I’ve mentally asked myself that a hundred times already over the course of three days. We hadn’t moved far in the last five seconds since I last asked myself that annoying question only five-year-olds ask their parents in the car.
Forty-five kilometers is a long friggin’ way.
I continued to huff and puff my way up the muddy trail in search of my peers who were well ahead of me as I wheezed my way through the Guatemalan highlands from Xela to Lake Atitlan.
I always thought doing an Ironman would be the hardest physical endeavor I would do, but, man, was I ever wrong. I’m an avid hiker back home in Maine, and I didn’t even blink when I signed up for the Xela to Lake Atitlan trek with Quetzaltrekkers.
Guatemala is an incredible, beautiful, and diverse country. There is no better way to explore its landscape, culture, and people than by foot. My friend and fellow travel blogger, Laura of Grassroots Nomad, was in Quetzaltenango (or affectionately known as just Xela by the locals and tourists) studying Spanish. We planned to meet up in Xela, and she just so happened to have a few days off from her school, so we decided to sign up for the infamous Xela to Lake Atitlan Trek.
Since both of us prefer small eco-friendly travel companies, we chose to do the trek with Quetzaltrekkers. Started in 1995, Quetzaltrekkers is the only non-profit, all volunteer-run trekking company that donates all its proceeds to Associación Escuela de la Calle (EDELAC) to help children of the remote villages near Xela attend school. EDELAC currently helps over 200 children with their education, housing, medical, nutrition, and other needs. No other trekking company in Guatemala does this.
You might be able to find a cheaper trekking company to do the Xela to Lake Atitlan trek, but you won’t find another where your money goes to a good cause. That, my friends, is responsible tourism.
Our trek officially started the night before we left as we were required to attend the mandatory pre-trek meeting where we met our awesome volunteer guides, paid our fees, and received the items we would be carrying and borrowing any supplies we might need for the trek.
The next morning we met bright and early to drop off our excess luggage that would meet us in San Pedro La Laguna in a few days time and also finish out last minute packing. We began our journey by foot from the Quetzaltrekkers’ offices to the chicken bus stop. From there we hopped on a bus for the half hour ride to the small village of Secam.
Our group of 14 plus three guides were from all over the world. There was a lovely retired couple from England, a young Dutch couple traveling by van from Canada through South America, and several Canadians. There was a French author, a British school teacher on sabbatical and two Aussie girls on summer break. Our three guides were volunteers from the US and Canada.
After throwing our bags on our shoulders it off for, arguably, the hardest part of the trail. The first half mile of the trail is pretty much straight up. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but Xela sits at 7,640 feet (2,330 m) above sea level and, I literally just came from a week of diving under the sea.
My lungs were burning, and I could barely get a breath in. I wheezed, and I struggled. For many of my fellow trekkers, this was a walk in the park. I hike a lot in Maine and never had any problems before, so I was extremely frustrated. I’ve lived in Montana, so I was familiar with living at elevation, but then I quickly remembered that I was prone to nosebleeds while I ran in Bozeman.
It was time that I put my ego aside and accept that Mother Nature was putting me in my place. Slow and steady would get me to Lake Atitlan. Hopefully in one piece.
After what seemed like hours of climbing through the forest, I finally reached the rest of the group who were quietly snacking on trail mix in Alaska. Unlike the state of Alaska in the United States, the village of Alaska, Guatemala is a tiny farming village at 10,105 feet (3,080 m).
Thankfully, Alaska was our highest point of the trek. While I would love to say it was downhill from here, it was not. It was a lot of ups and downs.
Lunch was served early afternoon on the trail. Each of us carried food items that constituted our meal. I got stuck with a bag of avocados and peanut butter. From our supply, the guides laid out a delicious spread for us to feast on and, boy, were we hungry!
After lunch, it took us an hour to reach the main road to the village. We passed locals carrying heavy bundles of wood and crops on their heads barefoot up the trails with ease. And here I was still wheezing my way down the hill.
Once we made it to the road, it was still another hour to our homestay. Our homestay was in a basic concrete house with thin mattresses and traditional blankets. A lone flushing toilet and cold shower completed the building.
The guides allowed us to enjoy the traditional sauna, known as the temazcal, in small groups while they cooked us dinner. Laura and I lasted about five minutes before the dry air started to burn our lungs, but it was nice to at least bathe the stench off of us with hot water.
