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Volcano draws tourists
A car drives through the cobblestones streets of Antigua Guatemala, backdropped by the Volcan de Fuego or Volcano of Fire. The volcano spewed rivers of bright orange lava down its flanks on Thursday last week. Picture: AP Photo/Moises Castillo

A terrifying eruption of one of the world's most active volcanoes has tapered off into a draw for delighted tourists.

Villagers returned to their homes on the flanks of the Volcano of Fire on Friday as it wound down its largest eruption in nearly four decades.

Guatemalan authorities reduced the alert level from the highest, red, to orange around the Volcan del Fuego, or Volcano of Fire.

Tourists walking the cobblestone streets of the colonial city of Antigua, about 15 kilometres from the volcano, said they were making plans to take guided trips to the mountain to see the lava.

Celina Huang, a 25-year-old student, was taking photos of the volcano, which looms over the Baroque churches and brightly coloured 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 the US, 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.

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, co-ordinator 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.

When it erupted, the Volcano of Fire spewed rivers of bright orange lava down its flanks, prompting authorities to order evacuations in 17 nearby communities.

Guatemala's emergency agency said lava rolled nearly 600 metres down slopes around the 3,763-metre-high Volcano of Fire.

Streams of extremely hot gas also rolled 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 about 1.5km high, partly due to heavy rain.