Hiking to Lake Atitlan

by Chris Warren

Perhaps the most rewarding hike I’ve ever done, the caminata from Xela to Lake Atitlan provides a great mix of highland scenery and rural village life that’s waaaay off the beaten path (meaning you should definitely enlist the services of a guide).

Setting off from nearby Xecam at dawn, a brisk climb straight up the mountainside started off our trip, and after an hour or so we were rewarded with dramatic views of Santa Maria, Tajumulco and the entire Quetzaltenango valley.  We ate breakfast and took in the vistas, looking forward to the rest of the day’s hike, which was almost all downhill!  Passing through Alaska (3000m above sea level), we enjoyed a nearly endless expanse of rolling farms, waterfalls and forest on the way to our afternoon destination of Chirix’Jamay.  We ate a late lunch upon arrival in the village and whiled away the rest of the afternoon chatting with local families and exploring the beautiful countryside.

Waking up before the sunrise the following day, we made coffee and watched the sun slowly paint the sky pink as it emerged from behind an imposing ridge to the east.  After breakfast we embarked on the most challenging day of the trek.  Descending through a pine forests coffee plantations, we saw a variety of vibrantly colored birds on our way to the rushing Rio Nahualate, where you can stop to soak in a natural hot spring.  Opting to stay cool, we pressed on and began the toughest climb of the trip, straight up the opposite side of a sweeping valley that offered 270° panoramic views at the summit.  We continued up a windy dirt track that eventually brought us to the village of Santa Clara la Laguna that evening.

The following morning was the ultimate payoff, a breathtaking sunrise over the lake and (count em) SEVEN VOLCANOS.  Besides the 3 lakeside volcanoes, this mirador provides views of Acatenango, Agua, Pacaya, as well as the continually erupting Fuego.  Truly spectacular!  The trail down to San Juan la Laguna is a real treat as well, affording nonstop views of the lake and surrounding mountains.  From there you can walk to neighboring San Pedro for some hard earned R&R or hop a bus to your next destination, knowing that you’ve conquered the best the Western Highlands have to offer.

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