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Touring the Volcanoes of Guatemala: A Guest Post from Jeff Sullivan

Rocky Planet iconRocky Planet
By Erik Klemetti
Dec 10, 2013 10:02 PMNov 20, 2019 1:16 AM


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Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. Image: Britt Q. Hoover  This guest post is written by Jeff Sullivan. "Who is Jeff Sullivan?" you ask. Well, Jeff is a baseball writer and volcano enthusiast (as his introduction mentions below). He writes -- and writes fabulously -- for


on some of the most interesting aspects of watching baseball closely. So, why is he here, writing about volcanoes? Well, as he mentions, I wrote a post for Lookout Landing on the potential ramifications of an eruption of Rainier on Seattle and Tacoma. You know, for a baseball blog (makes perfect sense). Jeff recently told me he was headed to Guatemala to check out volcanoes (and other such fun things), so I thought it would be great to get a perspective on volcanoes from somebody who really knows how to observe ... so here we are! I think you'll enjoy this post and especially some of the shots of volcanism in the Central American nation. Thanks to Jeff for writing the post! If you like baseball, be sure to follow Jeff on Twitter (@based_ball). ------------------------------------------- Volcano Tourism in Guatemala Hey there, new and intimidating audience. I don’t personally know Erik, but I have an interest in volcanoes, so I read his material pretty often. Erik, in turn, doesn’t personally know me, but he has an interest in baseball, so I’ve been led to believe he must read my material pretty often. We’ve had some correspondence, and in 2012 I asked if he’d be willing to write a guest post for me, about the potential implications for Seattle-area baseball in the event of a Mount Rainier eruption. You can read that post right here, and it’s fantastic. Not long ago, I asked Erik for some information regarding an upcoming trip of mine. I was looking to visit an active volcano and I didn’t want to be an idiot tourist, and I’ll skip over those details and get to the point: Erik asked if I’d like to write a guest post for him, about personally visiting such a place. The trip is complete, and this is that guest post. First, a word, in addition to all of these preceding words. See, in Erik’s guest post, he got to write about his expertise. This isn’t a post about the potential implications for world volcanoes in the event of certain baseball happenings. This is a post about Erik’s expertise, and most decidedly not my expertise, so please forgive any subsequent mistakes or over-simplifications [Note from Erik: Jeff undersells himself in terms of volcanic knowledge]. But I am very pleased to be contributing this post, encouraging you to take a volcano trip to Guatemala. If volcanoes are a thing that you like, and if you enjoy seeing them and experiencing them, Guatemala has a hell of a lot to offer. Not that it’s the only place you can go. Obviously, there’s Hawaii, and Mount Etna has been making itself particularly photogenic. I’m writing to you from the beautiful Pacific Northwest, where everything around me is volcanic in some way, and it’s my intention to one day visit the sites in Iceland and New Zealand. But Guatemala is a hotbed of its own, one that often escapes attention, and it’s both affordable and in possession of a kind of crown jewel. A few of them, really. This isn’t just going to serve as my own personal travel log, because that wouldn’t be interesting to anybody, but while initially I was planning to write about one place, that wouldn’t do justice to other places. So I want to touch on a few different sites, and I didn’t even make my way over to Santa María. The first is Lago de Atitlán (see