Roasting marshmallows in a volcanic wasteland

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There’s nothing like a freshly roasted campfire marshmallow.

But does it taste any better if it has been cooked in the heat radiating from the depths of the liquid interior of the earth itself?

This seems like a question that needs to be investigated further.

With that aim in mind we aimed to return to Antigua and climb Volcán Pacaya.

We had hoped to climb this volcano during one of our many previous visits to Antigua. However the weather had been nothing but consistently inconsistent. We hadn’t been too keen to commit to climbing the volcano if we weren’t actually going to see anything while we were there.

Clear skies had been few and far between during our time in Antigua.

Especially since it was rumoured to be a tough climb. Really tough. What’s more we had been told it was not possible to enter the park without a guide, so it was going to be expensive too.

The compulsory guide rumours, it transpired were true—or so the man at the park’s ticket booth told us. But the expense of hiring a guide is greatly reduced when you just show up on the spot on a quiet afternoon and don’t have to pay a tour company to make the arrangements for you.

Within minutes of arrival we had found a safe spot to park a car, negotiated the accompaniment of an awesome guide and began our uphill trundle.

We had chosen to visit Volcán Pacaya on the day the weather in Antigua had looked most like it was clearing.

As we began the climb we realised that we had misjudged the weather. We probably weren’t going to catch even a tiny glimpse of the active volcano we were strolling about on.

This could be any misty mountain side. You really can’t tell it is an active volcano from the scenery.

On the path up the side of the volcano, our guide stopped to point knowledgeably off into the distant clouds. He cheerfully informed us that if the cloud wasn’t there, we’d have a spectacular view of the currently erupting Volcán Fuego a few kilometres in the direction of that particular swirling cloud bank. The cloud of course was impenetrably thick, so we’d just have to believe him.

Guatemala has three active volcanos: Fuego, Santiaguito and Pacaya.

Pacaya has erupted recently, in both 2014 and 2010. Covering nearby towns and villages with ash—as well as sending an airport disrupting layer of ash towards Guatemala City, 30km away. Our guide, who lived nearby, had a grainy video of the most recent eruption he had taken on his phone. You might not want a volcano erupting in your back yard—but it has to be admitted that it provides a spectacular view. More interesting than most people’s cellphone videos anyway.

See also  Not quite Guatemala—Part 3

It used to be popular to visit Pacaya to see lava flows close up. But they appear to have all hardened into rocks now.

We kept expecting the walk to get difficult, based on the reports we had read online.

But it didn’t.

It was just a casual uphill stroll to a lunar-landscape like lava field.

Fun. Spooky. But definitely not tiring.

As we picked our way through the barren, rocky landscape, the icy mist swirled and the wind whistled eerily around the jagged rock formations. It was a surreal, other-worldly experience.

Suddenly a patch of blue sky was visible. The mist began to clear. The smouldering summit of Pacaya appeared above us.

Perhaps this is why everyone says it is a challenging walk.

We asked our guide. “Do we walk all the way up there?” He laughed and said, “No we’re not allowed to walk that close.”

Then why did everyone describe this as a challenging hike?

To this day we haven’t been able to figure out whether the guide was just trying to avoid a walk and visitors usually get a closer peek at the summit. Or whether if you take a tour you start walking lower down the volcano. But either way, the walk we did was not the painful challenging slog we had read about online. So we’d definitely recommend the option we went for… whatever that was?

I would describe it as a super-fun light-hearted jaunt up the side of a volcano through some stunning landscapes.

And then wait… what’s that little building nestled in the edge of the lava field?

The little ramshackle building flying the Guatemalan flag?

You would be forgiven for thinking it was some sort of temporary volcanic research station.

Nope.

Gift shop.

Head out on a trip expecting a challenging volcanic hike. End up shopping for knick-knacks in a gift shop. A hard day in the office indeed.

Of course, we weren’t there to go on a shopping spree. It was all about the marshmallows.

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Our guide located a volcanic steam vent and we were soon cooking delicious campfire marshmallows without the campfire.

Roasting marshmallows in (hopefully) non-toxic volcanic fumes.
Mmmm delicious, freshly cooked volcano mallows.

At this point our options were go have a look at a boring ridge in one direction, or explore volcanic caves hidden in the lava field in the other direction.

We opted for the boring ridge mad awesome underground lava lair. (Obviously)

I’d vote this as a more convincing-looking entrance into the underworld than the Candelaria caves.

We were not disappointed by our choice.

This cave was very different to any others we had visited. Rather than being formed out of limestone by years of flowing water, this cave showed signs of molten rock suddenly being frozen in place. Straight from the bowels of the earth. Some sections appeared to be large rocky projectiles launched by and angry volcano. The surface was scratchy, jagged volcanic rock, formerly molten that appeared to have abruptly cooled, like magic shell sauce on ice-cream. This left behind an abrasive surface that could wear a hole in your hands just by thinking about it too much.

Ouch.

It might look like it is still wet. But it is in fact very jagged, pointy, rocky and solid. Ow.

As we headed down the mountain, we hoped to catch a glimpse of Fuego erupting. We were heading to get a closer look at that volcano next, but it would have been nice to see what we were looking at. The swirling cloud had other plans.

Volcán Fuego was to remain a mystery.

It sounds like if you were lucky enough to visit this volcano shortly after one of its volcanic tantrums you would have a more exciting adventure. All the older accounts of the climb talk about getting up close and personal with glowing lava flows.

At the time we visited, glowing lava flows weren’t part of the deal. However, the landscapes were surreal. The gift shop hilarious. The caves fascinating. The smoking crater impressive and the marshmallows delicious.

Also, whatever it was that we did to avoid the difficult hike, we can recommend doing that. It was a short stroll up from the car park through green landscapes (which, had the weather been better would have provided views of the erupting Volcán Fuego). Followed by plenty of fun adventures poking around a spooky, barren lava field. With marshmallows to celebrate.

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