The Nature Conservancy - Parks in Peril
home how we work where we work more resources about us
Caribbean   Mexico   Central America   South America  


Atitlán Volcanoes

Motagua-Polochic System

how you can help


Atitlan VolcanoesPIP 2000

The Sierra Madre Mountains of Guatemala, stretching 236 miles from Mexico to El Salvador, harbor 37 active volcanic cones, including Atitlán, San Pedro, and Tolimán. These majestic “Islands in the Sky” reach heights of up to 14,000 feet and rise from a landscape of basaltic fields, geysers, waterfalls, and caves. Indigenous communities reside along the northern ridge of the volcanic belt, while the southern side is the country’s most agriculturally productive region. The Atitlán Volcanoes region has been a part of the Guatemalan Protected Areas System since 1989 yet it did not receive the attention it deserved until the arrival of PiP in 2001.

did you know?

Settled among the peaks of Atitlán, San Pedro, and Tolimán is ancient Lake Atitlán, which was formed 84,000 years ago by an enormous volcanic eruption that spewed ash as far away as the southern United States.

Atitlan Volcanoes

Lake Atitlán is surrounded by volcanic peaks in the Atitlán region of the Sierra Madre Mountains.
© Nicole Balloffet


site profile

total area protected:
321,236 acres

Sierra Madre Moist, Central American Montane, & Central America Pine-Oak Forests

partner organization:
Asociación de Reservas Naturales Privadas de Guatemala (ARNPG)

Ecological Importance

Evolution has created a veritable hotbed of endemism on these “Islands in the Sky” mountain peaks in the Sierra Madres. Numerous reptile and amphibian species, as well as birds, including the rare Cabanis, or Azure-Rumped, Tanager. Atitlán is a refuge for the only remaining population of highland margay, and acts as a genetic bridge between margay populations in Mexico and the rest of Guatemala. Several other endangered species are found in the reserve, including howler monkey, puma, resplendent quetzal, horned guan, among others.


The region’s beautiful landscape has unfortunately contributed to its degradation. The Sierra Madres have attracted some of the wealthiest people in Guatemala to build vacation homes and the area is experiencing uncontrolled tourism. Although tourism is economically important to the region, it contributes to pollution, habitat fragmentation, and pressure on the indigenous communities.

The limited availability of land and natural resources, combined with high population densities and poverty levels, is exacerbated by logging and slash and burn agricultural practices. Such activities have endangered the Guatemalan fir, sweet gum and Spanish cedar, and have caused soil erosion and resultant sedimentation of lakes, rivers, and streams.

A Strategy of Success

Parks in Peril (PiP) began working in Atitlán in 2001 and has been working with local communities and local organizations toward establishing a Municipal Parks System. Using Conservation Area Planning (CAP), the program incorporates shade-grown coffee and tourism, two sectors where conservation and development are complementary. Coffee and community-based tourism have generated funds which are reinvested in the parks. Additionally, CAP has been used to create twelve five-year management plans to develop private nature reserves and help land owners coordinate conservation with agriculture in their reserves.

Two local groups that have been established have focused on creating local and regional plans to promote sustainable natural resource use in the two major watersheds flowing out of the Atitlán region. Known locally as “Chajinel,” or, “the one who looks after,” a committee has been formed of local tourist, coffee and other entrepreneurs commited to conservation. These groups have shown great potential and will be showcased throughout the PiP program and as models in other parks.

Partnered with PiP, Vivamos Mejor and Asociación de Reservas Naturales Privadas de Guatemala (ARNPG), have encouraged local participation and provided technical assistance. Together, they have had success in garnering support for conservation initiatives that generate income and sustainably manage natural resources. PiP has supported these two groups to enhance their conservation capacity so they can continue to work towards further conservation achievements in Atitlán and site consolidation in 2007.

Read more about Atitlán Volcanoes...

Asociación de Reservas Naturales Privadas de Guatemala (ARNPG)
The Nature Conservancy in the Sierra Madres Volcanoes
Online Field Guide to Sierra Madres Volcanoes

Read more about projects in Guatemala...

Motagua-Polochic System/Sierra de las Minas Biosphere Reserve

Guatemala Partner Organizations

The Nature Conservancy in Guatemala