When we were planning our 2019 adventure to Mexico and Central America, we had no idea there we would see so many volcanoes, and that they would be so accessible.
We’d been looking forward to beaches. And Mayan ruins. And the food. And the museums. And the culture. But volcanoes? They hardly registered in our thoughts. Well guess what? Our volcano experiences throughout the year turned out to be the absolute highlight of our trip.
We were up-close-and-personal when a volcano erupted not 2km from where we were standing. A few weeks later we got up at 1am, donned head torches and scaled a volcano in the dark so we could see the bright red glowing lava. Later still we climbed another volcano in the day time and were rewarded with spectacular views of the crater lake at its peak.
So I think it’s fair to say we had our share of spectacular volcano adventures in Central America.
Here are our favourite volcano encounters from our 2019 adventure:
Santiaguito Volcano – Quetzaltenango, Guatemala
Santiaguito is located on the western flank of the much larger Santa María volcano. It has been growing and actively erupting since 1922. The walk to the mirador (lookout) to Santiaguito takes about two hours, and it’s a further 90 minutes back down. Quetzaltrekkers also offer longer (>6 hour) hikes to the top of Santa Maria.
Not long after reaching the mirador we were treated to a spectacular eruption, with an ash cloud billowing over 500 metres above the crater. The eruption was accompanied by a loud rumbling noise, similar to a jet engine taking off. It was thrilling to be standing around 2 km from the site of the explosion, in awe at the power of nature.
The volcano was erupting around 15 times a day when we visited, we were so happy we got to witness an eruption. We were still talking about it weeks afterwards.
Pacaya Volcano – Antigua, Guatemala
There are at least 37 volcanoes in Guatemala, and believe it or not you can see three of them (Acatenango, Fuego and Agau) from the beautiful colonial town of Antigua.
In the hope of seeing some molten lava action, we set our sights a little further from town, to the active volcano known as Pacaya. Our tour bus picked us up at 1am for the 90 minute drive to Pacaya. On arrival we donned head torches and started the two hour walk up the slope of the volcano, aiming to reach the summit just before dawn.
Not far from the top we stopped at a vantage point to watch in awe as jets of hot red lava spewed out of the volcano and into the night time sky. On reaching the top (a safe distance from the eruption zone), we were amazed to see pockets of molten lava glowing in the darkness on the slopes around us. We were able to get to within a couple of metres of some of these hot spots.
Shortly afterwards, dawn broke and we were treated to a stunning panaroma of the surrounding valleys, ringed by a couple of other volcanoes. While we were snacking on breakfast, we heard a distant ‘boom’ and shortly afterwards saw plumes of smoke erupting from the Fuego volcano on the horizon. The moment couldn’t have been any more special.
Volcano San Pedro – Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
Volcano San Pedro is one of three volcanoes which ring the caldera of Lake Atitlan, the other two being Volcano Atitlan and Volcano Toliman.
The setting of the lake is absolutely spectacular. We stayed at Atitlan Sunset Lodge, right on the lake near the town of Santa Cruz la Laguna. We had amazing views of San Pedro and Atitlan volcanoes from our entire apartment, even the bed. The colours seemed to change from minute to minute, with stunning sunsets, sunrises, moonlit views and everything in between.
We were too busy enjoying the lake swimming, kayaking and SUP boarding to contemplate the hike to the top of San Pedro, which is offered by several local operators. Maybe next time?
Santa Ana Volcano – Santa Ana, El Salvador
While El Salvador boasts 23 active volcanoes, one of the most popular and accessible for hikers is Santa Ana, a short drive from the city of the same name.
We arranged a driver from our hostel at Santa Ana and joined the official group hike which left from the ranger station at the car park at 11am. The hike starts at around 1,800 metres and it takes around 90 minutes of moderate hiking to reach the peak at 2,381 metres.
Once you reach the top there is a stunning turquoise crater lake to take in off to one side, a magnificent panorama of the surrounding valley on another, and nearby Volcano San Marcelino on another. There is also a guy at the top selling ice creams which he carts all the way up the mountain every day. It would be rude not to partake.
Our Central American Volcano wish list
Our exploration of Central American volcanoes is still not complete. We are hoping to visit these ones soon:
Cerro Negro, Nicaragua – This Volcano Boarding expedition looks like a lot of fun. What could go wrong?
Masaya Volcano, Nicaragua – Active lava flows
Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica – Soak in hot springs fed by the volcano
Baru Volcano, Panama – Views of two oceans from the peak (on a clear day, anyway).
Have we missed any great Central America volcano experiences? Let us know in the comments below.