Anxious Adventuring: Hiking Pacaya Volcano
I recently went on a short trip to Central America. With only a short visit to Antigua, Guatemala, I wanted to try to make the most of my time in the country. I figured that one way to do this would be to hike up a volcano. After all, the country has at least 37 volcanoes, of which, three are considered active (others are extinct or dormant). Pacaya is one of the three active volcanoes and one that tourists can easily access for hiking. Another active volcano in Guatemala is Fuego Volcano, which made headlines when it erupted this past summer, killing 190 people (with over 200 people still considered missing as of October 2018) and displacing almost 3000 people. The eruption was the largest in Guatemala for about 40 years and was followed by another eruption in November that resulted in the evacuation of 4000 people. The nearby Pacaya volcano has been continuously active since the 1961 (Wnuk and Wauthier, 2016) and in a state of mostly mostly low grade eruptions since the 1990s, with a major eruption in 2010 that resulted in the evacuation of several thousand people, several deaths, and the destruction of land used for coffee growing. Pacaya’s volcano tourism took off after this eruption as tourists were curious to see active volcanism (i.e. lava, tephra (volcanic ash, rocks, particles) (Steel, 2016). Despite the destruction and human suffering wrought by active volcanoes in Guatemala, I wanted to visit a volcano and experience the dynamic geology of our planet first hand. My main worry is that I was going to physically struggle with the hike. And, I did! But not for the reasons that I thought! This is a story of a journey up a volcano, but also a voyage through sleeplessness.
Before leaving for the U.S., I booked a hike through Grayline one of many “day trip” companies based in Antigua or Guatemala City. My plan was that I would do the hike the morning after arriving in the country. The particular tour that I purchased included a visit to a hot springs and lunch and was a little less than $100. There are cheaper tours and more independent methods of travel, but I felt satisfied with the price and convenience. In any event, I departed for my trip with the idea that I would be hiking up a volcano on the morning after my arrival. This would not have been a problem but for a few complicating circumstances. For one, I worked a night shift on Wednesday night, then left for my trip on Thursday (directly after the night shift). I was able to get some fitful napping on my flights but did not fully sleep Wednesday or Thursday. Furthermore, my flight from Houston was delayed for several hours due to weather elsewhere in the U.S. which had stalled the arrival of my plane and disrupted the flight schedules of the airport. This meant that I actually arrived at my hotel in Antigua at 4:00 am Friday due to delays. It also meant that I was awake for about 36 hours. It also meant that I was committed to hiking up a volcano on a tour scheduled to pick up at my hotel at 6:30 am. It was not going to be a fun hike. I attempted to take a two hour nap before leaving for the hike, but failed to fall asleep.
I wearily watched the landscape pass from the window of the van that took me…and less than a dozen other tourists…to the volcano. There were several large hills and we approached a very steep looking volcano. I thought that perhaps this was the Pacaya volcano and dreaded the impossible hike ahead. Thankfully, it was probably the Fuego volcano, which is about 4,000 feet taller than the Pacaya volcano. The van veered away from the larger volcano to a park entrance, where we were descended upon by locals trying to sell/rent us walking sticks. A walking stick would have been a great idea, but I felt a little overwhelmed and pressed through the crowd to the visitor’s center. In retrospect, I should have supported the locals trying to make a little money from a volcano that might otherwise play a potentially dangerous or destructive roll in their lives. After all, Pacaya has erupted 48 times since the Spanish conquest of Guatemala (Steele, 2016). I felt vaguely nauseated from fatigue and not sure how I would tackle the hike ahead. Our group assembled near the start of the trail, where we were offered horseback rides up the volcano. Taking a horse cost about $15, which was a tempting idea but I went there to hike up a volcano and I was going to hike up a volcano! Hiking was rough. I felt dizzy with tiredness. I felt like a zombie, pushing my brainless body forward and upward with immense effort. I was slow. The hike was a relentlessly steep hill that never ended. There were no flat areas. Just…up, up, up, up. The only redeeming quality of the hike was that it was shaded by a forest. I wanted to cry I was so exhausted. By the time I was hiking, I had been awake for 40 hours (with some cat naps in chairs). The 40 hours had consisted of a nine hour shift at the shelter, a van ride to Minneapolis, two flights, a flight delay, a late arrival to my hotel, pitiful tossing and turning in my hotel bed for two hours, around two hours drive from Antigua, then THIS, the hellish hike. I took two caffeine pills that only seemed to make my head swirl. With each step I contemplated how far I would go before I gave up. All the way, my sluggish, slow self was hounded by horse escorts hoping that I would give in and take a horse the rest of the way. No, no. I’m okay. I don’t need a horse. I really don’t need a horse. No, I’ll make it. I’ve got this. I’ve got this. I checked my watch along the way. I had read that the hike up only takes one to two hours. At around the one hour mark we were told that we were close. I heard two thunderous booms. The explosive sound was exciting enough to re-energize me and I was able to complete the last 15 minutes or so through the treeless, drier viewing area. It was hard all of the way. I panted from exhaustion as I plodded along and cursed myself for signing up for the excursion. But, I made it! I made it!
