Antigua and Pacaya Volcano, Guatemala

December 2008

We arrived in Antigua via tourist van from Lago Atitlán. Tourist transport in Guatemala was definitely more expensive than the chicken buses but provided significantly more leg room, at least for our first two trips. Antigua is one of the best preserved colonial towns in Guatemala and the center of old town is quaint albeit stuffed with tourists. We wandered around town until we found accommodation at a hostel, things were busy as it was near Christmas but a double room only cost us $25 per night.

The dome on Iglesia de la Merced
Santa Catalina Arch
Iglesia de la Merced
Catedral de Antigua
Iglesia de la Merced
Ruins of the Temple Santa Teresa de Jesus

There were some awesome festivities in Antigua celebrating Christmas Eve, we had no idea what was going to happen so stumbling upon the progressions was a happy accident.IMG_1220IMG_1212_2806IMG_1208

All the heads and animals appeared to be made out of paper-mâché and the progression wound its way through the city for a couple hours with a large crowd of locals and tourists. That even there was a collection of marimbas (Guatemalan xylophones) set up on the stepson the Catedral de Antigua near the city’s central park. IMG_1186

There were a couple hours of traditional marimba music followed by fireworks with a crowd packing the park and cathedral area. We were pretty close to where the fireworks were being launched when the crowd parting in a rush of yelling, we followed clueless and realized one the the fireworks had launched but was plummeting back towards the crowd. Luckily the firework exploded about 50 feet above the heads of the crowd so nobody was hurt. A few minutes later another firework was barely out the tube when it exploded next to a women passing by, she was unharmed. We moved a little further from the display. There are a lot of ruins in Antigua from earthquakes trigged by volcanoes over the centuries and volcanoes were definitely on my made as we had already seen one eruption. At midnight on Christmas Eve we were woken by a cacophony and smoke in the streets and my first thought was that a volcano was erupting! It was only fireworks being set off by all residents to mark Christmas but they were in every corner of the city I could see from the third floor balcony at our hostel. Sulphur laden smoke filled the narrow streets pretty quickly and the noise continued for a good hour, it was awesome but we didn’t wander into the street as we’d had enough close encounters with fireworks for the day. Jamie and I grew up in areas which didn’t have large Hispanic populations so I didn’t know Christmas Eve fireworks were a tradition, now in Montana we get to blow things up without worrying about forest fires for Christmas.

We spent Christmas day hiking up to a volcano near Antigua called Pacaya. We loaded in the tourist bus with a bunch of other hikers and were divided up into small groups of 15 and assigned a local guide. You can either hike at sunrise or sunset so we chose the evening option.

Volcán Pacaya
Mountains outside Guatemala City at sunset from Volcano Pacaya
View from the volcano
Lava flowing from Volcán Pacaya

Our guide was a little on the tipsy side and didn’t look to be feeling too well so once we got out of the trees on the lower flank of the mountain he just pointed at the lava and line of people and sent us on our way. It was still light as we made our way to the erupting vent so we didn’t give much thought to what we were walking on. As we approached the vent the heat was tremendous, imagine sticking your head in front of an open oven on the highest heat possible. We had been to Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii about a month before this walk and watched the eruption of Kilauea from over a mile away. People were poking sticks into the lava and watching them catch on fire before they could even touch the lava.IMG_1285

That time we were 2 feet from lava

It was incredible to witness and we hung out at the vent until the heat was too much. By the time we started back down it had grown fully dark and we realized the cracked rocks we walked up were barely cooled lava. Red light glowed bencher our feet as we made our way back down the mountain and the lava vent started erupting some large chunks that sprayed sparks through the air as the rolled down the mountain. It was definitely our most unique Christmas experience to date, dangerous and thrilling.

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