In the spring of 2011, my wife Taz and I decided to book a Panama Canal cruise for fall of 2012. We had visited the Panama Canal before on a previous cruise, but had never had the opportunity to actually go through the canal.
There are a number of different cruise lines that run Panama Canal cruises and the itineraries can vary considerably. As we evaluated our options, we looked not only at the ports that each cruise visited, but also at the activities that were available in each port.
One cruise in particular stopped in Guatemala and one of the shore excursions that was available was a climb up Mt. Pacaya – a live volcano. After viewing a couple of YouTube videos I was sold. The videos showed participants standing dangerously close to rivers of hot lava. The excursion seemed just dangerous enough to satisfy my taste for adventure.
After booking the cruise I did a bit more research on the Mt Pacaya excursion and learned that Mt Pacaya was roughly about 8000 feet high, and that it was quite a climb to reach the volcano’s crater. I found several Web posts from people who said that they were unable to complete the climb due to physical exhaustion. Even the cruise line’s own Web site indicated that participants must be “optimally fit” to participate in the excursion.
At the time I was in OK shape. I have always been really active, but for whatever reason I was really overweight. I knew that I was going to have to whip myself into shape if I wanted to make the climb.
I spent the next year and a half getting myself into shape. I used an elliptical set to maximum resistance and maximum incline to train for the climb. Thanks to my exercise routine and going vegetarian I lost 45 pounds.
When the day of the climb arrived I was admittedly a little bit nervous. After all, a live volcano can be unpredictable and people have been killed on the mountain before.
I was doing this particular excursion on my own. Taz suffers from asthma and did not feel comfortable attempting the climb. She went bird watching instead.
I left the ship at the crack of dawn and our bus took about an hour and a half to reach the mountain. I was expecting to start the climb at the bottom of the mountain, but the bus was able to drive part of the way up.
When we finally arrived, the bud driver opened the door for everyone to get out. The bus was immediately surrounded by kids selling walking sticks. The walking sticks were one American dollar each. I had read on the Internet that the walking sticks were a good investment and that they make the climb easier. Therefore, I decided to go ahead and get one. In retrospect, I would consider a walking stick to be essential. There were some places on our trek where I am positive that I would have fallen if I had not had a walking stick.
The other thing that I immediately noticed when I got off the bus was how chilly the air was, presumably because of the altitude. I had brought a sweat shirt and had worn long pants, but not because I was expecting cold temperatures. I had done so to avoid being burned by hot ash blowing in the air.
As our group assembled at the trail head a number of men began congregating around us with horses. They kept shouting “taxi”. That was their way of asking if anyone wanted to rent a horse for twenty dollars. At first there were no takers, but half an hour into the hike there were several people in our group who gave in and rented a horse.
Part of the reason for people renting horses was undoubtedly because the climb was pretty physical and people were becoming winded because they weren’t use to the thin air. I think that another reason why people relented and rented horses was because the horse handlers were being really aggressive. I heard several people who had been walking near the back of the group saying later that the horses were following them so closely that they nearly got stepped on and that the whole time the handlers were trying to pressure them into renting a “taxi”.
To those who might be considering climbing Mt. Pacaya, you should know that the horses cannot make the entire trek. The people in our group who had rented horses were able to ride as far as the crater rim, but had to walk from there.
Another thing to know is that the trail is literally covered in horse droppings. In some places there is almost nowhere that you can walk without stepping in something.
The first part of the climb is up a winding trail through dense forests. The trail isn’t overly steep, but it is a long walk and most of the people in our group were hot, sweaty, and somewhat out of breath before reaching the top. Personally I never got out of breath or anything, but then again I did spend a year and a half training for the climb.
As we got closer to the crater the trees began to thin out and eventually disappeared altogether. At that point we were walking up a steep incline on black volcanic ash. From that point, it was a short walk to the crater rim.
Standing on the edge of the crater rim the view was spectacular. I’m not sure how high up we were, but I could see for miles. At this point however, there was no sign of any current volcanic activity. It was really windy at the crater rim (presumably because of our altitude) and the volcanic ash was blowing in the wind. At times it felt almost as if my face was being sand blasted. I tried my best not to breathe any of the ash.