The viewing area is not at the summit of Pacaya volcano, but it does offer a view of the summit as well as a view of nearby volcanoes. The summit crater exudes smoke and gas, which can be seen from the viewing area below. Another tourist I spoke with went on an evening hike and said that sparks can be seen flying from the summit crater. This would be an impressive sight, but for her meant precariously hiking down the volcano in the dark. The viewing area itself is located at about 7,500 ft above sea level and the summit is 8,373 ft above sea level. It may feel a little disappointing that the tour does not take one to the very top, but I was happy to avoid hiking up the steep, hot looking slope. According to blogger, Melinda Crow (2017), the actual hike to the viewing area is about two miles and covers an elevation change of about 1,300 feet or 650 feet per mile. It felt challenging, but not absolutely impossible, as obviously I did the hike with minimal sleep. In any event, I milled about the viewing area with the belief that the hike was done….but nope….the group then descended down some slippery dark rocks to a lava field. This was discouraging as I had little interest in climbing back up or climbing up anything more. I was quite content with the fact that we didn’t actually climb to the summit of the volcano as I was exhausted and it was hot and dusty out in the treeless black field of lava. I could see a plume of smoke at the top of the volcano and was glad to be where I was. The blackened valley featured a lava store and fumeroles wherein tourists could roast marshmallows. This was a big attraction for me. I had fantasized about roasting a marshmallow on the volcano, but with little sleep, mild nausea, and a strenuous hike behind me, I didn’t feel up to the task of digesting a puff of gelatin and sugar. There was also a shop nestled in the valley, which sold souvenirs and I believe some snacks. I really didn’t pay attention to the shop, as I was eager to begin the hike back while I had enough energy to keep myself from collapsing. The hike down was better. The lava area was quite dry and the air was thick with dust. My lungs were unhappy with me and I was glad to move away from the lava field and smoking crater. The rocks on the way down were slippery, as they were often small and easily tumbled under my boots like the wheels of roller skates.
Following the volcano hike, the group was rewarded with lunch and some time at some hot springs. At that point, I had been awake far too long to have an appetite. Oddly, being sleepy tends to make me more hungry, but at a certain point of sleep deprivation, even digestion seemed like too much effort. I watched the others eat their meals while I sipped a diet coke. After lunch, or my non-lunch, we all set off for the series of pools. There were two levels of pools of varying degrees of heat. The hot springs were actually a spa resort called Santa Teresita. I had imagined that the hot spring would be an actual bubbling puddle of geothermal heated water. This was far nicer. The complex featured 11 pools and a thermal circuit of several pools that switch between warm and cool pools. I probably didn’t do the correct cycle of the circuit, but it felt nice to just relax in warm water. It was no substitute for sleep, but it was restful. While I didn’t sleep, I did take some time to lounge on a beach chair and vegetate in the sun. The hot springs were a fun addition to the trip, but also complimented the volcano hike well. For one, it was soothing for my weary body and two, the hot springs found in Guatemala are near volcanoes, where water may be warmed by magma. Pacaya volcano is located about 10 km southeast from Lake Amatitlan where the hot springs were located, so it is possible that the hot water that I found so relaxing was heated by Pacaya’s magma. (Warring, 1983). I am not knowledgeable enough about geology to know this for sure, but it was neat to think about the hidden connections within the earth.
