Suitcase and World: Hiking up Volcan de Pacaya.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Hiking up Volcan de Pacaya.

What was I thinking when I said I wanted to hike up Volcan Pacaya which is an active volcano? Yes, it still erupts on a daily basis....lava flows and all. I blame it on the guide books and websites that say that the hike is a "must-do" activity and that the hike is moderately easy. Moderately easy, my ass!! Well, let's not jump ahead of things. Let's start from the beginning.

A few days ago, Sue had offered to arrange the hike up Pacaya for anyone who was interested. Of course, my bro and I raised our hands. The plan was to do the hike on Saturday. You can either hike up in the morning or in the late afternoon and it would only cost us $15 per person for the hike.  A steal....can't get much cheaper than that!

Everyone recommended going on the afternoon tour because it's much more dramatic to see the volcano erupting against the dark of the night sky.  You gotta admit.....seeing a volcano actively spewing out lava at night would be cool.  So of course, we had to do the afternoon option which we were told would leave at 2pm and return around 9pm. Sounded good.

On Saturday morning, my brother and I headed to the mercado to stock up on some munchies for the hike. Yeah, we were thinking we would have time and opportunity to eat while we walked :-)

We bought some nuts and made sure we had plenty of water. As advised, we packed in jackets and flashlights.

Shortly before 2pm, we met up with Maria and Mo in the hotel lobby and waited for someone to come and pick us up. Someone did show up about quarter past two and we followed them out to the street where we walked about half a block away from the hotel to board a chicken bus. There was another person boarding along with us. I thought it was strange that they would have this entire bus just for four people and so I was not surprised when it made another stop. This time, a small army of 20-somethings boarded. The bus was full - there were 40 of us and two guides.

As the bus rolled on, one of guides explained what we would be in for.  Sounded doable.  He then also told us that our group name was *Barco*. 

Oh oh....I thought to myself. I'm going to have to hike to keep pace with 20-somethings. No way in hell is that going to be possible. I'm in decent shape but I'm no longer in my 20's. I decided then and there that I would hike at my own pace - they would just have to wait for me at every stop.

The full bus chugged its way out of town. It would be about an hour and half long ride to get to the volcano.

It was shortly after 4pm when we arrived at San Francisco de Sales which is the starting point for the hike up Pacaya.

Maria getting off the chicken bus.  I don't think she was really too excited about going on this hike.
Walking up to the starting point.  Along the way, young boys hawk hiking sticks for 5 quetzales.  I bought a stick
and believe me, it was worth many more times than that as I would find out much later on.

The starting point.
Pacaya stands (give or take) 2,552 metres (8,373 ft) and we were told it would take us about 2 hours to climb up and back down and that we would only be ascending about 1000m as the starting point at San Francisco de Sales is nearly 1,600m in elevation.

Before we took off on the hike, the guides gave us the opportunity for one last toilet break and then do a final headcount.  40 people off the bus; 40 need to get back on.  And with that, the *Barco* group was off.

The first part of the hike was through forest and field.  Although it was easy on the feet in the sense that we were walking on soft dirt, it was a very steep ascent up.   The 20-somethings bounded ahead as I expected they would.  With my weak lungs, I started to huff and puff in no time but I slowly and deliberately trudged on....taking breathers as needed.  All along the way, we were offered "taxi" rides by men pulling horses.  I was determined to do the hike so I turned down each and every offer. Maria was ready to give up after a short while but Mo and I encouraged her to continue on.  Staying by herself on the path was not a good idea so I walked with her and we chatted to bide the time.  On my breathers, I took the opportunity to snap some photos.

The *Barco* group took a few rest stops along the way but because Maria, Mo and I lagged so far behind, we barely spent a few minutes at each stop before having to move on.  Oh well.

Reminder that this was not an easy hike.  In fact, tourists have died hiking up Pacaya.

It seemed like an eternity but we eventually arrived at a flat grassy area.  My legs were finally happy to be walking on flat land.  But, it was not an easy walk because the ground was littered with lava rock.  so I still had to be mindful about where I put my feet.

From this grassy area, we could see the top of the volcano. It was both exciting to see the top and disheartening to realize how steep the final ascent would be.....and I mean REALLY, REALLY steep.

Maria (left) and Mo (right) posing for one last picture before we begin the last leg of our ascent.
The peak, above their heads, is the summit of Pacaya.  That's where we were headed.

As we walked on, it started to drizzle and so we had no time to pause to enjoy the scenery. We had to push on and push on fast as the sun was also starting to set.

The setting sun obscured by rain clouds.

With the setting sun and fog brought on by the drizzle, visibility was poor. 

With our trusty walking sticks in hand, we took deep breaths and headed up.   We had only about 500 feet to climb up but it would be a difficult, 500 feet - very steep.

The rain stopped after a few minutes and the sky was colored by beautiful orange glow of the setting sun.

