Around Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, the saying goes that each village has its own volcano. San Pedro de La Laguna is the home of Volcano San Pedro, 3,020 meters high (about 10,000 ft). San Lucas Toliman, with 17,000 inhabitants on the southeastern shore of the lake, proudly hosts Volcano Toliman, 3,144 meters high (10,315 ft); and San Tiago de Atitlan is the guardian of majestic Volcano Atitlan, 3,535 meters high (11,600 ft).
On this visit to Guatemala, my third, I had my heart set on hiking to the top of Atitlan. This large dormant stratovolcano said to have erupted for the last time in 1853 has a reputation for being a tough hike. And yep, I’d agree, but I was able to do it so I am sure you can, too, if you are interested. Here’s what I did and what I would have done differently should I have known better.
To get to Atitlan, I traveled from Antigua Guatemala to Panajachel (affectionately called gringoland by the locals), the most touristic town on Lake Atitlan and where I believed I could identify a local guide that could show me the way to the top of the volcano. Getting to Panajachel from Antigua is pretty simple. Several companies operate shuttle services. For 75 Quetzales (approximately US$10.00), they pick you up from home and deliver you to your address at Panajachel. I have used van shuttle services in Guatemala a few times before and have found it reliable. Most passengers are foreigners or international tourists. Your luggage will be stored on a rack on top of the van so if you are travelling in the rainy season it’s a good idea to make sure you water proof your suitcases. Had I had contracted with a guide in advance (something I am not always able to do), I would have gone directly to San Tiago Atitlan and stayed the night there. This would have allowed me to get on the trail earlier and not feel so pressed for time.
Anyway, in Panajachel I stayed at Hotel dos Mundos (www.hoteldosmundos.com, email@example.com). My single room (US$ 50.00 per night) was comfortable and opened to a welcoming and cool all around porch that circles the swimming pool area and garden. Right on Calle Santander, the main street of Pana, it is within walking distance to the docks, shops, restaurants, cafes, etc. The staff was friendly and very attentive but above all the hot shower was awe-some and I promise you, that makes a whole bunch of difference when you come back all sweaty and covered in volcanic ash and dust.
My initial intention was to hike Atitlan in two days. I wanted to walk up the first two thirds of the trail and camp there to complete the ascent at dawn. The trail is steep, with a total 2,000 meters (6,561 ft) elevation gain and I did not want to make it so strenuous that I would be too tired to continue my trip the next day. Unfortunately I could not find a local guide who would take me on an overnight hike for a reasonable price. I finally settled for a one day trip for US$150.00, which included transportation to and from the trail head, the guide’s services and food. I say unfortunately because it would have been more comfortable to break the hike into two parts and it would also have given me more time to take good photos. The guide and driver picked me up at the hotel at 4:00 a.m. and drove me on narrow old roads through San Tiago and to the trail head. We started walking at 5:30 a.m. and were back in the car having completed the hike at 5:30 p.m., so in a total of 12 hours, having taken a few short breaks on the way up.
As we set off from the trail head it was still dark but with the help of flashlights we made quick progress. The goal was to reach the crater by noon, giving us plenty of time to make our way back with daylight. On the first half of the trail the elevation gain is constant but gradual. We walked through a mix of coffee and then corn plantations, which at higher altitude gave way to gorgeous fields of tall grass and wild flowers which continue to the point right in between volcanoes Atitlan and Toliman. That is a good place for a snack. In the next section of the hike, we entered a forested area that changed from an initially thicker more lush and tropical forest to a more sparse and alpine looking forest towards the timber line. I wish I knew more about plants to describe this part of the trail better. My impression was that the forests were old and relatively untouched with an interesting variety of species.
As we progressed upwards, my pace slowed down not only because the terrain became more inclined and slippery but also because I was feeling the effect of the altitude. Short breaks to enjoy the stunning views of Lake Atitlan and surrounding mountains gave me a chance to catch my breath. Once we reached the tree line, the hardest part of the hike unfolded. Winds had picked up and the temperature had dropped although the constant physical effort continued to keep me warm. The terrain was now very steep and covered by loose volcanic gravel of various sizes that tends to move down the slope as you step on it creating a micro gravel avalanche. Good sturdy hiking boots are helpful here. I was also glad to have my hiking poles.
Noon was the perfect time to get to the crater. The morning had alternated between cloudy and clear but now we had a good few cloud free minutes and 360 degree views from the top of the highest volcano on Lake Atitlan. I was surprised to find out that there is a pretty sturdy shelter on the crater rim built for overnight hikers. It can probably accommodate three to four people and it is built in solid rock to stand the gusts at the top. Another alternative (my preferred) would be to camp in the forest below where you are protected from the wind and there are a couple small but good flat spots to set up a tent pretty comfortably.
A 15′ break for a sandwich and we were on our way back. In spite of being careful, I took a fall a few meters down from the crater, when I stepped on a piece of rock that gave way causing me and a bunch of rocks to slide down too quickly and throwing me off balance. Hiking poles didn’t help much either and I ended up on my back (no, no pictures of this part) with a couple small bruises. Luckily my backpack functioned as a cushion and prevented my back from hitting the harsh rocks directly. But I could have done without this little incident…
The rest of the downward trip was uneventful even though my legs got more and more tired from the constant effort and gradually more sore and weak towards the end of the hike. I wore my knee braces, which I find of tremendous help when hiking down steep terrain, and enjoyed the feelings of satisfaction and relief for having accomplished the most difficult goal of this trip. We were back in the car at 5:30 and in the hotel at a little over 7:00 p.m. That awe-some hot shower I mentioned? I needed it badly. My wine that night: a Zonin Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. I don’t care what the sommeliers think. It tasted to me like the best wine in the whole wide world…