Volcán Tajumulco is the highest mountain in Central America. The trail starts up a dusty 4WD track, then winds through alpine meadows and sparse pines towards the conspicuous knoll that forms the summit. Mayan highland peoples frequent the area to gather firewood.
Tajumulco is commonly climbed as part of a guided 2-day hike although the walk itself could easily be accomplished in a day. Camping in pine forest near the saddle makes it easy to ascend the summit at dawn and provides an opportunity to acclimatise to the altitude.
Situation and history
Volcán Tajumulco is located in south-west Guatemala near the town of Quetzaltenango. The trail is situated within a protected area but is still used for firewood collection by locals. The peak area was used as a base during the resistance and was home to a radio transmission station that broadcast anti-government propaganda.
The ascent to the summit can be broken into three sections: the lower section on a 4WD track (2km), the main body of the trail through alpine meadows and sparse pines (3km), and the final steep section from the saddle to the summit (1km).
The trail is identified by a battered white metal sign welcoming you ‘Bienvenidos al Volcan Tajumulco’. Leave the sealed road, pass the sign and start walking up the steep 4WD track paved with cobbles. The first ascent winds through scrub around the hillside. You soon pass a handful of houses and arrive at a shallow plateau of farmland. Continue up the 4WD track, which suffers from washouts and is home to some remarkably powdery dust. The 4WD track reaches its conclusion seemingly no-where in particular; there are often vehicles parked here.
Turn left off the road and ascent directly up the grassy slope. Ruts and erosion mark the trail as it climbs between the occasional pine. Keep the main ridge to your left. After a short, steep ascent the route plateaus and skirts a shallow basin of grassland which has been replanted with young trees. In clear weather you will be greeted with a fine view of the summit directly ahead. Again, keep the main ridge and forest to your left. At the far side of the basin the route climbs steeply again, through mature pines and around a large outcrop before ascending a ridgeline. To your left a wooded plateau will come into view; this is typically camp for those wanting to overnight.
Leave the campsite and head straight towards the knoll of the main summit. The trail is fleeting in parts. Early in the ascent you will arrive at a basin containing the foundations of an old radio transmitter base; keep this basin to your left. Continue up the rock scramble and into the shallow gulley. At the top of the gulley you are presented a view down the other side of the mountain and towards the Pacific Ocean. Turn left, leaving the gulley and ascending the left ridgeline which leads to the summit.
The summit area itself is expansive, with cliffs to the south-west and a gentle, but ever-steepening, gradient back towards camp. Mountains on the Mexican border are often visible. It is possible to either descent from the summit along the same route or to follow the ridgeline around the crater and into the saddle formed by the knoll to the east. From the saddle you may catch a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean, or at least the towns bordering it, at the base of the Pacific Slope. It is an easy walk across exposed tussock from the saddle back to the campsite.
Retrace your steps to complete your descent.
Planning your trip
The total trip typically takes around 1 ½ days but involves only about 8hrs actual hiking. This includes about 4hrs hike to camp on the first day, and on the second day 1 ½hr to the summit and 2 ½hrs decent.
Starting elevation: 3,100m
Summit elevation: 4,222m
Total ascent: 1,122m
Trail distance: 6km (each way)
Rough and dusty 4WD track for the first section. Most of the ascent is across grass and on gravel through sparse pines. The final section to summit is over rocks and includes some scrambling.
The trail is exposed for much of its length and the intermittent pine trees offer limited protection. Temperatures often reach freezing at the summit and can be accompanied by strong winds. Waterproofs and a down jacket are advisable even in the summer. Operators of guided treks are able to loan necessary equipment including sleeping bags.
Most of the walk is on grassland with a gentle incline. Basic footwear such as sneakers or cross-trainers would suffice. In wet conditions the trail could become slippery and boots would be more appropriate.
Access to and from the hike
The trail head is located on a ridgeline some distance from the town of San Marcos. Quetzaltenango is the nearest city. Chicken buses ply the route but actually spotting the trailhead from the bus is likely fraught with difficulty. A guided trek overcomes this issue.
Navigation & Facilities
Signage is basically non-existent. It would be relatively easy to loose the main trail.
No food or drink available on the walk. There are no refuges or shelters but the main saddle supports enough trees to provide some cover.
Altitude is a major consideration. The trail ascends steeply above 4,000m and many will find the lack of oxygen difficult. Camping below the summit gives your body a chance to acclimatise before the final ascent.
Limited road access makes a vehicle rescue problematic. There are ample places to land a helicopter if you could find one in this part of the Americas.
The trail is relatively inaccessible and therefore it is not a popular walk. Organised guided hikes typically run on weekends. You may feel safer walking in a small group.
Leaving the trail is more straightforward and you can flag down a chicken bus to San Marcos and then change for one to Quetzaltenango.
Flora and fauna
A sprinkling of Hartweg pines dust the mountain. Unfortunately a combination firewood collection and the pine beetle mean these trees are retreating. Birds are present in small numbers. Despite the grasslands there are few, if any, mammals in the area.
Our lack of proper alpine gear and the challenges of actually finding the trail meant we resorted to an organised trek for this ascent. We joined Quetzal Trekkers based in Quetzaltenango (aka Xela or ‘shell-ah’) for the 2-day trek. Quetzal Trekkers are a not for profit outfit run by a bunch of enthusiastic volunteers. They offered free use of a selection of slightly manky but very cosy hiking gear including big puffy North Face jackets.
We woke seriously early to catch the first chicken bus out of town. It was a bit of fun travelling in a group instead of arranging all the public transport independently. Our group was relatively fit so we were at camp by about midday. We killed time spinning yarns and playing cards until dark.
Next morning we headed for the summit well before dawn. The stars were still out and it was epic to see lightning storms igniting the sky far off below us. Sunrise over the peak was stunning and we were glad to have sleeping bags to ward off the cold. The trip back to town was painfully slow. We could have been back by mid-morning but had to dawdle to make it to our lunch stop at the prearranged time.
All up it was an amazing experience.