Antigua's Volcanoes

Four volcanoes make up this region's sector of a seismic spine that runs the width of Guatemala from the Mexican to Salvadoran borders, forming a ridge between the highlands and the Pacific lowlands. Three of these masses are directly visible from Antigua. One of the volcanoes makes for a popular ascent if you are in reasonable shape; two others require considerable climbing experience; the fourth should not be attempted at all. Don't wear sandals to climb any of these monoliths; the volcanic rock can be razor sharp.

The volcanoes' popularity and proximity to the metropolitan area have translated into safety issues, criminal in addition to volcanic. The risk has greatly lessened for three of the mountains, but we recommend you make your ascent only as part of an organized excursion.

Volcán Agua: You can't miss the nearly perfectly conical mass that looms 10 km (6 miles) directly south of Antigua and forms its postcard backdrop. The 3,760-meter (12,335-foot) mountain was named Agua ("water") by Spanish colonists who saw the volcano spew rivers of water and rock over their original capital at nearby Ciudad Vieja in 1541. That is the last time Agua erupted, although vulcanologists say that the volcano will always pose some risk to Antigua. Robberies on the slopes in recent years—a few have been violent—have caused tour operators to suspend excursions to Agua. Do not go on your own.

Volcán Acatenango and Volcán Fuego: It's impossible not to discuss these two volcanoes together, joined at the hip as they are by a high ridge. Area residents refer to the massif, 19 km (11½ miles) southwest of Antigua, as the camellón ("the big camel"). Acatenango itself is two summits, the 3,976-meter (13,044-foot) Pico Mayor and the 3,880-meter (12,729-foot) Yepocapa. Acatenango blew its top several times in the 1920s, and again in 1972, but has been dormant for more than four decades. However, sulfur gases fizz up through its fumaroles. The same is not true for the continuously active 3,763-meter (12,345-foot) Fuego, whose name means "fire" in Spanish. The name is apt, low-level though its activity may normally be, although the volcano did erupt most recently in 2016. Climbing Fuego and Acatenango is for experts only.

Volcán Pacaya: The area's most popular volcano ascent is to Pacaya, not visible from Antigua itself and most associated with Guatemala City. The 2,252-meter (7,388-foot) peak sits 25 km (15½ miles) southeast of Antigua, and the same distance south of the capital's La Aurora International Airport. Pacaya's popularity stems from its activity. It has logged 23 major eruptions since the 16th century—the last in 2015—and near constant displays of smoke and lava since 1965. Eruptions in 1998 and 2000 blanketed much of the region with ash and closed the airport for several days each. Excursions to Pacaya leave from either Antigua or Guatemala City. Most depart in the early afternoon to get you to the summit in time for the early-evening spectacle. The vapors smell terrible, so bring a handkerchief to cover your nose. You'll also want a sweater as the sun begins to set.

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