We literally climbed over lava rock which was extremely jagged and sharp edged.  Even worse is that it was so uneven and there were crevices and small chasms everywhere.  Luckily, the rain had stopped or else the lava rock would have been slippery as well exacerbating the already dangerous climbing conditions.

At times I had to use my hands to brace myself from falling.

We had to be so, so careful with every step.  Every now again, we would see white arrow painted into the rock that marked our path up.  The path was so crowded with people hiking in both directions - it was a slow hike up which was just fine by me.

Every now again, we would hear a booming noise and feel vibration under our feet - a reminder that Pacaya is an active volcano and was erupting the entire time we were on our hike.  Part way up, we started to feel heat wafting up from between crevices in the lava rock.  Now, I had to solely rely on my walking stick for support as using my hands to brace myself could result in severe burn.  It was getting more and more challenging to ascend up.

Maria and I took our time clamoring up and over the lava rock, encouraging each other to push on.  

By the time I made it to as high up as we were allowed to climb, the sun had already set.  Mo was there taking photos and I soon joined here. 

One of several small craters near the summit.  It was cool to see the glowing lava and to hear it *gurgling*.  
From this vantage point, we could also see the lights of a nearby town.

Another set of small craters.
We were up at the top for probably less than 5 minutes because we wanted to start our descent before it really got too dark to see.  By now, the 20-somethings had long left us behind.  It was just the three of us another smaller group of about 4 hikers.  We were all alone on the volcano :-(

We started our way back down.  The heat wafting up from the lava rock was making me hot and the ever present booming sound of periodic eruptions was making me want to really rush back down.

Since my flashlight was in my backpack which my brother was carrying, I was climbing back down in the dark.  Early on in the descent, there was still some ambient light so I could see where to safely and securely put down each foot....not well, but I could see.  As time passed, it was quickly becoming difficult to see the drops and crevices in the black lava rock.

Mo led the pack and I followed her.  Maria was really struggling behind us.   Every now and again, I would hear her make a sound that told me she was scared.....really scared.  So, I would yell back to her to take her time and take baby steps.  At one point, she let out a blood curdling scream.  Mo and I thought she had fallen and hurt herself but she was so petrified she just had to let loose.  

Someone shouted out *Barco* every now and then.  I would shout back loudly so they would know we were still on the volcano peak.

With the black lava rock and no clearly identifiable path, we really struggled to climb back down.  Mo would often climb down ahead of Maria and I to try and figure out where the path was.  We would then follow her instructions to make our way down.

Again, it seemed like an eternity before we made it back down to the flat grassy area but we eventually did.  Hallelujah, we made it!!  Happy dance!!  Mo and I were both relieved and ecstatic to have made it; poor Maria was still shaking like a leaf ; she said her legs were trembling.  I felt bad for her but unfortunately, she had no choice but to trudge on.  This is not the type of hike where someone will come and rescue you if you don't feel like making it the rest of the way. 

I found my brother, thoroughly enjoying himself chatting with a couple of the 20-somethings.  Of course, I jokingly told him I wanted to kill him for leaving me to hike back down in the pitch black of night.  His reply was that he did not pass us on his way back down so he figured we never made the climb at all at which point I showed him the pictures on my camera.  Hah!!  I did make it!  And I was not about to finish the hike without a flashlight so I immediately reached into my pack and retrieved the second flashlight.

From where we standing, we looked back up and we could actually see the volcano erupting, spewing lava high up into the air.  I tried to capture a photo but my cheap Canon point and shoot camera failed me :-(  This is the shot that I joke.  Can you guess what's on my list to buy for my next trip? :-)

My brother insisted I give it a second try cause he managed to snap a photo while taking a picture for one of the 20-somethings.  "Use your flash and focus on me".  Sure, that'll work :-)  This is is the shot I joke.  Can you guess who's getting photography lessons for his birthday present next year?  :-)
Just imagine an erupting volcano just above his head.

Pacaya erupting looked very much like this and this just happens to be a photo of Pacaya spewing out lava.

We had just a few minutes to catch our breath and then it was back into the forested area for the remainder of the hike back down.  A head count confirmed all 40 of us had made it back down. 

After struggling up and down the lava rock, walking in the forest was so much easier.  Even so, Maria was having some difficulties.  I continued to yell out to her to take baby steps. 

One baby step after another and we eventually made it down.  I've never been so happy to get back on a school bus!!  I could finally relax all my muscles.  Unfortunately, I had so much adrenaline still pulsing through my system that I was chatty - I think I kept everyone on the bus awake.

Flash forward to about 10pm.  We arrived safely back into Antigua.  On our walk back to the hotel, we stopped at a place to buy some fried chicken and french fries for our dinner.  Back at the hotel, Mo and the Ang Bros joined us in our room to hear us recount our experiences climbing up Pacaya.  As I fell asleep later on, I put a mental check mark in the "been there, done that" column as far as hiking up active volcanoes goes.  I don't think I will be doing this again any time soon!