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Quetzaltrekkers Hike from Xela to Lake Atitlán: A Survival Guide

So you’ve decided to take the plunge and go on a multi-day hike – it’s a big step (excuse the pun). If you’re like us, maybe you’ve done some day hikes, and sometimes been exhausted after even these. How can you possibly keep this up for a few days?

Quetzaltrekkers, based in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala offer a perfect introduction to multi-day hiking. Known as Xela by the locals, Quetzaltenango is located in the north of Guatemala, not too far from the border with Mexico. It offers a lot of schools for learning Spanish, but other than that, tourists may be forgiven for thinking that there isn’t really too much to do here.

So maybe you should just leave …. by hiking for 3 days across volcano-strewn landscapes back to your favourite place in Guatemala, Lake Atitlán? That’s exactly what we did, after spending a week improving our Spanish in PLQ.

If you’re planning to visit Lake Atitlan – make sure to check out our travel guide here for everything you need to know!

Organising the Hike

Luckily for us, we found a lovely Airbnb to stay in while learning Spanish in Xela. This had another added benefit – it’s down the road from Casa Argentina, the hostel which Quetzaltrekkers use as a base. We had done some reading about the trek, and decided to turn up in person and ask some questions.

Haven’t used Airbnb yet? Join using this link and get €30 toward your first trip. You’re welcome!


Quetzaltrekkers also provide a unique viewpoint for choosing them. They aim to provide education to children living in homeless or low-income situations. All profits from the treks go to Escuela de la Calle. It’s an organisation which provides education, housing, and support to disadvantaged children in Xela. The definition of responsible tourism!

Since it was our first multi-day hike, we probably needed some reassurance. Looking back on it now we’d say we were far more confident. The volunteers in the office were super nice, welcoming, informative, and before long we were signing ourselves up.


The treks to Lake Atitlán leave every Tuesday and Saturday, so take this into account for planning. You can see dates for other treks on the Quetzaltrekkers calendar

Meeting the Group

Once you’ve committed, there’s a mandatory group meeting in Casa Argentina at 6pm the night before you leave. You get to meet the people you’ll be trekking with (don’t worry there will be plenty more opportunities) and the guides who will be taking care of you for the next three days.

Our group turned out to be a massive one – twenty six in total, which was unusually large. This meant we got three guides accompanying us for the trek. They were quick to introduce themselves – Bryan, Madison and Emily.

The group turned out to be a mix of Irish, English, American, Kiwi and Israeli – over half the group was Israeli. Everyone got the basic information of what to bring and a quick route overview. Then we got some communal food to carry, sleeping bags and mats, and it was off home to pack and get some sleep.

Quetzaltrekkers also offer a bag-drop service to the lake (100Q / $13US but well worth it). So if you don’t want to carry everything you’ve been lugging around, they will bring it to the lake the day you arrive. Everybody took advantage of this, and you can even borrow a backpack to store stuff in. We planned to use our own big backpacks while hiking, so stored all additional stuff in a spare bag. It’s stored in a secure room, and we had no problems doing this.

The Hike: Quetzaltrekkers Xela – Lake Atitlán

Quick Facts:

  • Maximum elevation – 3050m
  • Total trek distance – 46km
  • Average per day – 16km / 8 hours hiking
  • Average backpack weight – 10 kg (unless you decide to take all your stuff along like one girl on the hike!)

Quetzaltrekkers Hike Day 1

The first day starts bright and early with breakfast at Casa Argentina, and the opportunity to drop off your extra luggage. Next is usually the chicken bus to the start of the hike, but since the group was so large, we ended up getting two private minibuses to the start.

Next was some cheesy group introductions to get everyone in a good mood and break the ice. It worked, and soon we were hiking up the hills chatting away to everyone. Of course the conversation quickly became quite limited, as the first few kilometers were straight up the hill. Never mind doing a multiday hike, when it’s at altitude you can get puffed just thinking about walking!

Reaching Alaska

The worst bit of the day is over when you reach “Alaska”, the spot on top of the hill where everyone tucked in to the pre-prepared trail mix (homemade and fantastic!). Alaska is the highest point in the trek, so all downhill from here … right? Not quite.

We continued on through farmland, clouds, mountains and forests, where we were treated to some spectacular views. Walking along a ridge through the clouds is a unique experience. Lunch was served early in the afternoon, on a small ridge sheltered by the forest, and consisted of a mix of the communal food everyone had been carrying. All simple food, but it felt like a feast.

After lunch we had another hour of hiking, until we finally reached a road, and some sign of civilisation. Only another 40 mins along this road, we finally made it to Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan, and our accommodation for the night. The town children benefit a lot from the Quetzaltrekkers charity, and so they offer the town hall up for accommodation for the treks. Its simple facilities, with sleeping bags and mats laid out in a big hall, but its a roof over your head which is a bonus.

Temazcal

After a dinner of pesto spaghetti and cheese, and some cups of hot chocolate, we had the opportunity to visit a local house and use the temazcal, a traditional Mayan sauna. A weird experience, but it was nice to be able to wash some of the dirt and sweat off. Most people turned in soon after, as we would have and early start in the morning.

Quetzaltrekkers Hike Day 2

While you might think that sleeping on the floor of a concrete town hall isn’t that comfortable, after hiking approx 18 km the first day, people slept surprisingly well, if not perfectly. Rising early for breakfast provided by the townspeople, we were packed up and on the road soon after the sun came up.

Today, our route meandered along a cliff-side road out of the village. With towering mountains on our left, and magnificent views of a deep valley on our right, it was a morning to remember. The road slowly descended into the valley, where at one point we stopped for the requisite trail mix and some photos.

