Location: San Marcos, Guatemala
Distance: 25 km
Camping: Wild camping
People seen: 5 (many on summit)
Guidebook: To the Top of Central America: Bagging volcanoes in Guatemala (US | UK)
Tajumulco, at 13,845 ft (4220 m) is the highest mountain in Guatemala and Central America. Close to the Guatemala-Mexico border, the high altitude hike to the summit of Tajumulco offers fantastic views across the surrounding landscape, the chance to witness a spectacular sunrise, and a deep, dramatic volcanic crater.
We organised our Tajumulco hike through Quetzal Trekkers. Our guide met us in Quetzaltenango (also known as Xela) in western Guatemala, from where we caught an early morning bus to San Marcos. From San Marcos we took another vehicle to the hamlet of San Sebastian, where the climb began. Xela is at 2,300 metres and San Sebastian 2,800 metres – having come from around 900 metres in San Salvador we were really ascending quickly. As we walked along the dirt track from the village we began feeling the altitude.
The first half of the Tajumulco trek is a gentle climb through a dry, meadow-like landscape along clear dirt tracks. The volcano is not in a natural park or protected area and the forests often draw the attention of loggers. The Tajumulco massif was in sight virtually the entire time, spurring us to carry on as the path steeped through pine forests.
After about six hours with frequent breaks to rest and take photos, we reached the campsite – a flat and relatively sheltered area at around 4000 metres, leaving relatively little climbing to do in the morning to see the sunrise. Despite its distance from Guatemala City, Tajumulco seems to be quite a popular hike and unfortunately the area around the campsite was somewhat littered with garbage and toilet paper. Not a pleasant situation when the wind is blowing!
Having put up the tent and unable to sit still, we decided to head up a smaller subsidiary peak about 60 metres above the campsite, while our guide snoozed in the warm afternoon sun.
Then, of course, having climbed this peak in no time, we decided to head for the summit immediately, hoping to get there in time for sunset. We did – and what a view we got! Way, way, above the clouds, the dry air allowed us to see for miles. Apparently on the clearest days it is possible to see the Pacific Ocean from the summit – and I can believe it. We also took the chance to walk around Tajumulco’s deep and dramatic summit crater. We nipped back down to the campsite in time for dinner, pleased that we had already reach the top and had the summit to ourselves.
At high altitude it is cold even in the tropics, and we were more or less awake already when our guide came to our tent at 4am. Grabbing our warm clothes and some breakfast, we were quickly hiking again, heading towards the summit for the second time in twelve hours.
The summit was quite crowded – there must have been at least 30 people there – but the sunrise was even more spectacular than the sunset the day before. Over an ocean of orange clouds we could see for miles in all directions. It was even possible to see Volcan Acatenango and Volcan Fuego near Antigua – over 125 kilometres away – the latter letting out one of its characteristics puffs of smoke and ash.