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Volcan Pacaya Hike With Kids

If you want to hike an active volcano with kids, hiking Pacaya volcano is one of the easier places in the world to do this. How do you get two small children to climb a 2,500m volcano…? Tell them they can roast marshmallows in the lava when they get to the top! They practically raced up!!

I on the other hand, having hiked volcanoes in the past, knew how shit it is (though a giant lava field and roasting marshmallows in lava is also a first for me!). Not only is it steep as balls but it can be hugely demoralising, quite literally two steps forward and one step sliding back down, trying to walk up hill on ash. This is how we did it.

Volcan Pacaya Background Info:

Volcano Pacaya is located just over an hours drive from Antigua. The volcano measures 8,373 feet (2552 meters). Its first eruption was recorded around 23,000 years ago and it is one of the most active volcanoes in Central America, though it generally spews ash rather than lava proper. The last big eruption of Pacaya volcano was in 2010 and until then it was possible to see lava up close, but now tours stop at the dry (but still hot!) lava fields. The hike to the “top” (the highest one is allowed/able to go) is around 5km (3.1 miles) with 500m of elevation gain. We had read really quite conflicting information from it being very easy (40-60 minutes up), to very difficult (4 hours). This is only natural as everyone experiences these things differently but seemed like wild variations, so I thought it best to add our voices into the mix.

Arranging the Hike:

We had read in advance that any hike must be with an accompanying guide as a matter of safety. This leaves one with three options:

1 – Group Tour Leaving from Antigua

I generally dislike group tours anyway, but for this I had read that you can often encounter a lot of firm “encouragement” (re cross fitter tourists or guides wanting to get home) if you are the slowest in the group. I was willing to bet my last penny that we would be the slowest, not only for being chubby Brits well out of our prime, but because we would be laden with three children and all their bribes…I mean snacks…as well as wearing the baby. Being fairly nervous about the climb (and potentially crying in front of my kids if it was anything like previous I’ve done!) I really didn’t want to added pressure or harassment by other group tour participants. Furthermore, it seems there are two options for this – a sunrise tour or a sunset one. As previously explained, we prefer to do the bulk of our travelling during lunch time naps to get everyone out of the hottest part of the day. We had hoped to drive straight to Aititlan after this tour. Therefore sunrise was too early, and sunset was too late (we were so glad we didn’t do sunset as I will explain below!). The cost seemed to be around $80 - $165 per person, depending on group size.

2 – Private Tour Leaving from Antigua

Likely to be the most expensive but easiest of the options – I had also read to consider that guides you might book as part of a private tour might have a higher standard of English compared to whoever you are lucky enough to get at the entrance. This would be useful for getting a better understanding of the plants, trees, wildlife and views during the visit.

3 – Independent Travel to the Site with a Tour Guide Hired at the Entrance

Guides can be hired directly at the visitors’ centre at the entrance of the national park. However, I had read that if you add up the costs of transportation from Antigua and to that the entrance fee to the national park and the mandatory guide (which will cost around $27 USD per person) joining a guided group hike that departs from Antigua may end up being cheaper. However, as we rented our car from Antigua for a week to drive around Atitlan, this was absolutely not the case for us and MUCH cheaper to just turn up. Flexibility is my life saver backpacking with a family, we have struggled with guides of any kind on the past not matching up with the speed that we require.

The Independent Choice:

This worked out really well for us. You only need to take care of 4 choices.

Transportation – we had heard it was possible to hire a driver to transport you there, wait during the hike and then take you back for $45 USA (Q350). Our car worked out to around $30 a day which was cheaper still, so long as you are comfortable driving in Guatemala, the drive there wasn’t too bad. We expected horrendous potholes but it wasn’t any trouble with google maps directing us. Public transport wasn’t an option for us – it is possible if you are willing to change buses several times but there is a level of risk associated with violent crime and pick-pocketing on chicken buses weighed up against the comfort of our own car and child/baby seats!

Our Costs:

Park Entrance Fee: Q50 (around $6.50) per person. Kids are free – paid on arrival in exchange for wristbands and tickets.