Ice Cream Hill

Making our way to the bottom of the valley, we were faced with the ominous task of Ice Cream Hill. Don’t let the name fool you. Its hard. So-called for the reward of buying ice cream in the village at the top, you gain 200 meters straight up in about 20 minutes. That’s a lot. We struggled. It was slow going.

The trail starts off with some steep switchbacks up the hill, and slowly narrows into a ridge with steep drop-offs on either side. There are some cool views back along the valley too.

After reaching the top (or nearly the top), we flopped down on the grass at the side of the track for some water. Then it was on to the village, navigating past dogs, chickens and cows to purchase our ice creams and/or chocobananas – frozen bananas covered in a layer of chocolate. Yum. We definitely deserved it.

After the well-deserved break, we left the small village to make our way back into the cornfields. As we did, we passed lots of fancy looking houses, both finished and half-built. Apparently local people have moved abroad for a better job/life, and send money home as they earn it. Rather than trusting it to a bank, they buy building materials when they can, and literally save their money in the form of a slowly-constructed house. So while it might look a bit messy to us, that’s their form of a bank account. Pretty cool to see.

Walking Through the Clouds

Back to the cornfields. Making our way over and between the hills and cornfields, the landscape again provided us with so many cool photo opportunities. It slowly turned into another small ridge through the cloud forest, leaving us to literally walk in the clouds. Soon we stopped for lunch in the middle of the cloud forest, again lightening our bags of the communal food.

Next it was on to the fun part. Descending steeply down the hill from our lunch spot on the ridge, we made our way into the valley. One of the rivers in the area navigates its way through the bottom of the valley. The task for the afternoon – we had to cross this river nine times over the course of our hike. Thankfully the river wasn’t very high, so there was no need to take off shoes for the crossings – maybe they wouldn’t have gone back on easily.

The Cornfield of Death

Then it was on to the final obstacle for the day – The Cornfield of Death. While the guides hadn’t given us too much information about it, it was pretty obvious it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. After the last river crossing, it turned out that it was another steep climb through a cornfield. We do take issue with the naming conventions on the hike, as this was definitely easier than Ice Cream Hill.

After a short hike along a main road, we arrived at Don Pedros House, our accommodation for the night in Santa Clara la Laguna. Apparently on night two, the treks used to camp near the viewpoint at Lake Atitlan, but one group got robbed so the treks got cancelled for a while. Until Don Pedro heard about and offered his house. Along with his wife, they cook dinner for the whole group and then provide room for everyone to sleep.

Singing Round the Campfire

They also provide a big campfire in the middle of the open space for everyone to keep the chill away. We definitely took advantage of this, drinking beers, roasting marshmallows and playing board games by the fire. This was soon replaced by the musically talented Israelis, who managed to find guitars to add to the melodica they were carrying around, and soon started up an impressive singsong.

Unfortunately (or fortunately) everyone grouped in and decided to head to bed around eleven. The thought of being up at 4 in the morning for sunrise will do that for you I guess.

Quetzaltrekkers Hike Day 3

After a short nights sleep, we were up and gone from Don Pedros at 4.30 am the next morning. Making our way through Santa Clara la Laguna in the dark, we were soon joined by two tourist police. Don’t worry, its just for your security. Apparently there have been occasional robberies in the areas around the lake.

After a short hike in the dark, we reached our destination – an open field not far from the Indian Nose viewpoint on the lake. It has super panoramic views of the lake. Best of all it pretty much faces directly east, perfect for the sunrise.

Breakfast at Sunrise

Bags were dropped, sleeping mats brought out to sit on, and the last remaining communal food sourced from everyone’s backpack. While we watched the sun come up and took our photos, the guides prepared oatmeal, coffee and hot chocolate for everyone. But the best part (according to Roz) was the homemade peanut butter. Probably one of the most scenic breakfasts we’ve had.

The days agenda was descending along a ridge to the town of San Juan la Laguna. After about two hours making our way down the hill, we reached the viewpoint above San Juan. You can find it easily, with a giant mirrored cross on top. Apparently the mirror is to make it flash in the sunlight when seen from the town. After taking a group photo, we finished the last half-hour hiking, giving our names to a park ranger on the way down.

Our final destination was La Voz coffee cooperative, where we would be picked up. Everyone ordered some variety of coffee, and finished off any leftover trail mix. The final step was piling into the back of two pick-up trucks. Twenty-six people and bags made these pretty crowded. The cars brought us to El Fondadero restaurant in San Pedro la Laguna, where we could wait for our bags to arrive from Xela.

Finito

Our time at El Fondadero consisted of everyone changing into swimming stuff and immediately jumping in the lake. There were two options, either make your way down to the jetty and easily jump in, or leap off the platform at the restaurant. Despite mastering the cliff jump in San Marcos, we both went for the easier option.

The lake was nicely cool and refreshing after hiking through the heat for three days. An added benefit was washing some of the dirt and sweat off.

Lunch at El Fondadero was included, so it was just a matter of waiting. Surprisingly, this turned out to be peoples least favourite meal of the whole hike. The fresh guacamole, salads and tortilla chips just couldn’t be beaten.

Once bags arrived, it was the end of the trek, and people were free to split up and move off to wherever the next stop was. Surprisingly, after spending 3 days and 46 kilometers together, we weren’t sick of each other yet. A few of us spent a day or two more at the lake together chilling out.

Looking for somewhere to stay when you arrive at Lake Atitlan? There’s some amazing Airbnbs! Check out our post with the tops ones here.

Overall, a great introduction to multi-day hiking. Led by three guides across the views and vistas of the Guatemalan highlands, it was a stunning hike. Plus it directly contributed to charity, so we were able to feel a bit better about ourselves as well. Did we mention that the guides were all volunteers? Doing it for their love of hiking, and meals included on the trek, they led 26 gringos through the wilderness for three days to arrive at Lake Atitlán. Amazing stuff.

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