Volcan Pacaya

One of the most talked about tourist attractions near Antigua is the Pacaya Volcano (Volcan Pacaya).  I had never climbed a volcano before and it has always been on my “to do” list (also known as a bucket list).  I’d seen some volcanos on television and when I learned that there were some active volcanoes near Antigua I just knew that I had to see them.  Of course, we invited Team Canada and they were as eager as we were to see it.

We had heard some warnings from other travelers, “Be careful, some tourists died there a few months ago.”  We made inquiries and sure enough, a couple of German or American tourists died at the summit either from asphyxiation from the sulfur fumes or from the heat of the exploding volcano.  We weren’t sure but kept the alleged danger in the back of our heads.

As with most places in Central America, it turned out that the most dangerous aspect of scaling a live fire-breathing volcano is the traffic that you encounter on the way there (top photo).  The roads were jammed-packed with tourist busses, micro-busses and all sorts of private and commercial vehicles.  I had never imagined a traffic jam while climbing an active volcano but sure enough, here it was.

As we rode along in our tourist bus the tour guide explained that occasionally the volcano would increase in activity and bellow up noxious fumes.  If this happened we should (no, really, this is what he said) “Run down the hill.  Run for your lives!”  Apparently, the fumes are quite strong and poisonous and if you breathe them you will pass out and will be exposed to further fumes resulting in death.

But that was only one of the dangers.  Occasionally the volcano would get really active and would blow huge chunks of red-hot lava into the sky.  This type of activity had killed the German tourists some 8 or 10 months ago.  It seems that this volcano – after it went active again – ran some lava a few kilometers and created a fire-red river that flowed for a few weeks.

Hmmm…. note to self, run like hell.  Run for your life…

We finally arrived at the base of the volcano and piled out into the ad hoc parking lot.  Once we were clear of the cars we could see the cinder cone and the trails leading up to it.  As it was a recently formed cone it wasn’t too high.  We only had to scale about 1,000′ (about 320 meters).  It didn’t look too difficult and we were eager to get started.  Before we headed up the trail I captured a photo of Jeff and Team Canada standing in front of the cone.

We walked about a mile or two (2 or 3 km) to the base and then began our ascent.  We ran into quite a few English-speaking tourists who were on their way down the cone and again and again we heard disappointing stories about “too much smoke” and “you can’t see the lava because of the smoke.”  I really wanted to see molten lava and these first reports were downright depressing.

We pressed on and as we climbed the cone I looked up and could see the figures of tiny tourists as they made their way up the cross-back trail.  The ground was covered in tiny volcanic rocks that were sharp to the touch.  Our tennis shoes were getting shredded as we climbed higher and higher.  Luckily the path was worn enough so that a sand-like surface was most of our hiking path.

About two-thirds of the way from the summit we turned around and looked down to where we had started from.  We could immediately see the path of the lava river that had burned earlier, it cut a clear path right through the green countryside.  It must have been some river…

As we looked towards a nearby mountain I saw that the shadow of Volcan Pacaya was silhouetted against it; you can clearly see the volcano and the smoke billowing from the top of its cone.  In the foreground is the cooled and hardened remains of the lava river and you can see our hiking trail as it crosses along the rim.

A few tourists stopped to take a “break” and sat down to open a lunch sack or a thermos but quickly jumped up with shrieks of pain.  “Ouch, the ground is hot!”  As we looked around we could see that the ground was literally smoking.  I put the back of my hand near the ground and found that it was quite hot to touch.  After a while we noticed that our feet were getting hot through our shoes and had to alternate standing one foot and then the next to keep our feet from burning.  I was worried that if it got any higher my shoes might start to melt; then I would be in a serious predicament.

When we finally reached the summit of the cone I was sadly disappointed to find that we could not see the lava.  The volcano was billowing so much smoke that we could hardly see much at all.  The wind was shifting constantly and each time that the smoke blew our way our lungs and eyes would burn.  We quickly learned that when the smoke came our way we should hold a deep breath and close our eyes.  It felt like a hot sauna and smelled like rotten eggs.  If you’ve ever stood at the rear ramp of a CH-47 “Chinook” helicopter, you know the feeling.

