Nearing the end of our four weeks of Spanish classes in Xela we decided to head over to nearby Lake Atitlán for a well deserved relaxing stay by the water. The easiest option is to take a direct bus from Xela which takes around three hours, however the more exciting option is to sign up with a trekking agency and hike it over three days. My partner and I both love hiking and this felt like a great experience to explore the local surroundings and wildlife. In the next few sections I will explain our choice for the trekking agency, what to expect in terms of difficulty, a few photos and general information including the cost for the hike from Xela to Lake Atitlán.
Hiking with Quetzaltrekkers
We decided to hike with Quetzaltrekkers based on recommendations from others and reviews left online. Founded in 1995, this trekking agency is run by volunteers from around the world and all the profits that they make go towards helping local impoverished, troubled youth that lack the support from their families. This non-profit has directly supported the construction of a school and provides the funds for its continuous operation. Volunteers are expected to help out for a minimum of three months and are usually assigned as supporting guides on hikes from the first day. After four or five hikes volunteers may become guide leaders and take up the responsibility for planning and managing their specific hike. Interestingly there is no concrete leadership within the non-profit, all volunteers have equal say in matters and decisions are made as a group.
Initially we were slightly concerned as most of the organised hikes we have done so far have been led by local agencies with local guides. We were not sure if the volunteers that would be acting as guides on our hike would have a connection with the local environment and the people living in the Guatemalan villages on the way. However as we soon found out our feelings were misplaced. Our designated guide, who has only done the hike four times, turned out to work in environment education and had a wealth of experience and knowledge of the local wildlife. Many times he would stop for a break to talk about the the different trees, flowers or animals we would see on the hike. Furthermore he knew many stories related to the specific areas we hiked through. All in all the guides definitely did not feel like volunteers to us.
Hike difficulty and what to expect these three days
The hike is spread across three days departing from Xela and arriving in San Pedro close to the docks so you can easily grab a boat to any of the other destinations on Lake Atitlán. Your luggage can be forwarded from Xela to San Pedro for 100 GTQ. Expect many steep ascents especially on the first day and depending on the group, 6 to 7 hours of walking each day except for the last day. If you are missing any hiking gear, Quetzaltrekkers can provide hiking shoes, socks, sticks, backpacks and sleeping bags. This is free of charge and basically you just borrow it for three days. In terms of what to bring, try and pack as light as possible. There is food and cutlery that will need to be carried on the hike and these are evenly distributed among the participants and guides so you will need to carry this with you however we did not find this to weigh much. Due to the altitude and the subsequent impact on your breathing its best to acclimatize in Xela for a few days before attempting this trek.
The first day will start with an early steep ascent after which you walk across the ridge of a mountain with beautiful views on either side. After you will descend slightly however there will be a few more steep sections before you hit the first village. Here you will sleep in dorms provided by the local host family as well as enjoy the luxury of a temazcal (sweat lodge or sauna). On the second day the hike starts initially easy however at a certain point there will be more steep ascents including a time trial to see how fast you can run up a specific part of the hill. This game is not mandatory but obviously is a lot of (tiring) fun. Similar to the first day expect steep ascents. On the last day you will rise very early to hike up the hill separating the lake from the village and see the sunrise over stunning Lake Atitlán from the comfort of your sleeping bag. After three days of hiking this sight is a reward in itself and if you are very lucky like us, you will get to see the glow of lava in the dark coming from the Fuego Volcano near Antigua (the photo below shows the action in daytime)
Because of the steep ascents, the altitude and wearing a backpack with gear on the way we would rate the difficulty of this hike ‘average to difficult’. Shoes having good grip are recommended as well as having a relatively decent fitness level. Don’t let this discourage you as the photos below will show that the hike is well worth the effort!
Casa Argentina, Diagonal 12, 8-43, Zona 1, Quetzaltenango
750 GTQ without bag drop and 850 GTQ including bag drop in San Pedro
Average to difficult due to steep ascents, tricky paths (especially when muddy) and the additional backpack. Furthermore the elevation may impact your breathing so best to acclimatize in Xela for a few days before attempting this trek.
As always let us know below if you have any questions!