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Climbing Volcan Pacaya in Guatemala

Even from two miles away, Guatemala's Volcan Pacaya was awe inspiring. The volcano’s dark pyramid shape, like the world's biggest sugar cone, offered a heavy silhouette that blotted out the stars.

Then it erupted, eliciting the sort of noises from our group that one hears on the Fourth of July. From the tip of the cone burst a bright red fountain of lava, lighting up the sky around the volcano. The lava shot high into the dark sky, then plummeted in slowly curving arcs back to earth while a huge cloud of evil-looking black smoke blew off to the west. The erupting lava was surprisingly red, like neon.

Located only 18 miles from Guatemala City, Pacaya can be climbed even as it erupts. Standing atop the volcano, one can even see inside. From the maw of Pacaya—a hole about 20 yards across—drifted smoke and the sound of boiling soup. Then a slight rumbling began. Red hot rocks (called bombs) popped up and fell back through the hole. Then the rumbling grew into the sound of an avalanche. The ground shook, smoke rushed and boiled into the air, and bombs plunged through the smoke. In an end-of-the-world blast, fire and ash and rocks and sparks burst 100 feet overhead.

Pacaya can be reached by local bus and a 3-hour walk or by joining a tour. Tours run about $10 a person or $20 for an overnight, and leave from Guatemala City and nearby Antigua. Independent travelers can catch a bus to the village of San Vincente de Pacaya from the Zone 4 bus station in Guatemala City at 7 a.m. daily. From there, follow the road past San Francisco to the TV tower on the ridge.

Pacaya is 8,000 feet up and quite cold and windy, so climbers should wear warm, windproof clothing and sturdy hiking boots. Nighttime visitors might consider bringing camping gear for an overnight.

The problem with Pacaya is banditos . In previous years tourists have been raped and even killed. However, during the past two years Pacaya has been turned into a national park and is slowly being developed. Some trails are now signed and some are guarded. Latest reports indicate many fewer robberies and no violent crimes; however, it is still recommended that visitors travel with a tour group that is accompanied by armed guards.

Guided Tours: Maya Expeditions, 15a Calle 1-91, Zone 10, Guatemala City; 011-502-2-374-666, fax 011-502-2-947-748, Antigua Tours, Hotel Casa Santo Domingo, 3a Calle Oriente no. 28, Antigua, Guatemala; 011-502-8-320-140;;

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