One of the most popular activities for visitors to the Guatemalan highlands is hiking up volcanoes. Some people approach it like collecting merit badges, listing which ones they’ve “done.” That’s a big job because there are 33 volcanoes in Guatemala, three of them very active.
On our last visit to Guatemala, we hiked up Pacaya near Antigua, which is active, to say the least. It always strikes me when I visit developing countries how few safety rules there are. For example, on Pacaya, there’s nothing stopping you from walking right up to the lava flow, except common sense, which from my own experience, (and judging from the video below) is often in short supply. Standing all too close to the lava flow—which felt like standing in front of a giant hair dryer—our guide suggested that we poke around with our walking sticks (rented from a group of local children who I initially feared wanted to swat us with them) to be sure that the scree underfoot was sturdy enough to stand on. Oh, and be sure to check the bottoms of your shoes to be sure they’re not melting… This just would not be allowed in the U.S. where we worry about keeping five- year-olds in car seats and constantly douse ourselves in Purell.
I recently scored my second Guatemalan volcano: Santiaguito, near Quetzaltenango. Santiaguito is actually a junior version or extension of the much higher Santa Maria volcano, and therefore a shorter trek, which was fine with me. The big attraction is that it erupts in a giant cloud of ash and steam about as regularly as Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone. We started our trek around 6:30 a.m. in order to be in place to see it erupt around 8:30. “Poco e poco,” and with several banana bread and water stops, we made it to the designated viewing spot, a kilometer or so from the crater, along with a fellow hiker from Hungary and a group from France. Who knew scampering up a dusty trail in Guatemala could be such a cosmopolitan experience?
As can happen with travel, all did not go according to schedule. Santiaguito was a little slow that morning. We ate sandwiches in the company of a particularly persistent little begging dog and waited. The clouds rolled in, then the eruption began, half obscured, but viewable nonetheless. The sound, even at that distance, was amazing, like a huge roaring jet engine. Of course, if we had been closer, the clouds wouldn’t have been such a problem but I’ll trade a better view for a modicum of safety. Here’s a video from a guy who was a little too close to Santiaguito for comfort.