Bundled in Mayan blankets and winter hats, we chowed down on a hot meal of noodles and hot chocolate. Most of us called it an early night as we had to be up early again for day two of the trek.
After hiking 18 kilometers on the first day, I slept pretty well. I woke to the church bells ringing and slowly made my way out under my warm pile of blankets to the cold morning air. The temperature easily dropped to around 30 degrees at night making me glad I packed my favorite red hat and a warm fleece.
Our homestay family served a breakfast of simple rice, beans, and eggs. It was basic but hit the spot as we prepared for another long day of trekking through the Guatemalan highlands. We walked along a mountainside road with stunning views of the valley and farmlands below. After our first snack break, the sun had come out enough that we shed our warm clothes for t-shirts.
Eventually, we forked off the road and followed the trail down the valley only to reach the foot of the famous “Record Hill.” Record Hill is a steep hill with a narrow path where you gain 200 vertical meters in a matter of minutes.
Guides call it “Record Hill” because it’s a race to the top. The current record (last I knew at least) was nine minutes and three seconds. Two of our guides could do it around that time. Most of our group finished between 14 and 20 minutes.
I struggled. And, I struggled hard.
I started off strong, but then the trail got very narrow with a steep drop on one side. Between my inability to breathe due to the altitude and my fear of heights, I started to have a full-on anxiety attack on the trail.
And, I was completely alone at this point.
Eventually, one of the guides came down to check on me and the older British couple who were also struggling at this point. The lovely guide carried my pack the rest of the way for me while I wheezed my way to the top and collapsed in front of the group.
I have no idea how long it took me, but I know I didn’t set any records. Or maybe the record for taking the longest?
Once I managed to recover with some shreds of dignity, we were off again. This time through the village where we got ice cream at a local shop. I got two. After that effort, I deserved it.
We passed through the village where young Guatemalan children would run up to us and yell “hola.” We smiled, waved, and returned the greetings. Dogs roamed the streets and trails as we passed. Occasionally we got a short glimpse of daily life inside one the small, sparse homes.
An hour later we walked amongst the vast cornfields. We stop for lunch and to sing one of our guides “Happy Birthday.” Our bags lighten a bit after lunch due to the shrinking food supply. It was a welcomed relief.
For the rest of the day, we followed and crossed a river nine times to reach our next homestay in Xiprian. It felt incredible to take off our shoes and slip on our borrowed water shoes to make the crossings.
After making our last river crossing through the cold flowing water, it was time for our final test of strength – “The Cornfield of Death.”
The guides would not tell us about the cornfield until we reached it. None of us knew what to expect, but I don’t think any of us were surprised to find it was another steep uphill trail through a cornfield.
It wasn’t as bad as “Record Hill,” but it still hurt. I decided to put on my big girl panties and make it to the top with dignity. By some stroke of luck, I was able to do just that.
We walked another 20 minutes on paved roads, and we finally reached Don Pedro’s house where we would spend the night in a small room. We ate dinner, roasted marshmallows, and hit the sack early as we needed to be up and ready for 4:30 am. Sunrises don’t wait for late sleepers.
After a rather sleepless night of loud snoring and dogs barking, we were up early to begin the short hike to the lookout point for the sunrise over Lake Atitlan. Two police officers escorted us as robberies have occurred in the past. I felt completely safe despite the added security.
We reached our spot, and we all immediately climbed into our sleeping bags to stay warm while our guides cooked our last breakfast of oatmeal. Hot water was soon ready, and we all filled our mugs with tea, coffee, and hot chocolate.
Sunrise came and went, and so did our breakfast. Once the sun was up, it was time for us to begin our last descent into the town of San Juan. It took us close to two hours to climb down the steep, but a well-trodden path to a coffee cooperative for morning tea.
Our last adventure wasn’t quite over. Instead of walking the final distance to San Pedro, our group of 17 piled into a back of an old pickup. First, we stacked out bags, and then we all somehow managed to squeeze onto the vehicle. It was a bit of a bumpy road, but we all made it to San Pedro in one piece.
We spend our last couple of hours together celebrating the trek at a local restaurant on the lake. The food is delicious, and we devour it in a matter of minutes. After three days and 45 kilometers, it was time to say goodbye to all my new friends.
The Xela to Lake Atitlan trek is one of the hardest physical endeavors I have done, but it was 100% worth it. The vistas and views during the trek are stunning, and you get to see a rare slice of daily life in the remote highland villages of Guatemala. And, it was all for charity which is the true icing on the cake.