Xela to Lake Atitlan 3-Day Trek with Quetzaltrekkers in 2023

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One of our favourite experiences and memories from our time in Guatemala was our 3-day trek from Xela to Lake Atitlan with Quetzaltrekkers. Lake Atitlan is must-see place for any visitor in Guatemala and trekking to the Lake allowed us to get off the beaten path and an incredibly rewarding feeling of getting there on our own two feet.

But, first where is Xela? Xela is Guatemala’s second largest city, although you will likely see it on the map as Quetzaltenango. While it doesn’t see the tourist traffic that Antigua and Lake Atitlan do, it is a popular destination for visitors wanting to study Spanish and experience a real Guatemalan city.

Getting to Xela

Travel times in Guatemala vary dramatically depending on the traffic and mode of transportation. Most visitors will use the tourist shuttles to get between cities, although it is possible to take the chicken bus or private transfers as well. You can book the shuttles with your accommodation provider or any tour companies.

Xela is located 3-5 hours from Guatemala City, 3-4 hours from Antigua and 2-3 hours from Lake Atitlan. Located at 2,330 m (7,640 ft), it can be quite chilly especially in the evenings in Xela with temperatures getting down to 5 degrees C in the winter. If you plan on doing the trek, you should plan to spend a few days in Xela or other places in Guatemala at elevation before the hike, in order to acclimatize.

We took the chicken bus to Xela, after our great stay in Antigua.

About the Xela to Lake Atitlan Trek

The trek covers 46 km over 3 days, making this a trip for experienced hikers and campers with good physical fitness. The track winds its way up and down many mountains with walking on rural roads, single track hiking trails and through farm fields. You will be carrying a large backpack with all of your supplies, a sleeping bag and mat, communal food items and 3 L of water. We have a full list of what you should bring on this trek later in the article, but rest assured that you can loan most items from Quetzaltrekkers. 

While there are a number of operators offering this hike, we can strongly recommend Quetzaltrekkers. In addition to offering a great experience, their trips are volunteer run with all profits going to support a school and shelter in Xela. The current cost of the 3-day Xela to Lake Atitlan hike is 950 GTQ ($122 USD), making this an excellent value. The cost includes your guides, gear loan, food (3 breakfasts, 3 lunches, 2 dinners, and snacks), nightly accommodation in homestays, and even a temescal (traditional Mayan sauna). You can also pay an additional 100 GTQ to have your bags transferred to the end point in San Pedro la Laguna (Lake Atitlan) at the end of the trek.  This is Quetzaltrekkers most popular trip and they depart twice a week – Tuesdays and Saturdays.

Detailed Xela to Lake Atitlan Hike Guide

There is a mandatory pre-trek meeting at 6 pm the night before the trek at the Qetzaltrekkers headquarters – which is at the back of a slightly sketchy hostel.  This was a great opportunity to meet our guides, meet our fellow trekkers, and hear more about the hike and what to bring. This was also the time to make final payments, sign waivers, borrow any gear that you need, and get communal food that you will be carrying. The only gear we needed to borrow was sleeping bags and sleeping mats, but they do have packs, warm clothes, and even hiking shoes.  You can also rent hiking poles for a 100Q deposit, which we recommend.

Day 1 Stats:

18 km walked. Total elevation gain 800 m

The Before Group photo

Day 1 starts early at 6 am at Qetzaltrekkers headquarters for a group breakfast.  The whole group sat down together with a hearty breakfast of eggs and potatoes and hot drinks prepared by our guides Kelly and Candy. We had brought our bags that would be transferred to Lake Atitlan and our packed backpacks.  This is the last time you see a “real” toilet until you arrive at the evening’s homestay. After that bathroom breaks are in the woods.

After breakfast the day begins with an “urban hike” for about 2 km to the chicken bus that takes you to the start of the trek. This is then followed by a 30 minute chicken bus ride, where the walking begins. Before we even started our trek, we stopped to play a name game and get to know each other. After, the trek starts with a significant uphill stretch, but we took breaks every 30 minutes, and spent the time chatting to our fellow trekkers and getting to know each other.

Once you reach the top, you are rewarded with gorgeous views of the valleys and countryside and your guides will point out the various volcanoes that can be seen. There are lots of little surprises along the way that I won’t spoil for you, but which gave us extra motivation and appreciation for our guides. The walking is a mixture of forest and farmer’s fields with gorgeous views. After walking for many hours, we were excited to arrive at our lunch spot and super impressed with the amazing spread that appeared.