When I returned to Antigua, I had been awake for 48 hours. My day continued with a walk around my hotel to explore the city a little. I also ate dinner with members of a travel group that I would be traveling with for about eight days. This kept me up until 10 pm, in what was probably one of the longest spans of time that I had been awake in my life. While it would seem that after hiking a volcano, working my shift, spending a day traveling, and then…walking and exploring, I might have fallen into a dead sleep. NOPE, I could not fall asleep when I finally had an opportunity for REAL sleep! I had pushed myself to stay awake for so long that awakeness had a terrible momentum of its own. At that point, I didn’t feel like a human being. Just some hollowed out husk flopped on a bed, with an empty, buzzing head and tired limbs. I finally dozed off at midnight, but was up again at 4:30 am ish for a day tour to Lake Atitlan the next morning!
Based upon this experience, I would offer the following advice to other travelers. One important lesson is to NOT book strenuous activities on the day after arrival…as arrival can be postponed by weather. I didn’t have much choice since my time was limited and I felt compelled to maximize it. Another obvious piece of advice would be to avoid working a night shift…then staying awake to travel. I also could not avoid this because I wanted to squeeze the most out of my accrued vacation time. Taking the night off would have meant exhausting nine more hours of accrued vacation time. Vacation time is precious. The loss of a day is one less day I get to spend somewhere else. My need to work and desire to maximize my time set me up for a very unpleasant hike. As another general piece of advice, wear sunscreen, a hat, and bring a bandana. The sun is pretty intense, especially on the lava field. So….I scorched myself. Also, the air is heavy with particulates. So much so that my lungs felt heavy. Wearing a bandana over my face helped my to endure the worst areas. Thirdly, while I had attempted to be in OKAY shape before the trip (by jogging several miles a few times a week, using a higher incline on the treadmill, and generally increasing the amount of exercise I was doing before the trip), I was still sadly out of shape and struggled up the hill. I don’t think the hike is something that needs to be taken THAT seriously, as with patience and slow effort, almost anyone without complicating health conditions can probably complete the hike. One lesson I have learned is that there really is no substitute for hiking hills (as treadmill incline really doesn’t seem to replicate the real impact of gravity). A better idea might have been visiting a place with many stairs and just forcing myself to go up, up, up. My biggest anxiety was over if I would be physically up for the task (as I would have felt embarrassed to be TOO out of shape) but I think this was unfounded. It wasn’t THAT hard, but it was challenging. A final piece of advice was carrying small binoculars. I brought them along so I could watch for birds (I only saw some hummingbirds during the hike). Aside from birding, I thought they were useful in getting a closer view of the summit (even if there was not much to see but smoke). In the end, it was worthwhile. It was arduous, but I can always look back and think…”remember the time you were awake for …like 40 hours…and climbed a volcano. I think you can handle this.”
Crow, M. (2017, September 24). The #TravelTruth About Hiking the Pacaya Volcano in 2017. Retrieved January 17, 2019, from http://firstread.me/pacaya-volcano-2017/
Guatemala’s Fuego volcano erupts again (2018, October 12) retrieved 16 January 2019
Steel, M. (2016, September 20). Travels in Geology: Guatemala’s Volcan Pacaya: A feast for the senses. Retrieved January 17, 2019, from https://www.earthmagazine.org/article/travels-geology-guatemalas-volcan-pacaya-feast-senses
Warring, G. (1983). Thermal Springs of the United States and Other Countries, a Summary (Geological Survey Professional Paper, pp. 1-400, Rep. No. 492). Washington: United States Government Printing Office.
Wnuk, K., & Wauthier, C. (2016). Temporal Evolution of Magma Sources and Surface Deformation at Pacaya Volcano, Guatemala Revealed by InSAR (Doctoral dissertation, Pennsylvania State University).
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