Volcano hike leaves rocks in your shoes and marshmallow on your face

Toronto Star October 24, 2014, Pacaya, Guatemala–It wasn’t an ordinary hike. For one, we cheated and rode up most of the way in the back of a small pick-up truck. But the drive was more thrilling than anything on foot; we were ducking branches and hanging on for dear life as the truck navigated around steep switchbacks. That, and, well, this hike, involved a little more active geology than most.

We were on Pacaya, a 2,552-metre volcano about an hour southeast of Antigua, Guatemala. Volcanos are everywhere here; there are 33 across the Central American country. And it’s not at all unusual for one to erupt.

Before you decide to hike one, arrange a guide to check activity alerts and know what to do in case of volcanic activity. Your guide will supply walking sticks, tell you cool stuff about volcanos in Spanish and know how to get you down if the volcano decides to blow. If the activity alert is too high, the volcano is closed.

Pacaya last blew its lid in March 2014. The hot lava is now a huge swath of black rock atop the wider swath of grey rock from the huge eruption in May 2010. Lava shot four kilometres in the sky that day and when it stopped, it had filled in a huge crater.Our guides point out the different shades of rock from different eruptions and explain side chimneys—hot little caves with steam pouring out.

Near the top we came upon a tiny shack called the Lava Store, selling inexpensive necklaces and bracelets. Local artisans make the jewellery, lava shapes inlaid in rectangles of coconut shells. They also make the tiny fabric gift bags. And the proceeds support educational programs, Habitat for Humanity and other local not-for-profits. Even the most souvenir-averse will be tempted to pick up a few bracelets, if only to say: “I got this for you . . . on a volcano.”

When we were finished shopping, the guides broke out the marshmallows. While having a snack on a hike is nothing new, roasting marshmallows at the top, and without a fire, was a first.

So was the view. Lush green interrupted by vast swaths of black and grey. Rivers of steam rising from the rock to meet grey hovering clouds. I half expected Frodo to pass the bag of marshmallows.

We headed down the volcano. You have to find a certain rhythm walking and sliding down the black rock; it feels like a combination of scree and snow underfoot. You sink up into your ankles and you get a lot of little black rocks in your shoes.

But, after the hike, you can clean up nicely at Santa Teresita Spa’s outdoor thermal waters nearby. Hot, cold, warm, cool, repeat! An attendant tells you when to move on and stops you from skipping out of the cold pool. The hot is like a bath, the cold is like a Canadian lake and the others are somewhere in between. The whole time you detox, you can gaze at the volcano you just climbed.

After getting clean, you can get dirty all over again with an organic coffee exfoliating body rub and a dark Maya chocolate facial mask. As you lie there, your coffee-clad body wrapped in plastic to percolate for a while, lick your lips and savour the delicious chocolate on your face and reflect on your delightful day on the volcano.


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