As the wind shifted I was able to get a shot of the rim.  To the right of the photo below, the cone drops almost vertically; if you fell in, you would certainly be dead.  The walls of the cone were very hot and you can see the smoke coming from the rocks near the edge.  It made a convenient trash can; all of the tourists threw in the lunch sacks, soda bottles, potato chip wrappers and all other sorts of debris and the volcano greedily swallowed them without a trace remaining.

Once in a while, the ground would rumble a bit and then a thick steady stream of smoke would plow out of the massive hole in the ground.  We all held our breath but one time the smoke kept coming and coming and one by one people began to cough and cry out and begin running down the mountain.  A few of us brave souls endeared until it passed.  I was determined to see some hot lava and I had no intention of leaving.

Billow after billow we held our breath and waited for the stinky burning fumes to pass.  Once or twice the fumes lasted too long and we ran a few dozen meters down the hill gasping for air, our eyeballs burning in their sockets.  At this point most of the tourists gave up and kept walking down the hill but my stubbornness made me return.

I tried again and again, “I just have to see that lava.”

I waited and waited, I was almost alone.  I think only two others stayed with me and finally, a strong gust of wind from behind us pushed the smoke back and revealed the fiery throat of the angry volcano.  I fumbled to get my camera out and managed to capture just one photo before the smoke blew back into the cone and blocked the lava.  While it was unobscured I could see the lava bubbling like the cheese on a fresh pizza just taken out of the oven.  What impressed me as much was the intense heat that came from the fire.  Without the smoke to block the radiant heat it glared on our faces and clothes like sitting too close to a camp fire.  If the smoke didn’t return we would have had to back down from the edge as the heat was so intense.

Now emboldened by our view of the lava we waited again but this time in vain.  We were pummeled by smokey fumes again and again but the volcano would reveal her secret only once.  I reviewed my photo and saw that I had captured the lava and retreated down the mountain happy in the knowledge that I had finally seen the inside of an active volcano.

I have found that when you learn a word in a different language that has some sort of “meaningful” context, you’ll never forget that word for the rest of your life.  In my case, I learned a word, quite by accident and I”m sure that I”ll never forget it.

Many of the streets in Antigua are one way and it is quite easy to tell the direction of each street in the day time depending on the direction of the parked cars.  But at night, when the streets are clear, you must really look carefully for the direction signs – in some cases, there are none.  I drove some friends back to their hotel and on the way back to my hotel I turned down a street thinking that I was going the correct way.  The flashing lights in my rearview mirror told another story.

The Antigua policeman walked up and began speaking very quickly in Spanish.  The only thing I understood was “una via,” or “one way.”  I knew immediately that I had gone the wrong way.  I looked around, no one in sight.  “What’s the harm,” I thought and shrugged my shoulders at the officer.  He began talking again and I indicated (in broken Spanish) that I did not understand him.  He kept repeating one word, over and over, “Multa.”

I pulled my trusty yellow colored Spanish/English dictionary that I had purchased at the book store at Park Central here in town.  I looked up the word…  “hmm…  let’s see, Multa…  ‘Fine.’”  Oh, I get it.  “Quanto?’  I asked him, “How much?”  As he started telling me the price I realized that I had no cash and showed him my empty wallet.  He saw the ATM card in its slot and pointed at it and indicated that I should follow him.

He drove on his motorcycle to the nearest bank and got out and waited by the ATM machine.  I walked up, inserted my card and punched in my code.  Before I could even react, he hit the “quick cash” button for 200 quetzals and as soon as the machine burped the money, he scooped it up and scurried away on his bike.

“Hmmm…  so that’s how they do it here…”

And so, I’ll never forget the Spanish word Multa – I’m sure it will be with me to the last days of my life…


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