Hiking in Central America – Is it for you?
Have you ever thought of Central America as a hiking destination? If not, you may be missing some great opportunities? One of the best is a stunning hike through the less travelled highlands of Guatemala. The hike takes us from Guatemala’s 2nd largest city, Quetzaltenango (often referred to as ‘Xela’) to the magical Lake Atitlan! Our Destination Manager for Central America, Becky Nichols de Rocha, undertook this trip recently. Here is her reflection on that magical hike.
Starting from Antigua, it’s only a two-hour drive to Xela (pronounced shey-la.) With its colonial style buildings, generous share of tasty restaurants, Spanish schools and a younger ex-pat community, it’s got a nice ambience and seems like the perfect place to start our hike! We decided that one day here before hand is good, but you could just as easily spend several more enjoyable days here.
The motto of the guiding company we use is, “Hike volcanoes. Help kids.” And that they do extremely well. They are a non-profit, all-volunteer run trekking, hiking and outdoors association in Guatemala, with sister organizations in Nicaragua, Bolivia and Australia, a fabulous bunch of people with which to spend a few days in the wilderness.
We met the evening before our early morning departure for a tour briefing and to pick up our part of the needed gear: pots, pans, fresh and dry food; I got the avocadoes, pasta and oranges! We’re also supplied anything we’re personally short of, like sleeping bags, boots and water bottles. We asked our multitude of questions, met our soon-to-be hiking buddies, then headed back to our base for last minute packing–that box of red wine would prove itself necessary in the coming days.
An early breakfast had us walking to La Rotunda bus stop by 7 am. There we would pick up a local chicken bus for the 35-minute drive to the village of Xecam, the start of the hike. Xela and its surrounding areas sit at around 2300 metres, so my being out of breath wasn’t entirely due to my lack of fitness. And today, we were going up to 3050 meters, something to look forward to, I thought.
The eight of us hailed from Australia, New Zealand, Israel and Germany, our volunteer guides from England and Guatemala. Our enthusiasm and the pleasant weather assured us that, no matter how hard the hike, the views at the end would be worth the effort!
The temperature had dropped a few degrees by the time we got off the bus, but, with a bright overhead sun, we knew the chilly feeling wouldn’t last long. Our English guide pointed out where we were headed: Up, only up. Our high point would be in a spot called Alaska. There was no run-up to the brutality of this uphill business, we were straight into it. Honestly, it felt great to be out breathing in some fresh air. I mean, it was hard but it felt good. For the first few minutes at least!
We would make our Alaska high point by lunch, then start a gradual descent to our sleeping spot for the night, Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan.
It’s always normal (I think) on the first day of hiking to feel like you are losing at life. Maybe you have worked hard at getting in shape, maybe you haven’t, but wow! After the first day, you’ll either sink or swim. I am one of those people who, if I’ve committed in my head, then consider it “done!” Nothing will stop me! I will moan, whine, but then (generally after the first day) a switch is flicked, and I’m on! I’m a swimmer! And lucky for us, it appeared the rest of the group were too.
Our guides were smart and all of the tough stretches were broken down into sections. We would do a third at a time, rest, and then keep going. They did their best to keep us all together and enthusiastic but you always have the people who want to sprint to the end. Remember, slow and steady wins the race!
The first day, though tough, was absolutely beautiful. After the initial climb out of the Xela valley, we found ourselves in fields with cows, corn and beans, then up again to Alaska, where we took a decent break while enjoying the views across the spectacular highlands of Guatemala! My inspiration after lunch came in the form of 3 young Mayan women with at least 35kgs of wood (each) strapped to their backs. Did they look like they were struggling? Not at all. Nor did their donkeys. So I decided I wouldn’t either.
I knew we were doing well, because we got into camp about an hour earlier than expected. I think it was the sugar hit from the candy after the last break that day that got me there. I was shattered, though. Ten hours walking, all uphill, can bring one down. But only if you let it.
Camp was a building next to a family home with a couple of different rooms, and a bathroom. We were given thin camping type mattresses, a few blankets to go with our sleeping bags, and that was our lot for the night. We knew it was going to get cold, so, yes, I did steal an extra couple of blankets.