I should also mention that I wore hiking boots for the climb. I would consider boots to be an absolute requirement for two reasons. First, some of the terrain is really slippery and the tread of the boots helps with traction. Second, the ground inside the crater is extremely hot and boots with thick tread can help to keep your feet from getting burned.
After a short break, we descended into the crater. Even though there were no immediate sign of current volcanic activity, it was still cool to walk through the crater and see all of the hardened lava formations.
After walking in the crater for about 20 minutes, we began to see steam coming out of the ground in places. Our guide stopped by some of these steam vents so that we could pose for pictures and feel the heat coming from the vents.
I decided to sit down next to one of the steam vents to pose for the picture below. Although the rock that I was sitting on was cool, the heat coming from the vent was almost unbearable. When I was a child my great grandparents used to heat their house with a coal burning furnace. That furnace would get so hot that the metal would glow red and I couldn’t hardly walk into the room where the furnace was because the heat was so intense. Sitting next to the volcano’s steam vent was the first time since my childhood that I had ever felt heat like that. It was actually painful posing for that picture.
Continuing on our hike we walked past several hot spots, but there were no active lava flows. In some places however, the rocks were extremely hot. In fact, the tread on the bottom of my boots melted slightly.
The odd thing about the hike was that there were several dogs that followed us. Most of the dogs were extremely skinny and were obviously malnourished. Someone in the group asked me if the dogs were starving to death or if they were so skinny because they were infested with parasites. Although I didn’t really know the answer to the question, I guessed that the dogs were starving. The area around the volcano was extremely impoverished and some of the locals looked as if they were as hungry as the dogs. In fact, the men who had been trying to rent horses to the hikers followed us into the crater (without the horses) and kept begging for food or money. At one point I had pulled an energy bar out of my backpack and one of those guys said in broken English, “Please, a snack for me”.
The thing that surprised me the most about being followed by dogs was that the ground was extremely hot in places, and yet the dogs did not seem bothered by the heat. The guide said that he always keeps a close eye on the dogs because the dogs can tell before he can when the volcano is about to erupt.
After walking some more the guide said that it was time to stop for a snack. He passed out sticks and marshmallows so that we could cook marshmallows over one of the volcanic vents. The vent was really hot and the marshmallows cooked almost instantly. Someone dropped their stick and the sick burst into flames almost instantly when it hit the ground.
All too soon it was time to leave the volcano and head back to the bus. Instead of going back the way that we had come though, we walked the rest of the way around the mountain. Part of the trek involved walking down an extremely narrow path that was carved into a very steep slope. The slope consisted of slippery rock and ash and I honestly wondered if anyone would end up sliding down the mountain. Fortunately, nobody did.
As we rounded the mountain, we were able to see that an adjacent volcano was having a minor eruption. The volcano was too far away for me to be able to see if there was any lava flowing down the mountain or not, but there was a steam cloud above the mountain, and there was hot ash raining down on us. The situation did not seem at all threatening, and the rain of ash wasn’t heavy by any stretch of the imagination. Even so, it was a unique experience to be in that close of proximity to a volcanic eruption. I only wish that my camera’s battery had not died. Normally I bring extra batteries on shore excursions, but I did not want to run the risk of opening my camera in such a dusty environment.
After the volcano, our guide took us to a surprisingly upscale restaurant for lunch. He said that the restaurant was extremely expensive by Guatemalan standards and that only cruise ship passengers eat there because none of the locals can afford it.
I honestly can’t remember what they served us, or even if the food was good or not. What I do remember was being extremely hungry. We had been hiking for several hours and much of the hike had been up hill. I’m sure that I had probably burned a few thousand calories on the hike.
My assessment of the Pacaya Volcano climb was that it was disappointing not to see any active lava flows, especially after seeing all of those cool videos on YouTube. Even so, hiking in the crater of an active volcano was a unique experience and I was ultimately glad that it did it. Of course I can’t overlook the fact that training for the climb helped me to adopt a much healthier lifestyle and so in that regard I am a whole lot better off for having done this particular excursion.
If you would like to see my YouTube video of the Pacaya Volcano climb, you can find it at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wpMfWjgn_Mc&feature=c4-overview&list=UUPnQjgS0ZaHjTsNhVUUgbHQ