|One of the most popular day tours from Antigua is the one to the top of the Pacaya Volcano , rising to a height of 2250 and one of the most accessible and exciting volcanoes in Central America.
For an amazing $7 each we received an hour and a half bus ride to the site and back, a tour guide who led us on our 3 km hike up the volcano (approx 1 1/2 hrs each way) and about an hour up at the top to rest and take pictures.
For me the most frightening part of the trip was the bus ride up the steep, narrow, twisty road where at times the wheel below my window appeared to be mere inches from the edge of the road, a sheer drop down the side of the volcano. We passed many spots where mudslides had occurred, sometimes leaving boulders in the road and at one point we inched by a truck stuck in the mud coming the opposite way, once again appearing to creep along the very side of the wet, slippery muddy edge of the road.
As we neared the end of the bus ride, the driver began trying to sell the taxi rides (horses) up the volcano, as the climb was so physically demanding. We decided to wait until we started out to decided whether to ride or walk.
The bus let us off in the little village of San Francisco de Sales where we were met by a group of children selling walking sticks. We had already bought hand carved walking sticks in Antigua and John brought his. I didn't think I would need one so said no about 100 times to the children's chants of "sticks, sticks". "Taxi, taxi" was the other chant we heard over and over as some decided to ride up on horses rather than hike. After about 10 minutes into the hour and a half climb the taxis stopped and picked up several passengers. We kept walking.
John caught a taxi part way up and tried to convince me to but I had started my climb and was determined to finish it. The rest of the group was about half our age and sprinted ahead. They didn't stop often to rest and when they did I would catch up just as they had finished snapping their pictures and were heading off again. The guide insisted on keeping the group together so I was discouraged from stopping. At one point I tried to sprint ahead to get some pictures of John on his horse but the grade was so steep that it was almost impossible to keep ahead of his horse.
Half way up thunder roared and the skies opened up. John had my bag with the raincoats hung on his saddle and I was so hot by this point that I welcomed the rain. By the time I reached top my clothes were soaking wet.
The view of the the volcano below as we reached the top of the steep ridge was so awesome that I literally forgot all about my wet clothes and my previous discomfort during the climb. We looked down over a massive bowl of cooled lava, black as far as the eye could see except for the bubbling hot lava winding slowly down the grade and steam rising above the field from the incredible heat.
We followed barely discernable paths across the slippery, sharp, charred cold lava fields, the guide at times taking my hand to ensure that I placed my feet in exactly the correct spots and made our way to within about 20 feet of the bubbling lava. The young people in the group roasted hot dogs and marshmallows in the lava and edged precariously close for pictures, sometimes covering their faces with scarves against the intense heat. Our clothes dried on our bodies as we stood close the the lava.
We got a head start on the rest of the pack returning up to the top of the ridge which would lead us back down the volcano. It was so steep and I knew that we would need to stop to catch our breath several times. On the way up a bolt of lightening grazed the top of a girl's head about 10 feet from us. In the same storm a guide from another group and his horse were hit with lightening, the guide's shoes were both blown off and his horse pummelled down the side of the cliff. Apparently both survived.
The timing of the tour was such that darkness was descending just as we were leaving the lava field, as it is most spectacular in the dark. This of course meant that the climb back down would not only be wet and slippery with roots, rocks, mud, horse poop and steps to deal with but pitch dark also. We were at the very peak of the exposed ridge as night fell, surrounded by clouds so that the narrow path was barely visible. This was the most frightening part for John with his fear of heights and he was relieved when we reached the dense but less exposed path down through the jungle.
Some members of the group rode horses back down but we walked, preferring our own feet in the steep, slippery footing. I slipped and fell several times, flattening the sandwiches I had brought along in the my backpack. We were soaked and covered in mud by the time we arrived back in San Franciso de Sales. When the bus arrived back in Antigua around 9 pm the driver dropped us off on the other side of town and we limped back to our hotel, cold, wet and exhausted but not regretting a moment of the experience.