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Quetzaltrekkers 3 Day Guatemala Hike Xela to Lago Atilan

Quetzaltrekkers 3 Day Guatemala Hike Xela to Lago Atilan

This is the story of how we walked ourselves from one town to another through the highlands of Guatemala. We trekked over 45km in 3 days with a very cool group, the Quetzaltrekkers.

They are a group strictly of volunteers that take hikers out on a number of Guatemala’s best hikes. All the money goes to charity, there is no formal management or overhead, current volunteers train the next wave of volunteers, with some local long term volunteers as well. The money goes to help support the at-risk youth of Xela.


Day 1

Our day started by hopping the only cab in the Central Park of Xela. We managed to enter the cab even without the apparently optional door handles. We stayed close to Central Park and Quetzaltrekkers is a good 25-minute walk, which we weren’t up for before the hike even started.

A pre-hike breakfast of eggs, fruit, and coffee gave us the juice to kick it off.

A look back over Xela from the trail head
A look back over Xela from the trailhead

After we dropped our bags, we were ready, and I was extra ready to get out of Xela (my least favorite city to date). We hiked with our pack to the chicken bus stop, about a half-hour away from the city. The bus then took us up to the start of the hike, going through dirt road villages surrounding Xela in the foothills of the Sierra Madres.


The first three parts up the hill before breaking into flat plains where we reach one of the highest points of the trek at around 10,000 feet (3000 Meters). We poke in and out of the cloud forest as we pass farms and small villages.

This interesting tree was very eerie looking as the clouds rolled over it while we were up in the cloud forest

After an hour of tough descent along a ridgeline, it was time for a lunch of veggie sandwiches and a much-needed break.


We watched local men and horse carrying amounts of wood on their back that made mine hurt just looking at them. And I saw where they were coming from and where they were headed… The same way we were, the same way that soaked my shirt in sweat, the same way that was difficult for us with expensive hiking gear with 1/3 of the weight. All they were equipped with was a rope around the wood and strap across their forehead.


The afternoon past relativity easily until we got to the road to town… The last hour of the hike felt like a death march. It wasn’t so much the current road but the culmination of the day.

The rest stop for the night in Santa Catarina. Everyone was wiped, we all sat our sleep mats out, took off our shoes, and we all just laid there for at least a half an hour. No one said much, just recovered until it was time to make dinner. Dinner was pasta, along with hot drinks and a bunch of veggies.

Recovery time in the community center at Santa Catarina
Recovery time in the community center at Santa Catarina

In between dinner and our early bedtime we got the chance clean up in a local Mayan Sauna. Running water is not a luxury that is available in the mountain villages of Guatemala, so instead, they construct small buildings outside their homes as a place to clean up and I guess relax. Basically a small shed with very short ceilings, a bench sits on the far side of the room, with two large jugs of water. One pot is placed touching rocks which are heated by wood, the rocks emit heat like a common sauna, and the hot water is used for washing. The water straight from the hot pot needs to be mixed with the second cold water pot to a temperature of your liking. After 15 minutes I was pretty smoky and as clean as I was going to get.

It was an interesting experience, I am not sure if I got a lot cleaner but if not it was pretty smokey and that probably helped covered up my stinky-ness.

I can’t complain because it rained a total of about 10 minutes while we were on the trail, but at night it more than made up for it. It was a rough night of sleep, to say the least, rain pounded on the tin roof, compounded by getting adjust to sleeping on the cement floor. If that’s wasn’t enough to wake you, the church bell struck every hour. They went off at midnight and every hour of the night. Oh yeah, then there must have been a lot of cocks in town that started Cock-adoodle-do-ing with the 3 am bell and did not stop until it was light out. The town seemed to have a built-in alarm clock that goes off at 530, and then as if someone hit snooze 5:45 and 6:00. I’m not sure how that town sleeps, but we managed to just enough to be able to hike Day 2.

Day 2

We awoke expecting to be too sore to move, but instead almost felt better than the 1st day. Spurred on by the promise of ice cream, Hannah was ready to take on Day 2 also.

First stop is the Comidor (The Spanish word for a small local restaurant) for a hearty breakfast of eggs, beans, rice, and of course piles and piles of tortillas!

Trek Day2-3

The hiking of the day starts with an hours walk on a gravel road out of last night’s town, Santa Catarina.

A little early morning comedy, well not for Hannah, she was a bit nervous to use the facilities the night before (for good reason) so after breakfast and a little hiking some need to find a hidden trail.

Trek Day2
Trek Day2-2

We pass through several valleys the ought the morning with some amazing views.

