If there was an active volcano in the UK, you wouldn’t be allowed within a mile of it, let alone be able to climb it.
So when I found out that Antigua had one on its doorstep, that you could not only climb but also get really close to the lava, I didn’t have to think twice. I wasn’t going to let anything put me off, even the fact that so far I’d met two people who’d climbed it, and both had manage to injure themselves – both by slipping on the loose rock and cutting their legs on the very jagged rocks, one of whom so badly that he needed stitches. I’m very glad I met them though, as they both advised me not to ignore the little kids who hang around at the bottom waiting to meet climbers so they can hire them sticks for a very reasonable price, which are very handy for providing an extra means of support.
I’m becoming increasingly accustomed to early starts (I think I’ve been up at 6am or earlier more times the last few months than I have done in years), so it was no surprise that we had to be picked up at 6am, to make it up the mountain before the rains came, and after a couple of hours’ driving we found ourselves at the foot of the trail.
After the extreme exertion of climbing Volcan Santa Maria in Xela, I was hoping for an easier ride this time round, and I was not disappointed. The trail wasn’t too steep at all compared to my previous experience, and it took far less time, as the volcano itself is much smaller (being relatively young). We were lucky enough to be in quite a small group, and all of relatively similar fitness, so we made it up through the treelined lower slopes of the volcano pretty quickly and soon emerged at the dried lava fields that surround the active vent.
That’s where the tricky bit begins – the dried-out lava is extremely sharp, and very very uneven. Much of it is in the form of loose rocks, meaning your footing is likely to give way at any moment, and I could quite see how my friends had managed to injure themselves. So we very carefully made our way across the path towards the vent, being very glad of the sticks we’ds hired at the bottom (especially when we saw a German woman fall, cutting her leg so badly she couldn’t walk any more and had to wait for a horse to make its way up the mountain to carry her back down. Others had less trouble, most notably being the local dog that appeared to live on the mountain (and whose fur had taken on a really golden-orange colour, presumably from all the sulphur in the air).
The lava runs in various pipes close to the surface, and has several vents, so having a guide to make sure you don’t end up walking in the wrong place was crucial – as it is, in several places you could feel the heat on the rocks as you leant on them, knowing fresh lava was running just beneath. Finally we made it to the main lava flow – and it certainly wasn’t a disappointment. Watching red hot molten lave running down the hillside just a couple of feet away from me was truly one of the most spectacular things I’ve ever felt. It was also one of the hottes, unsurprisingly enough. We were lucky enough most of the time to have the wind behind us; on a couple of occasions it turned to blow towards us and it was like standing in a furnace.
The final ascent (which took a bit of queueing) took us up to see the vents themselves – right next to each other, two openings in the ground where the lava pour out of the ground. The lava is so hot that there were people toasting marshmallows over it – and it took just a couple of seconds for them to blacken, and that’s with the stick a few feet away.
Experiences like these are really one of the reason I love travelling – I could never do anything like that back home, and it’s given me a memory I’ll never forget. You can see all of my photos of Volcan Pacaya and the beautiful colonial city of Antigua here.