To get from Xela to Lake Atitlán, both in Guatemala, you can take a direct shuttle (mini) bus for less than 3 hours which offers a door to door service from and to your chosen accommodation. Alternatively you can trek for 3 days (a cross country route of some 46 km with a maximum elevation of 3050m).
No prizes for guessing which option we chose! And although some of our luggage was transferred for us, we still had to carry about 10kg each including sleeping bags, sleeping mats, a change of clothes, rain gear, some food and 3 litres of water each day. Unfortunately, there was no opportunity to hire any porters on this trek which just added to its challenges.
The first day started quite rudely both with a 6am meeting time at the trekking company and then, after a short hop on a “chicken bus”, a pretty sharp 2 hour or so ascent, to a small village called Alaska at 3050m where unfortunately the view of the surrounding volcanoes was a little obscured by the rainclouds.
However despite hearing loud claps of thunder from lunchtime onwards, which became increasingly ominous in the last hour or so of walking, the rain held off until the middle of the night (by which time we were safely “tucked up” in sleeping bags on sleeping mats on the hard floor of the rather grand municipal building in the tiny village of Antigua Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan). Somewhat surprisingly, there were no snorers in our group of 16 and so once you got yourself at least quasi-accustomed to the hardness of the floor, it wasn’t too bad a night’s sleep, probably because we were pretty exhausted after our 16km slog up and down dale.
Before bed time on day 1, we encountered our latest novel bathing experience, this time in a temazcal (a traditional Mayan sauna), which, from the outside, essentially looked like a large pizza oven into which we had to crawl on hands and knees and then there was just enough head room to sit on a wooden bench inside. It was a sort of traditional sauna set up with a bucket of hot water, one of cold water and a third empty bucket in which you mixed the hot and cold together to your preferred temperature and then poured it over you. It was actually pretty refreshing and very welcome after the day of hiking although getting in and out of the temazcal wasn’t particularly dignified nor was the outdoor changing area particularly private (it had a few sheets hanging down which were meant to protect your modesty although these were not exactly water tight it has to be said. Mind you, by this time it was dark anyway so we didn’t feel too exposed.)
The second day of the trek again started early at around 5.30am with a huge breakfast in what was probably the village’s only “comedor” (local canteen). Breakfast comprised eggs, tortillas and lots of black beans (of course) followed by a pancake and a banana washed down with some local strong black coffee. This set us up well for the 20km hike ahead of us.
Today we were not so lucky with the weather: before 11.00am just after we’d finished another steep climb, the rain began in earnest and unfortunately didn’t stop for the rest of the day. A key challenge was to try and find somewhere for lunch as none of us really fancied picnicking in the open air with the rain pouring down: in the end we had to gather in the local public laundry area (just outside of a the small town of Tzucubal) which fortunately was empty when we arrived but after a while, a number of locals turned up to use the facility and were somewhat surprised to see a large group of tourists sheltering here eating their lunch. Fortunately there was enough room for everyone and we soon moved on anyway.
Just before we arrived at our final destination for the night (another small town called Xiprian), the group split: one group climbed up the hill and took a pickup truck for a short journey and the other group faced the “cornfield of death”, a steep muddy climb through a cornfield (made all the muddier because of the incessant rain). However there were no casualties and both groups converged at the casa of Don Pedro at around the same time where we had a hot meal, a hot shower and a chance to sit around a camp fire trying to dry out our soggy kit. We then spent another night on mats on a hard floor but again, fortunately, we were inside which was just as well as there was more rain overnight.
Sunrise over the lake
The third and final day started even earlier at 3.30am with a walk out of Xiprian in the dark to a viewpoint overlooking Lago Atitlán in time for sunrise where we also enjoyed breakfast. Then we began the long descent down through a coffee plantation to the water’s edge. Once we’d revitalised ourselves with a cup of coffee at a coffee co-operative in San Juan, all 16 of us (together with all our rucsacs) piled into one pick-up truck and had a short ride round to San Pedro (the next village on the lakeside) and that was where we ended the adventure. We had all arrived safely in San Pedro albeit with a few aching limbs but all with high spirits and enough energy to jump into the lake for a swim and a chance to grab a celebratory beer.
The rather picturesque San Pedro la Laguna