Victory Hill time

Trek Day3-7

To break up the morning and activate everyone’s competitive spirit there is one set of intense switch backs where you can challenge the best recorded time. The time to beat 9:11 minutes. We were just short of that coming in at about 26 minutes. However, we were told there had been worse, thankfully.

Ice cream!

Trek Day2-4

After making our tough climbs for the day it’s time for ice cream. Hannah claims its some of the best she has had in a long time, maybe it was the fact we had hiked 35km by this point.

Trek Day2-5

Lunch is earlier on day two in a nice little clearing with valley views, and there in the far distance is the day two’s rest stop.

Giant Corn Fields, I have know idea how the shorter Mayans can pick this corn. Some were nearly 15 feet tall (5m)
Giant Corn Fields, I have no know idea how the shorter Mayans can pick this corn. Some were nearly 15 feet tall (5m)
Trek Day2-7

On the way to our rest stop for tonight, we passed through fields of giant corn, and crossed the same river 9 times as we wound toward town! Tonight we sleep with Don Pedro, apparently somewhat of an international man of mystery in his town. He has constructed a special room in his home just to host the Quetzaltrekkers when they come through. He shares his house with us, where he and a few of his children and their families live. 12 grandchildren to be exact, some very cute and curious little kids. Our group may have been guilty of sugaring them up with marshmallows as we roasted them.

Oh and I almost forgot they fed us a huge meal too. Not to mention we called in our smoothie order from the trail, and our fresh fruit blended drinks were waiting for us when we arrived. Dinner was a nice piece of chicken with all the traditional sides, super good after 10 hours of hiking.

Sleeping was a nice step up from the community center floor. Tonight’s bed was still a floor but with a bonus straw mat, and a much smaller and warmer room.

Everyone was out like a light by 8 pm from the days’ hike and the anticipation of our 3:45 am wake up call to make the sunrise.

Day 3

The third day starts as we rise at 3:45 am, and on the road by 4:15. After a 30-minute star filled walk we arrive at our spot overlooking the lake and the surrounding volcanoes. This is it… This is why I did the trek!

Trek Day3

After trekking from Xela with Quetzaltrekkers our final morning was clear and before dawn where you could see thousand of stars. The clear skies also made for a great sunrise, I will let the pictures do the rest of the talking.

Trek Day3-3
Trek Day3-4

After all the pictures were taken it was breakfast time. Oatmeal, hot drinks, and the rest of our provisions were cooked up. There is a built in nap time in the morning that I thought was unnecessary when I first heard about it, but it actually was pretty nice to pass out for a few before the final descent to San Pedro.

Trek Day3-5

Once everyone is up from their siesta, it’s time to pack up and head down the final 1:30 – 2 hours. This descent was relatively steep down, with some spots with stairs installed, mostly toward the bottom. You overlook the lake most of the way down, so it makes it a pleasant way to finish up. We had two stops on the way down, first at a bench built into the hill about a third of the way down, then again at the large cross overlooking the towns of San Pedro and San Juan.

Trek Day3-6

It was a great way to finish 3 days of hiking through some remote areas of Guatemala. We planned ahead and made sure to book a nice room on the lake to recover from the hike. We stayed at Villa Sumaya right on the lake in the village of Santa Cruz. Anyone looking to challenge this hike I urge you to take a recovery night in a nice place, you will need it!


Tuesday 16th of October 2018

Wow! Awesome experience! Thank you for all the details- I’m excited to plan a trip with my brother to Guatemala, and we are really looking forward to hikes and camping. Do Quetzaltrekkers still plan hikes? What volcano hike is less traveled?


Monday 4th of February 2019

They are still doing hikes, no matter which you choose you'll only see the few other hikers in your group during your trek and some local farmers. We did Xela to Lago trek, but a few of the tall volcano routes really looked interesting too!

Gary Yeates

Thursday 19th of September 2013

Just found this site via tweeter. We did a quetzaltrekers trek through the Chuchumatan Mountains, tough but rewarding. At least you guys had cover, we had to spend one night under an awning in the pouring rain - character building. Enjoy Atitlan, its a stunner.


Tuesday 24th of September 2013

Glad you found us! When did you do your hike? I can't imagine hiking it in rain, that would have been really rough! Will check out your pictures, thanks for sharing with us.


Friday 13th of September 2013

That is a great way to see the country and also a great cause. Looks like a (tough) but fun hike, beautiful landscapes! Guatemala looks amazing hope to make it there sometime soon!


Sunday 15th of September 2013

We are so glad we decided to take the TOUGH but rewarding trek. It was an amazing experience, and highly suggest others to do it! Guatemala is truly amazing!