  • Guide Fee: Q300 (around $30) – paid at the end of the hike.

  • Parking Fee: Around Q10 ($1.25). May vary – we paid this when we parked the car just past the entrance for tickets.

  • Total: Around Q400 ($45) for a family of 5. WAY cheaper than any tour we saw. A real success!

There are then the extras should you want them – locals sell or rent you a walking stick. We decided in advance we would get one because 1 – our children LOVE sticks, and 2 – this supports the local communities. There is a sparse shop with crisps and drinks at the car park/trail start. Horses are available for rent to go up the volcano for around 150 Quetzales (short of $15 USD) per horse per directions (up or down). Having hiked numerous mountains and volcanoes from Myanmar, Thailand, Tanzania, Borneo, Indonesia I have never got any assisted transport and each time the local hawkers would follow me with their horses or carriages or whatever literally laughing and pointing the whole way up while I struggled on solo. This time I knew I would be shelling out for a horse in advance and turned this into part of the field trip – Quinn had never ridden a horse before and I knew they only went half way up. The ask, sand and gravel combination was particularly harsh on anyones feet but the little shoes getting filled with this stuff wasn’t a battle I wanted to overcome! They absolutely loved it!

Half way up was a brilliant, breath-taking view of the 2010 lava field (above, centre), spilling out of the blackened volcano onto the rainforest below. It was stunning. The trek up to the start of the lava fields on horseback took 30 minutes or so and the same trek on foot took just over an hour. All I can conclude is that previous estimates of 2-4 hours must be for the entire thing up and down again as its really isn’t that bad. I have done a lot worse! Be aware that because of the prevalence of horses, there is a lot of poo on the track.

The Lava Fields:

After this initial sandy, ashy, steep trek you come to the point where vegetation can no longer survive and the landscape changes from lush jungle to sparse other-worldly lava field crusts (above right). The rocks are absolutely razor sharp, like walking on hot knives, and its time to say goodbye to the horses. After walking for maybe 15 minutes or so, you pass the “Lava Store” which is a shop selling wares made from lava. We brought cash with us to get the kids a bracelet each which we hoped would be a reward for soldiering on.

After this, the hike turns through some fumaroles, and this is the point the guides whip out some marshmallows and sticks (we actually brought our own from Antigua, unsure whether the independent nature of our trip would yield them and wanted to be absolutely sure that one of the highlights of our 2 month adventure would pay out for the kids!). A huge amount of fun was had by all. I must say that lava-roasted marshmallows are even better than traditional fire-roasted treats – the dry heat melts them from the inside rather than scorching and burning from the outside like on a campfire. Obviously, the spell-binding views had a lot to do with this too! We were so lucky with the weather, it was clear, no cloud cover, dry and not too hot (by Central American standards – only 30 degrees and 100% humidity!!) and we managed to see puffs of steam and smoke fuming out of the sides and peak of the beast, incredible, simply spectacular.

The lava field portion took around 45 minutes. It was now about 2 hours since we left the starting point, but only an hour was solid trekking, after the lava started, we were moving very slowly, taking it all in, posing for pictures and getting our mallows roasted! It was now time to get back down.

Word of warning: at this point there are areas where your shoes can melt if you aren’t careful, and you can get seriously hurt if you wander off in the wrong direction. These volcanoes are active, which means that they are spitting out lava and red-hot rocks on a regular basis. We climbed perhaps a little too high for some good photos and on the way back down it was evident I had to slide and surf in places, it’s not possible to walk. This suddenly made this trek one of the most risky things I’ve ever attempted. I was suddenly very aware I had a baby on my back and I just couldn’t safely put my feet on any solid ground. I’m so lucky I didn’t completely stack it over, I dread to think how badly that could have been! I’m also so glad we did not do the sunset tour – I can’t imagine how much worse this part would have been if it were darker and harder to see with the kids!

The way back down took less than an hour. We were back at the car again 3.5 hours after we left, without rushing, but we did have the horses for part of the journey, best $15 I ever spent!

Pacaya Volcano with Kids Summary

What can I say? It was a challenge, but one we thankfully achieved. With swearing. And marshmallows.

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