinks and snacks as we waited to dry out.  I started with an Icelandic beer I loved, Lava, a smoked imperial stout from Olvisholt brewery.  Despite being able to get it in Philly (and for less money than in Iceland), I had to drink it in its home.  I also tried a Snorri No. 10 from Borg Brewery based solely on the fact that a friend has a cat named Snorri.

We continued on and happened upon Laufskálavarða, which was incredibly creepy at first glance.  Hundreds of small rock stacks line the field, looking a bit like something out of the Blair Witch Project.  A sign nearby says the area used to be a farm, but was wiped out in the first recorded eruption of the volcano Katla in 849. Now, travelers add a rock to a pile for good luck—and from the looks of things, there had been plenty of people with good luck.  The rock stacks went on in all directions.

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Laufskálavarða – silent, cloudy, a little creepy

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Amongst the rock piles

We finally pulled into Skaftafell campground as it was getting dark, converting the middle of the van to a small kitchen area with a table to have our dinner: bread with peanut butter, grapes, Gull beer, and Laphroaig.  The back end of the van then converted to a bed, with the top popping out to make a top bunk as well, so all four of us could sleep.  We tucked in for the night, exhausted from a full day, with more to come tomorrow.

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Cheers to a first day and a hearty van dinner

Note: The van from Go Iceland was really incredible, and included everything you could imagine.  Pillows, sleeping bags, a small electric stovetop, a refrigerator, cups and silverware and other camping gear, and 5 GB of wifi (which the four of us weren’t able to use up on our trip).  It made the trip so much more comfortable and enjoyable than I would have expected.

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Our two-bedroom home away from home (in the rain)

The featured image is courtesy of Beth Blinebury.

See how we fare on day two.