Lava-Roasted Marshmellows on Pacaya

To climb or not to climb, that was the question. The mountain in question was the Pacaya – an active volcano near Antigua. For almost two days, I pondered the thought of laying my eyes on this beauty. Should I? Shouldn’t I? Many horror stories were heard about how grueling the climb is and how unsafe the mountain is since it is an “active” volcano. And the fact that there are no safety measures didn’t help what so ever. 

View of the volcano on the climb up
“This is something that would never be allowed in the US,” one traveler advised. I had a flash back to riding on top of buses in Nepal driving through the narrow and curvy Himalayan mountain roads, wondering where I would fall if the bus tilted over couple more inches. It was the most memorable bus ride of my life. I never regretted doing it. I wouldn’t do it again -- but I never regretted doing it. That would never be allowed in the sue-happy US, and neither would crossing the street in India where everyone (cows included) seem to be attempting to run you over. :)

I remembered my life-long dream (okay maybe not life-long) of one day returning to Nepal to climb up to the Mount Everest base camp. If I was ever going to do that, I needed to make sure I stay in shape. This might just be the type of challenge that my body needs right now. And being a self-proclaimed “very practical person”, if at some point I felt things were heading in a hazardous direction, I could just stop and not go further. The reasons were quickly stacking up in favor of climbing. And there was one over-arching reason above all that just could not be argued against: I wanted to see lava!

With the decision made, all I needed was a good pair of shoes (rubber soled shoes would melt I’d heard). A generous friend lent me her running shoes. They were two sizes bigger nonetheless they were a lot better than my sports sandals -- which would quickly get filled with ash. With little trepidation, I packed some snacks and water. After an hour and a half of driving to get to the starting point, we had barely gotten out of the van, when little kids selling wooden sticks came barging in through the windows. I bought one for 5 quetzales (about 60 cents) and marched on with my size nine shoes. The ascent was steeper than I expected, and oxygen was in short supply. Within the first five minutes I was completely breathless and wondering if I had made a good decision. I tried to take three breaths in for every two breaths out and avoided all conversation with anyone around me, since I couldn’t spare a single breath. The English guy, who was bent up on knowing where everyone was from, would just have to wait. :) I avoided all eye contact with him and strutted forward like a woman on a mission.

A huge ball of clouds followed overhead threatening to rain any second. And true to their word, ten minutes later they thunderously delivered on their promise. Everyone mumbled their surprise but kept moving along like troopers. I actually didn’t mind the coolness of the rain, being drenched was better than being hot and breathless. However, I did wonder about the effects lightning and thunder might have on an active volcano. Might not be a good combination to reckon with. Trying to be optimistic, I kept my thoughts to myself and focused on putting one size-nine foot in front of the other. If I could just get through the first half an hour, I would be fine. That’s about how long it takes for my heart to acclimatize to the steepness and the higher altitude. And then my trusted legs would carry me forward. At every twenty minute interval, men ready to rent out their horses waited preying on the hikers that had given up. With my sulfur-filled lungs, I tried not to huff and puff while passing them and put on my most courageous smile to let them know I would not be defeated. :) 

Step after step I finally made it to the last half an hour -- to the ash part of the mountain, where formerly lava flowed, in some places as recently as ten days ago.

I’d never seen anything even remotely like this.

Roasting marshmellows at the top of the volcano
The black waves of river seemed frozen in time, hard as a rock in some places and yet brittle and sharp in other places. Everyone had to tread very carefully to avoid stepping on any cracks, especially in the hot parts. It was quite astonishing to believe that actual lava was flowing right underneath us. Some spots felt like an oven. Climbing the last bit and seeing a huge river of lava flow on one side of the volcano was incredible. It was something I’ve only seen on National Geographic before. But the biggest highlight of all was roasting marshmellows through a crack of lava on top, overlooking the volcano. Strangers congratulated each other on making it to the top and forgot all about the pain they’d gone through only moments ago. It was a priceless moment. The best darn roasted marshmellows I’ve ever had in my life. That alone would’ve made the trip worth it.

On the way back there were a few scraped elbows and bloody knees around but most people survived. The ash part is pretty sharp, so any little tumble led to cuts and scrapes. Mountains, I’ve always felt were not something to be “conquered” -- that’s the delusional Western ego talking, since it would only take a second for the mountain to toss you over to your descent. They are aged-old-masters who’ve lived long enough to teach you the lessons that you need to learn. You offer them your toil, your own sweat and they reveal to you the secrets of the universe. There are reasons why many sacred temples in the world are on top of mountains. I couldn’t help but feel reverential to the great volcano for letting me climb it and to push myself beyond the personal boundaries of my own mind (and body).

Lava streaming down on the side of the mountain

Life - still finds a way to grow between the crevice


  1. :-)

    "dormant" volcanoes...
    the fire of the human spirit...
    the impermanent refreshment of clouds with still minds...
    brave hearts...
    climbing moment by moment the mountain of awareness...
    the divine secrets of gratitude...
    the beauty of life!

    May you notice how the whole Universe is rejoicing in celebration of your existence hermana Gurita!!! :-)

    Muchos blessos,

  2. Hermano Panchito,

    Just yesterday I saw two kids playing by the lake and one of them was yelling, "Pepe" to other one and I couldn't help but smile. Being here I'm reminded of you almost everyday.

    Hope you're doing well. It's the last day of Semana Santa so lots of processions and celebrations. :-)

    Take Care,

  3. Hola herman Gurita! :-)

    "¡Pepe!" ;-)

    Did you find some "huevos de chocolate" del conejo de Pascua?

    When we were kids, that was one of my favorite moments on Sundays like yesterday, when adults hide chocolate eggs and pretend they were delivered by the Easter bunny. Seen in retrospective, I was a spoiled child!

    Here, on this part of the Planet, you have left your essence, specially on Wednesdays. I believe we leave spiritual energy in the places we visit, let along the places where we live. Last week, your beloved partner, Pepe ;-), mentioned your name and how much he loves you and we all (six of us) felt very touched after a round of sharing of beautiful spiritual songs.

    ¿Y por qué estamos escribiendo en inglés? ;-)

    I'd like to see one of your last posts (perhaps desde España) where you address us en español!

    Muchos blessos y más sonrisas,

  4. Hermano Panchito,

    I didn´t find any huevos de chocolate (unfortunately) but I did get a chance to see some beautiful coloring on the streets. :-)

    Thanks for sharing about Wednesday...several times, I´ve unknowingly meditated at the same time as you guys. Maybe some habits are deeper than they seem. :-)


  5. Guri!
    from India- catching up on your posts. I climbed that volcanoe about 8 years ago now and definitely struggled. The ash was so challenging, with each step, a slide backwards. The red glow I can still see it in my minds eye and the awe of so much dormant power bubbling below. it is hard not to fall in love with the people of guatemala-thank you for bringing us along!