Before our pasta dinner, cooked by our guides, we were treated to a temazcal, a Mayan sweat lodge/steam bath. In the highlands it’s rare for people to shower and this is their way of keeping clean. The main purpose of the temazcal, though, is as part of a ceremony for body purification, healing the sick, and even childbirth! In our case, it was also used to keep us warm. Feeling refreshed, we sat around, chatted with our group, guides and the local family and felt thankful for such a nice ending to a long day. (This is when I thanked myself, too, for the red wine I had dragged up here.)
A good night’s rest and a hearty breakfast at a local comedor at Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan, inspired us for another day–no matter how tough it was going to be. But, I was sure the toughest was behind us.
Going up “Record Hill” wasn’t easy. The poor Israeli girl almost had a break down, worrying she was going to blow a calf muscle (strange, because, I swear, she was part mountain goat). As for me, I felt like I was broken in half. But surmounting that hill, we knew that “ice cream village” was just ahead. I was more interested in sitting down than the ice cream. But, on arrival I devoured not one, but two of them.
A couple of hours more would find us eating lunch in the middle of the bush, finally getting rid of those heavy avocadoes in my pack. I felt pretty enthusiastic about finishing this on a high note, despite what was coming up. . .
“The cornfield of death,” they called it. But that wasn’t before we had to do some river crossings. Those crossings were actually refreshing, having your feet out of boots and in the icy water. Then we saw the cornfield and I think I used a few expletives in my reaction. We had thought that yesterday’s full day uphill was brutal, but I felt like this one-hour challenge before us, this cornfield, might actually break me. There was no relief; it was straight up. “How on earth did they cultivate this crop?” was my first thought. Was I hiking or climbing? Thank goodness, we’d eaten those avocadoes that were weighing me down!
It didn’t break me. I did have a small tantrum in my head, but got over it and got on with it. Making it to the road at the top was almost my new picture of heaven. Flat ground. It took me a moment to adjust, but I knew that when we were on the main road, we were almost to the end of the day. There would be delicious local food awaiting us, and we would all be able to laugh at ourselves and talk about how it wasn’t actually that tough.
Arriving at camp in Xiprian was wonderful, with everyone in high spirits. Dinner was served by our host family, an amazing example of home cooked goodness: chicken cooked to perfection, beans, rice and fresh tortillas! We then headed out to the fire for some good conversation, beer and toasted marshmallows. We were all feeling exhausted but enthusiastic about the next day of hiking! It would be a 3 am rising, so an early night was in order.
Getting up was easy. Showers were quick. Packing was fast. We walked for about half an hour before meeting our police escorts. Although where we were going (and where we had been) are considered safe, it was important to remember that we are in a developing country and robberies do take place. We carried on for about an hour before coming to a clearing. Our guides had us rest while they got our breakfast, coffee and hot chocolate ready. I think I closed my eyes for about 10 minutes, but when the early dawn began to outline the scene in front of me, I was too excited to sleep. Six volcanoes were outlined from the lookout where we were seated: Volcanoes Agua, Acatenango, Fuego, San Pedro, Tolimán and Atitlán. The colors of the sky changed as the sun began to rise, from black, to orange to blue. We were at the 46th km of our tough 48km hike, but this view made everything worth it!
Departing the lookout point, abuzz from the beauty we had seen, we continued all downhill. Small narrow paths, big steps and blue skies guided us down to a coffee plantation which, passing through, brought us shortly to the café. Here we were greeted with freshly brewed, delicious Guatemalan coffee. We learned all about the process, and about how important coffee exports are to Guatemala. We made a few purchases and continued on our way to the village of San Juan, where we would have our final lunch and say our good-byes.
San Juan is a gorgeous spot to finish. There are, of course, a lot of villages on Lake Atitlan but San Juan is a favorite. Coffee, delicious local restaurants and extremely beautiful and inexpensive art are waiting for you, with friendly locals who don’t hassle you, but simply talk to you about their passion. From the town, you can look back at “Indian Nose,” the last part of your downward hike, and see what you’ve accomplished!
After saying our good-byes, we made our way to the very tiny community of Jaibalito for some well-earned rest and relaxation, and the wonderful Casa Del Mundo!
I have hiked throughout the rest of Central America, Australia, Nepal, Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela but this hike is #1 for me. It’s tough, but very doable and the views at the end far outweigh the challenges you’ve endured for the three days. So, get out there and do it!
This hike is included in West Adventures’ Volcanoes and Vistas of Mesoamerica tour in Central America.