West of the departmental capital of San Marcos, a winding road follows a broad ridge of the Sierra Madre mountains through majestic highland scenery. The sun shines bright over the innumerable mountains, its twinkling reflection illuminating the peaks, valleys, and rivers of one of the country’s rawest and most beautiful landscapes. Travelers don’t set their sights on San Marcos often, which is truly a shame. Out this way are Guatemala’s two tallest volcanoes, Volcán Tajumulco and Volcán Tacaná, both of which can be climbed without too much difficulty. If you’re in shape and adjusted to the altitude, either hike is well worth the effort. Tajumulco is easier to reach and taller, so it is a more common target for the vertically inclined.
Volcán Tajumulco (Difficulty: Moderate; Time to Climb: 3-5 hours up, 2-4 hours down) is Central America’s tallest point, volcanic or otherwise, at 4,220 meters (13,845 feet) above sea level. For an avid hiker, the climb will not be too difficult, but you’d best be in shape and more or less used to the elevation before heading out to try. Unfortunately, at the time of writing climbing Tajumulco unguided is a slight risk. Disputes over water sources and contraband gasoline in nearby towns have sprung up in recent years, and the whole region is known for trafficking marijuana and poppies. These issues are isolated to the local population, but you can never be too careful. In the beginning of 2015 conflicts like these were preventing all hikers from climbing Tajumulco, so before attempting a climb, check with local travel agencies. It is also very easy to get lost (the path is not well-marked after the trailhead) so hiring a
guide in Quetzaltenango is recommended. Possibly the best is Altiplano’s in Xela, a locally-owned tour operator with extremely knowledgeable guides and reasonable prices.
All things considered, Tajumulco is not that a rigorous climb for being the highest point in Central America. The hike begins from the aldea of Tuichán, from where it takes from three to five hours to reach the top. To get here, take any bus from the capital of San Marcos towards Tacaná and get off at El Cruce (the crossing) from where the road splits left to Tajumulco and right to Ixchiguán and Tacaná. A surprisingly well-placed sign on your left welcomes you to the volcano. From here, you’ll walk uphill along muddy roads through some ramshackle villages before leaving the main track altogether. Continue your trek upwards through pine forests and across flowery fields before you reach the remnants of small radio tower and army base just before the rocky pinnacle. If you haven’t felt the altitude yet, you’ll definitely start to here. As you weave your way up through the rocks, you’ll feel short of breath even as the wind steadily picks up. The summit is bitterly cold and windy but provides gorgeous views of México and Tacaná to the west and Volcán Santa María to the east. On extremely clear days, you may be able to see the curve in the Central American isthmus along the Pacific Coast.