One of the things I appreciated the most about this trek was the little touches and the effort that went into building a cohesive group. By the end of the first day, I felt like I had gotten to know each of the 11 other hikers in our group and we had become a cohesive little group.

There was more walking and great views in the afternoon before we arrived at our home for the night in the Mayan village of Santa Catarina. We were staying in the home of a family and were all quite exhausted when we arrived. We spread out our sleeping pads and bags on the floor and washed our hands and faces (the very fine volcanic dirt makes for very dusty hiking). We bought some Pepsi at a tienda in town, marvelled at the gorgeous murals and sat outside talking some more.

On the first night, you get to experience a traditional Mayan temescal, which is like a small sauna.  You go in groups of two and your guide will create a schedule.  We definitely recommend trying out the temescal – we felt so refreshed and clean afterwards! While we were relaxing in the temescal, the guides prepared a hearty pasta dinner and hot drinks.  After dinner, we gathered in a circle and shared our “rose, thorn and bud” from the day – an excellent reflective activity that continued to bond us together. And then it was right off to bed, exhausted as we were. It was chilly at night so you definitely want warm clothes to stay warm. You can refill your water with filtered water each evening.

Day 2 Stats:

18 km walked. 600 m elevation gain

Day 2 is a 6 am wakeup, pack up and head to a comidor in Santa Catarina for breakfast.  The lovely couple prepared us a traditional Guatemalan breakfast with hot drinks to wake us up and then we were off walking again just after 8 am. Paul had gotten some blisters on day 1, but Kelly, our guide, was prepared with moleskin and tape and patched him up.

It was another great day of walking with some beautiful cliffs, through farm friends and overlooking some impressive valleys. As you walk, you can observe villagers going about their way farming, collecting firewood, and lots of building activity.

We had a big uphill in the morning, nicknamed “ice cream mountain” because at the top we took a break at a tienda for some ice cream in the town of Tzucubal.  This town was noticeably more prosperous and has a lot of residents that are/have gone to the US to work. I really liked how Quetzaltrekkers and our guide, Kelly, gave us important information about Guatemala throughout the trek. In Tzucubal we learned more about the importance of remittances to the people in these rural villages. We also talked about the dangers Guatemalans face working as undocumented migrants and the journey and risks they take getting to the US.

After enjoying one or more ice creams and feeling energized, we continued on our way through paths of cornfields until we reached our lunch spot.  We had another delicious lunch (the comidor at breakfast had restocked our lunch containers) of eggs, beans, potatoes, tortillas, rice and fruit and spent an hour resting our bodies (loved our multi-use sleeping pads)!

In the afternoon, we had 7 river crossings and since we were in the dry season, we could easily hop across the rocks. We were spent by the time we got to our home for the night – another homestay – this time in Xiprian. Here we were treated to showers and quickly numbered off to take turns.  Unlike the previous village which was a dry village, we were also able to buy a cold beer.  Dinner that night was a home cooked meal – tamales, chicken, rice, veggies, beans and pasta for the vegetarians.  For dessert, we sat around the fire enjoying smores and marshmallows and once again reflected on our day with our rose, thorn and bud. It was another early night as we set up our sleeping mats on the floor once again.

Day 3 Stats:

8 km walked. 200 m elevation gain

Day 3 of the Xela to Lake Atitlan trek starts really early with a 3:30 am wake up because you are reaching the awesome grand finale of the hike where you get to watch the sunrise over Lake Atitlan.  We were moving by 4 am, walking in the street-lit street and to the lookout over the Lake. You start to merge with travellers doing the sunrise tour of Indian Nose, but we headed off towards our own peaceful mirador. It was chilly in the early morning so once we got there we set up our sleeping pads and snuggled into our sleeping bags. It was 5 am and we had about 45 minutes to watch the stars and Volcano Fuego erupting.  It was pure magic and then it got even more magical as the morning glow starting to illuminate the sky. We got a beautiful and clear sunrise – You couldn’t take enough photos!

We enjoyed banana bread, coffee and hot drinks and oatmeal on the mirador and reveled in the specialness of this experience. Eventually, we set out for the walk downhill to the San Juan Mirador, enjoying the spectacular views of the Lake shimmering below. At the mirador, we stopped and Kelly told us more about the political history of Guatemala and the interference from the United Fruit Company and the US government. This exploitative neoclassicalism in Guatemala and other Central American countries (often called Banana Republics) tragically led to decades of political instability.   

