For this chef, an active volcano is his oven.
About 25 miles south of Guatemala’s capital, rising more than 8,000 feet over sea level, the Pacaya volcano overlooks the nearby villages of San Vicente Pacaya and Amatitlán. On clear days, from the mountain top, tourists can even spot Guatemala City and the neighboring volcanoes of Agua, Fuego, and Acatenango. Since 1965, when it became active once again, the Pacaya, whose slow-flowing lava rivers are, by volcano standards, less dangerous, has become a magnet for tourists. And, in 2019, the Pacaya became the first pizza place in the country, and one of the first on earth, to use lava caves as ovens.
Pizza Pacaya’s founder, chef and accountant Mario David García Mansilla, became fascinated with the Pacaya in 2010, when the volcano exploded spectacularly, spewing bright-red flaming rocks over the roofs of San Vicente Pacaya and nearby villages. Ashes reached Guatemala’s International Airport, La Aurora, and flights were suspended for a day. Instead of running away, García Mansilla decided to stay close to the mighty mountain.
His curiosity took him near the volcano’s crater, where he saw guides inviting tourists to roast marshmallows over the hardened-but-still-hot lava. He decided that he wanted to roast more than candy, and settled on baking pizzas. For years, he baked pies for him and his friends on the cave-like structures. In 2019, after perfecting his technique, his hobby became a business.
García Mansilla regularly hikes to the volcano’s top carrying about 60 pounds of ingredients and equipment on his back to meet tourists who have made a reservation. García Mansilla offers them various toppings, including meats (salami, pepperoni, chorizo, prosciutto) and vegetables (onions, olives, and peppers), and customers can request other extras in advance. He assembles the pizza using previously kneaded dough and bakes it for about 14 minutes. When he cooks on top of still-hot lava, the process only takes a couple of minutes, as the magma can reach up to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit (1,000 °C).
Know Before You Go
The easiest way to get to the Pacaya Volcano is from Antigua, about two hours away by bus. Make sure to wear comfortable clothes and appropriate hiking shoes for the 90-minute walk, and bring sunscreen, water, and snacks.
García Mansilla strongly recommends setting up a previously agreed visit via his Facebook page or WhatsApp number, +502 5743 0259. Since the Pacaya Volcano is a national park, only official guides are authorized to hike tourists up. So, once you contact him, García Mansilla will set you up with one of those guides, who will meet you at an agreed-upon spot and then accompany you up. If you’re traveling with children, elderly people, or people with physical disabilities, García Mansilla and the guides can organize horses or vehicles for the trip to the top of the volcano.
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