ANTIGUA, Guatemala – A terrifying eruption of one of the world's most active volcanoes tapered off Friday into a draw for delighted tourists, who snapped photos from a neighboring colonial city and made plans to take night hikes to see glowing rivers of lava.
Villagers were returning to their homes on the flanks of the Volcano of Fire as it wound down its largest eruption in nearly four decades, spewing smaller amounts of ash and lava. Guatemalan authorities reduced the alert level from the highest, red, to orange around the Volcan del Fuego, or Volcano of Fire, and said Thursday's ferocious lava flow was now two smaller, 3,000-foot streams.
Tourists walking the cobblestone streets of the colonial city of Antigua, about six miles from the volcano, said they were making plans to take guided trips to the mountain to see the lava, and guide companies said they were getting dozens of calls for tours.
Celina Huang, a 25-year-old Spanish student, was taking photos of the volcano, which looms over the Baroque churches and brightly colored arches of Antigua.
"This fire and red light is something I've never seen before," she said. "In my country, Taiwan, there are volcanoes but they're dormant. This is the first time I've seen an eruption."
Nilton Dasilva, a church group leader from Northfield, Illinois, said he decided to take a detour during a group trip to a nearby coffee plantation and try to get as close as safely possible to the volcano.
"Now that we know it erupted, we're going to try to stop on the way and maybe take some pictures," Dasilva said.
Emergency workers reported that many villagers living around the slopes of the volcano had begun returning home. The Red Cross of Guatemala was winding down operations, coordinator Sergio de Leon said.
Guatemalan authorities ordered the evacuation of more than 33,000 of the 62,000 people living immediately around the volcano, many in isolated indigenous villages. De Leon said many people had moved to the homes of friends or relatives a little farther away from the volcano. Local media reported about 5,000 had evacuated, while emergency officials said the figure may have been much lower.
Gustavo Chicna, a volcanologist with the national weather, earthquake and volcanology institute, said the Volcano of Fire, Guatemala's most active, appeared to be in the final stages of its biggest eruption since 1974, when the event was five times more powerful than this week's.
The tapering-off occurred around 4 a.m., more or less when the institute had predicted.
Chicna said that while predicting volcanic activity was difficult before an eruption actually started, estimating the duration of the activity is easier. Vulcanologists measure the seismic activity around the volcano and estimate how long the eruption will continue based on when the seismic activity peaks and begins decreasing.
"There have been dozens of calls from people interested in going to the Volcano of Fire," said Irma Celada, a 31-year-old tour operator in Antigua. "People want to go at night because they want to see the lava. We're getting ready to leave when the sun goes down."
She said the tours wouldn't go all the way to the crater of the volcano, as usual, before tour operators got authorization from the authorities.
Villagers and farmers living at the foot of the volcano were awoken Thursday by a massive roar during a series of eruptions that darkened the skies and covered surrounding sugar cane fields with ash.
"It thundered and then it got dark as the ash began falling," said Miriam Curumaco, a 28-year-old homemaker from the village of Morelia who had evacuated along with 16 family members to a makeshift shelter at a nearby elementary school. "It sounded like a pressure cooker that wouldn't stop."
The Volcano of Fire spewed rivers of bright orange lava down its flanks, prompting authorities to order evacuations in 17 nearby communities.
Hundreds of cars, trucks and buses, blanketed with charcoal gray ash, drove away from the volcano, which sits about six miles (16 kilometers) southwest of Antigua, toward Guatemala City. Thick clouds of ash reduced visibility to less than 10 feet in some areas. The elderly, women and children were evacuated in old school buses and ambulances.
Authorities set up a shelter at an elementary school in Santa Lucia, the town closest to the volcano, and by Thursday night some 750 people had arrived. Most were women and children carrying blankets.
Guatemala's emergency agency said lava rolled nearly 2,000 feet (600 meters) down slopes around the 12,346-foot-high (3,763-meter-high) Volcano of Fire.
Chicna said streams of extremely hot gas were also rolling down the sides of the volcano.
Guatemala's aviation administration said flights had returned to normal after it had suspended all air travel from the southern Mexican city of Tapachula to Guatemala City due to the ash.
By Thursday evening, the ash plume had decreased to a little more than a mile high, partly due to heavy rain, which diminished the potential risk to aviation, said Jorge Giron, a government volcanologist. But he said ash continued to fall heavily, and advised residents near the volcano but outside evacuation zones to clean their water systems before using them, and to not leave their homes because of the ash.
Alberto Arce reported from Tegucigalpa, Honduras.