We continued down the final stretch to the Lake Atitlan town of San Juan and the social enterprise, Alma de Colores, where we enjoyed fresh fruit and a cold drink.  Alma de Colores trains and employs disabled workers in their restaurant and craft shop.  We heard from the manager and one of the employees about the organization

While the walking was done, the tour wasn’t yet. We loaded into the back of a pickup and headed to a restaurant right in the main tourist stretch of backpacker town, San Pedro La Laguna. We ordered more cold drinks and chose from many lunch choices, from fresh fish to burgers and pizza. In typical Guatemalan fashion, the food takes a while to come out, but that gave us time to swim in the lake and jump off the huge platform at the restaurant. It also gave us a chance to reflect on our time together, including starting a What’s App group and Google drive to share photos. The driver from Xela arrived with our bags and we repacked and returned our gear.

It was an incredible hike made even better by the amazing Quetzaltrekkers touches, our guide and our fellow trekkers. We said our goodbyes with lots of hugs at 2 pm and we were all off to showers, real beds and some relaxation time.

Our After photo – Sunrise over Lake Atitlan

Quetzaltrekkers Review

While there are a number of companies that offer this trek, we were thoroughly impressed with Quetzaltrekkers. The guides are volunteers that commit to a minimum of 3 months with Quetzaltrekkers and all proceeds of the trekking trips go to supporting a school and shelter in Xela. The price of 950Q is excellent value, but you can feel good knowing it is going to a great cause.

We were really impressed with how well organized the trip was and all of the thoughtful surprises that Kelly and Quetzaltrekkers pulled out along the way. The food was fantastic and they catered really well to a variety of dietary restrictions.  We also really appreciated learning about Guatemala, the Mayan people and its history, both past and present. Our group really hit it off and became fast friends, but we also appreciated the little things that were done to build the group dynamic. 

The route is tough, but the views (especially the sunrise over the Lake) make it totally worth it. We also valued the thoughtful choices Quetzaltrekkers makes in supporting the homestays and businesses that support the trek. 

Guatemala Trekking Packing List

In the pre-trek meeting, your Quetzaltrekkers guides will go over what to bring. They will also loan you pretty much anything that you might need from backpacks to hiking shoes to warm layers.

  1. 40-50 L Backpack – we are big Osprey fans
  2. Headlamp – Petzl make the best ones
  3. Clothes Layers – no cotton, pick quick-drying fabrics
  4. Sturdy hiking shoes/boots. You can do it in runners, but hiking shoes fare better.
  5. Sun hat and perhaps a toque for evenings
  6. Hiking Poles – if are coming from your home country, bring them. If not, you can borrow them from Quetzaltrekkers with a 100Q deposit.
  7. Sleeping bag liner (not needed, but if you have one, we recommend bringing it). They provide warm sleeping bags at camp and while they seemed clean, we like using liners.
  8. 3 L water/person. If you have a bladder that you can use in your backpack, you hydrate more. If not, you can bring Nalgenes or plastic waterbottles. They have filtered water and plastic bottles you can use at their office.
  9. Camera (phone) – don’t want to forget that! We also like to always have a Battery Bank with us to charge on the go, although you could charge each evening.
  10. Sunscreen and sunglasses (no need for mosquito spray during the dry season)
  11. Money for ice cream, beer, snacks (not needed) and guide tips at the end
  12. Toilet paper, hand sanitizer, wet wipes (it was very dusty in the dry season)
  13. Toiletries

Xela to Lake Atitlan Trek with Kids

Should you take your kids on the Xela to Lake Atitlan trek? Quetzaltrekkers specifies the trek is for those 18+ and a private family trek can be arranged for families. This trek is physically demanding and conditions are basic so we would only suggest it for kids over 10 who have considerable hiking and camping experience. Our kids did really well and usually enjoyed walking at the front of the pack, but they have done a number of multi-day treks. I felt comfortable that our kids would be able to keep up and not slow the group down and they definitely rose to the occasion. When I booked the trip, I had emailed them about joining a scheduled group and thankfully Quetzaltrekkers was okay with that (I may have mentioned that they had trekked in Nepal).

Our group ranged in age from our 11 year old, all the way up to a very-fit 76-year old with most in their mid-late twenties. The group was awesome with our kids and engaged them in lots of great conversations. I know this is a trip our boys will always remember, not just for the beautiful scenery and pictures, but for all those moments along the trail and meeting fellow travellers with so many interesting stories to share.

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