Don’t let Volcano Tajumulco’s height or remote location (the municipality of Tajumulco, department of San Marcos, in much less visited Western Guatemala, 17 miles from the border with Mexico) scare you. This is one of the most beautiful hikes in Guatemala and although Tajumulco is the highest peak and volcano in Guatemala and in Central America, the trail to the summit ascends gradually and the round trip can be completed in a day. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a vigorous hike and more demanding for those of us who are not used to the altitude, but definitely doable.
How I got there
From Panajachel, on Lake Atitlan, I took a shuttle to Quetzaltenango. Shuttle services are operated between the main towns in Guatemala and are an inexpensive way of travelling and an alternative to the cheaper “camionetas” (buses) or more costly private transportation (taxis). The ride took about 2.5 hours, which went by relatively fast as I chatted with other travelers. From Quetzaltenango (Xela), my guide from San Marcos picked me up on a taxi (200Q each way). There are “camionetas” to San Marcos but because of my tight schedule it was easier to arrange private transportation from Xela on. The ride from Xela to San Marcos is between one hour and an hour and a half, depending on traffic.
Tajumulco is an extinct stratovolcano whose history of eruptions is unconfirmed. It has two peaks, the lowest one being at 4,100 m (13,451 ft) and the highest (4,220 m or 13,845 ft). Its large dry crater of 50 m (160 ft) in diameter and ashy terrain at the top are testimony to past eruptions and several incidents have been reported in the 1800’s that might have been eruptions but there isn’t sufficient evidence to confirm that.
In order to be able to start the hike at 4:30 in the morning and be done by around noon, my guide made arrangements for us to stay at La Pradera, 2 km from the historic town of Tejutla, and some 30 minutes from the trail head. I was enchanted by Tejutla’s charm and character. Practically untouched by the influence of tourism, Tejutla is a snapshot of the life style in the highlands of Guatemala.
The more adventurous may stay in town and be better able to explore the farmers’ market, the cobble stone streets and local “comedores”. It’s a good place to stop on your way to Mexico from Guatemala City if that’s what you’re doing.
Anyway, my cabin at La Pradera was fairly comfortable and very inexpensive (US$25 per night). A few minutes after I had come out of my shower, a staff member came in with fire wood and started the fireplace. Oh how nice, I thought as the warmth from the fire started to spread into the room. The sky that night was pitch black and very clear, the air was chilly and stars came out in millions. I got ready for the early start and was in bed by 9.
At 2:55 a.m. the crew (my guide, his 11 year old son who was going to climb a volcano for the first time, an assistant guide and a guide in training -:) ) was ready. I finished putting away my toiletries and met them at the car a few feet down in the parking lot. Things were not going to go too easy for us that morning, though. We were all in our seats and ready to leave when the car engine died. Three attempts and it wouldn’t start. But the crew was quick to solve the problem. A strong push downhill and the engine coughed itself back to life with the resilience of cars that survive for decades on end in the ups and downs of the highlands. Then we got to the gate of the cabin complex. It was locked and there was no one around to open it. We whistled, blew the horn, knocked on the window of the gate keeper’s hut, waited, repeated all of the above. And then again. We had reconfirmed with staff that we were leaving at around 3 a.m. but this is probably not the kind of place in which you should assume everyone has an alarm clock… Finally the gate keeper showed up and we happily drove through the gate and onto the steep ramp that would lead us back to the road. Could something else go wrong this early in the day? Yes. Now the car would not go up the steep ramp that led to the main road… See, this is no big deal in Guatemala. Old cars are like moody members of the family whose little idiosyncrasies are well known. Without fuss everyone got out of the car leaving the driver only. The guide and gate keeper pushed the car uphill until it could pick up enough speed to keep going up, leaving a stinky trail of dark smoke behind from the old diesel engine and soon we were back on our seats and on the road towards the trail head. Well, not quite. The dark of night was confusing our driver who couldn’t find the road that would be sure to take us to the trail head. Now I was nervous and my faith on our ability to get to the top of Tajumulco was severely damaged. I had to be at the trail head at 4:30 so that it would be possible to climb and come back the same day in time to catch the last shuttle for Antigua for which I had already bought a ticket. Understanding the pressures of time on my schedule the crew quickly came up with an alternative route to the trail head and long and behold, it was 4:30 sharp when we set off, all my worries gone as I found myself in the cool and calming arms of Tajumulco’s.
What to take on this hike
If you decide to hike to the top of Tajumulco you will be more comfortable having plenty of water, warm clothes (a wind breaker, warm layers), sturdy hiking boots, binoculars, sunglasses, sunscreen and a head lamp if you are leaving or coming back in the dark (before 5:30 a.m. and after 5:30 p.m.).
The trail starts at about 3200 meters so we had 1000 meters of elevation to gain. We ascended gradually through fields of grass at first, then soft moss, and then through gorgeous sparse alpine forests decorated by wild flowers of many kinds. We reached the mountain ridge at dawn and from then on the views were incredible. To the east I could see a chain of blue volcanoes all the way to Antigua and beyond and to the west several mountain chains with the Sierra Madre the furthest. The last quarter of the ascent was the most challenging due to altitude and terrain, but nothing compared to my experience at Atitlan, the volcano I had hiked a couple days before. We scrambled through large rocks and then a mix of hundreds of years old ash and gravel to the lowest peak and a little further up to the higher peak. It was cold and windy as it should be at the top of a 4200 m high volcano but nothing unbearable (says she who was wearing a down vest and a down jacket). I lingered for a few minutes watching the deep and dry crater and taking in the 360 degree views and then was ready to make it back to the car.
Going down was much easier. A little over a couple hours and we were all inside our brave antique car, jumping up and down as we drove over pot holes left behind by the rainy season. Back to San Marcos where I had a taxi waiting to take me to Quetzaltenango, I went to the bathroom while the crew transferred my luggage from the car to the taxi; said my thank yous and was on the road again in minutes. In Quetzaltenango, a van took me to the cross roads from which I caught the shuttle to Antigua. Traffic was light so I was in Antigua by 8 pm. Phew.
In Quetzaltenango (affectively called Xela by locals and tourists alike), I was helped by the wonderful staff of Altiplanos Tour Operator. Altiplanos is very professionally owned and ran by a local family and offers hikes to several neighboring volcanoes (Tajumulco, Santa Maria, Santiaguito) as well as other cultural and outdoor activities. In San Marcos I counted on the hospitality of San Marcos Tour led by Axel Mazariegos. This is a business in its very early days but with tremendous passion and interest for developing tourism in the region. I was glad to be able to explore this area of Guatemala with their guidance.