This is really an informative post about climbing Volcán Atitlán, since most people assume it’s not really possible. Although quite a tough hike and despite what people and agencies will tell you in San Pedro, guides do exist and from what I could see, it seemed relatively safe. (Although this is only based on my experience after one day on the volcano so check the current situation before heading out).
After completing my time in Quetzaltenango I headed to Lago Atitlán. Having not known too much about the volcanoes there, I hadn’t really planned on climbing any before I arrived. However, I ended up climbing both Volcán San Pedro and Volcán Atitlán. Volcán San Pedro is fairly straight forward and can be reached from San Pedro. It cost 100 Q to enter the park and you get an optional guide included in that price. It’s not really necessary but since it was included I took the guide. It took me 1 hour and 45 minutes to get to the summit from the entrance at a fast pace (something like a 1200 metre change in elevation). The views at the top were pretty good but really only 180 degrees. In the distance I could see Volcán Atitlán, the highest peak in the area, sitting another 500 metres higher than I was standing and requiring 2000 metre change in altitude from the lake to climb it.
Although there were a couple of reports on the internet for Volcán Atitlán (see peakbagger.com), most people claim it isn’t safe to climb due to robberies. Also local agencies claim that no one will guide you up there and it would be easy to get lost etc. I thought I’d head over there myself to find out. It can be climbed from two sides: Santiago and Sun Lucas. On arriving at Santiago I was offered extortionate quotes by the locals (500Q or 600Q), all of them claiming it would take 7 or 8 hours to reach the top. I knew it could be done faster. Undeterred I headed over to San Lucas where the route is more established (the town is not touristy at all and has a very different feel to the rest of the lake). Checking into Hotel Emmanuel on the main square (80Q / night) the hotel reception called up someone who could guide me. I wanted a fast climber planning on a 3 hour 30 minute ascent. He appeared in the form of Alex (77220869 / Edwinxep@yahoo.com) and his friend (Manuel). For both of them I paid 250Q total (i.e. 125Q each guide).
We left at 3am and summited at around 6.40am experiencing spectacular views of the lake and beyond. We could see Santa Maria and Tajumulco to the west and Acatenango to the east. There are no trees for the final 300 metres which makes it an exceptional viewing experience. I’m told there are only threats from robberies around Christmas time. I thought Alex performed his duties well and was extremely fit; he said he had 8 trophies from various sporting events. So if you want to do it fast, he’s an excellent guide to take. You could also enquire at restaurant Toliman near the water, they have the names of guides too. One or two boats go to/from Panachel per day or you can get a 7Q ‘collectivo’ to/from Santiago and then boat to /from San Pedro. It’s a big hike and a slow group could expect to get to the top in 6 or 7 hours I suppose; we virtually ran when we did it.
(I was told of a story of a couple that climbed Toliman without a guide and then got lost trying to find a different route back to the town. Apparently they fell down a hole and couldn’t get out for a day. They stumbled back half-starved 3 days later! Stick to the tracks!)