above). Live in the States and you hear about Crater Lake. You hear about its formation, and you hear about how it’s one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. You hear about how it’s unique, and while it is unique, the average person probably isn’t aware that there are other crater lakes, or caldera lakes, scattered around the globe. Lago de Atitlán is one of them, and it’s also considered to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. I haven’t seen every lake, or even most lakes, but I can attest to its beauty relative to most others, and the history of area volcanism slaps you in the face. Three separate massive volcanic peaks loom around the water itself. They’re the kinds of intact, classically-formed volcanoes even a child could identify, and they’re named San Pedro, Tolimán, and Atitlán. To my knowledge, each can be ascended in a matter of hours, yielding equivalently unbeatable views of the lake and surrounding area. What more people miss is that the lake itself is of volcanic origin, the peaks being prominent signs of later activity. Some of the sheer walls give away what happened, if you look for them. There have been a few episodes of growth and collapse, and from what I could tell from a shore town museum, more than 80,000 years ago the present caldera was formed by a massive eruption, or series of eruptions, draining big bits of the magma chamber like usual. Some “live” magma remains, beneath the towering peaks, but the lake itself has remained a lake. A stunning, picturesque, dramatic caldera lake, which you can stay nearby with ease. And if you’re a diver, you can go below the surface to explore various volcanic formations and hot spots. It is still living and breathing if you know where to look. Plenty of people visit the lake already, just because of where and how it’s situated. It enhances the experience to think about what happened there, and what could happen in the future. There are caldera lakes, and there are caldera lakes both comfortable and accommodating. Not too far away is the town of Antigua, which, again, is already a tourist destination. It’s a haven for students and expats, and people flock there for the food and the architecture and the general culture. It possesses a distinctly European feel, and as with the lake, people don’t visit because of the history of volcanism. But as with the lake, Antigua is bordered on two sides by three towering peaks, and one of them is liable to give you a show. Due south, Volcán de Agua commands the skyline, although it prefers to shroud its summit with a thick layer of clouds. To the southwest, there’s Volcán Acatenango, with two peaks and a bit of 20^th Century activity. Most interestingly, though, Acatenango is joined with the suitably-named Volcán de Fuego, and Fuego is very much alive, and not in the way that gases seep from rocks on the slopes. Fuego is just now wrapping up its latest Strombolian phase, complete with ash plumes and active lava flows. And it’s very much visible from the city, provided there aren’t too many clouds in the way. While finishing lunch on a rooftop café my first day in Antigua, I looked in the direction and spotted what did indeed turn out to be a small but developing plume, separate from the white clouds nearby. It was the first spotted plume of my own life, and while I and my company for whatever reason neglected to take a picture, here’s a representative idea. So, the lake’s awesomely volcanic. Antigua is shadowed by volcanoes, and one of them is incredibly active. But there’s another highly active volcano with which you can easily get up close and personal, and it’s simple to get there from Antigua’s city center. For a handful of dollars, you can get in a van and eventually hike up the black, scarred slopes of Pacaya.

Pacaya Summit. Image: Britt Q. Hoover  Pacaya is an active vent on the edge of another big caldera, containing another, dirtier lake. It first got going around 23,000 years ago, and most recently it basically hasn’t stopped erupting since 1965. It’s mostly modest, Strombolian activity, as you’d expect, but the only volcanoes I’d ever climbed myself were quiet ones. Previously, I’ve been awed by the sight of summit ice. This was to be a chance to view summit fire, and while the trip we took was a lot more than one excursion, this was the afternoon that I most looked forward to. To scale Pacaya is an unusual experience in a variety of ways. It’s not a particularly difficult hike, and the trail is well established, but after you’re dropped off toward the end of a road, you get pestered to rent sticks or horses, and the pestering only continues.

Renting sticks and horses in Guatemala. Image: Jeff Sullivan The kids will tell you that sticks are necessary, and they’ll offer you a ride on a “taxi” every time you so much as pause to take a breath. They’ll follow you a great distance up the trail before ultimately turning back, but it was definitely the most I’ve ever been spoken to on a hike. The sticks are not necessary, and neither are the horses, unless you have asthma or an affinity for horses. As you head up the trail, you can look west and catch the giant profile of Agua, in the instance pictured looming above the clouds:

Agua, Guatemala.

Image: Britt Q. Hoover 

Not only is it breathtaking; it’s a perhaps unnecessary reminder that volcanoes seldom appear in isolation. They’re where they are for a reason, and there tend to be a few of them. A traveler I met said that, when she was hiking Pacaya, she was able to see a plume emitting from the summit of Fuego, which made me instantly jealous. The day I hiked, Fuego was both hidden and quiet. These days they don’t let you get all the way up to the summit of Pacaya, because, justifiably, they think it’s too dangerous. While most of the activity is modest, the magnitude is also unpredictable, and that doesn’t even consider the swirling clouds of sulfurous gases. I was surprised to find we weren’t issued hard hats for safety, but I was reassured to see that there’s a designated hazard zone. The tours aren’t going to get you in trouble, and after a few kilometers the hike tops out on the rim of the inactive Cerro Chino crater. From there you can stare straight up to Pacaya’s developing cone, and for any guest I’d highly recommend a pair of binoculars. Our guide spoke almost exclusively Spanish, but my own Spanish came back to me over the course of the vacation, and it turns out this particular guide has been leading the same tour for 25 years, sometimes going as often as three times a day. He lives in the town of Pacaya on the slopes, and he said that, from his house, pretty much every night he can see the summit glow orange and red. The incandescence is visible from tens of miles away, as Pacaya’s frequently spitting out molten rock. That’s what makes it such a destination in the first place. The most recent lava flow of note spilled down the slopes in 2010, and it’s what you see commanding the image below:

The approach to Pacaya in Guatemala. Image: Jeff Sullivan That’s the flow in the foreground, and that’s the flow pouring out of the summit notch. It remained active for quite some time, and guides used to lead groups to areas where they could see the lava up close and roast a marshmallow. On the way up I caught a glimpse of marshmallows in our own guide’s backpack, but on this afternoon there was no roasting and there was no mention of any remaining hot spots, which makes me wonder how old those marshmallows were. Now, when you go up Pacaya, you get a great view of a young volcano, and you’re surrounded by signs of recent activity. But there are also plenty of signs of ongoing activity, such as the gases pouring out of the summit vent: One thing that got me particularly excited was what looked like it might’ve been one of those mysterious smoke/steam rings:

Pacaya emits a possible steam ring (marked with arrow). Image: Britt Q. Hoover  Within a few seconds, the ring disappeared, and no one else in the group seemed all that enthusiastic. Pacaya has spit out rings before, so I thought I might’ve seen something with precedent yet rarity, but when I asked Erik if he thought it was a ring or no ring, he went with “other”. I don’t know exactly what I saw, but it was unlike the rest of the scene, so at least it was weird. Weird and presumably volcanic in origin. Happy to take it. Another first experience for me was walking right up to a small group of fumaroles, emitting what the guide said was water vapor. They’re right off the trail on the Cerro Chino lip, and I couldn’t help myself from taking pictures and video:

Fumarole on Pacaya.

Image: Britt Q. Hoover 

On my last trip to Crater Lake, I was incredibly disappointed to learn that Fumarole Bay by Wizard Island was a lie. I’d only ever read about them in the past, unspectacular as they may be, and so to finally see one was memorable. Around where the gas is seeping out, the rock is orange and rotting. The pockets, of course, are warm, and because water vapor doesn’t stink, they can make for pleasant standing spots on a cold day. I was beyond thrilled just to be there to see the summit and the gases and the fumaroles. As we prepared to turn back around, though, there was a short and loud crack. Within a short period of time, there was another, then another. That’s when someone in the party pointed to the Pacaya summit and exclaimed “rocks!” with enthusiasm. I scrambled for my binoculars and watched for the first time in my life an admittedly mild volcanic eruption. Pacaya was spitting out some glowing bombs, landing on the cone beyond. If you’re fortunate enough to see this, know that it’s not unusual. Again, it’s been erupting since 1965, and the summit glows orange every night. But you don’t forget your first glimpse of lava, and to actually see an eruption while you’re on the slopes is by no means guaranteed. Groups only stop for about half an hour, yielding a narrow window. But there’s always that chance, and that chance is a big part of what makes Pacaya such an appealing destination for any would-be volcano tourist. It’s not the only regularly active vent on the planet, but there’s not another quite like it. Guatemala, on its own, is worth an extended visit, even leaving aside all the current and historical volcanism. There’s a lot going for it. Great place. Go see it. My girlfriend loved it, and she doesn’t necessarily share in my geological interest. But then, she took a keen interest in the Lago de Atitlán museum. She was captivated by the Fuego plume, and she stole the binoculars away when Pacaya started spitting. If you’re a volcano dork, Guatemala has a lot for you to experience. And if you’re not, it can most assuredly make you one. Videos: Jeff Sullivan

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