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Guatemala: A 22-Mile Trek to Lago Atitlan

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22-Mile Hike to Lago Atitlan
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Quetzaltrekkers is a non-profit and an all volunteer-run group that seeks to build a sustainable way to improve the lives of Guatemalan street children and those at risk of becoming one. Working together with volunteers and highland communities, Quetzaltrekkers offers visitors half a dozen treks to explore Guatemala.

While all the treks offered by Quetzaltrekkers would make any avid trekker start packing, I had limited time and chose to do the three day, two night journey from Quetzaltenango (a.k.a. Xela) to the gorgeous Lago Atitlán.

On day 1 in Xecam, a 15-20 minute bus ride from Xela, we hit the ground running with a charge up to 3050m, the trek's zenith. As we climbed up the "hill," the fruits of our strenuous hike revealed themselves in the form of amazing views of the Xela valley we were leaving behind. Then, we found Alaska, the alpine grass plain that greeted us at the top. The area is so called "Alaska," because it can get relatively chilly up on the plains.

We then continued the rest of the day in descent mode, passing through cloud forests that blanketed us in a thick, M. Night Shyamalan type of haze. We passed by goats nibbling on grass, and locals returning our "buenos dias" greetings.

The prior night during our debriefing session each of us had been assigned group gear (I got the hot drinks) and lunch (I got the hummus) to carry along with our sleeping mat, sleeping bag, water, etc. So, at lunch time we each took out our lunch components, and one by one a complete lunch came together.

A couple hours before sunset we began to approach Santa Catalina Ixtahuacan, a small highland village covered in a dense layer of fog so thick that we could barely manage to see three feet in front of us. We found the town hall, where we ended up hunkering down for the night. While most of the trekkers began to settle down, groups of three followed one of the guides to a local resident's temascal (Mayan sauna). Thus began an experience I'll never forget. A two minute walk from the town hall, the temascal looked like a tiny hut from the outside. The bottom half of the front was an opening covered in tarp, through which we crawled. Hot steam immediately hit us upon entry, fogging up my glasses like walking inside from a cold winter's day. Inside sat three huge pots. One was on top of a pile of burning coal, another was underneath a cold water tap, and the third sat in the middle as the mixing pot. Near the back was a small wooden bench that barely fit the three of us. There were two plastic bowls for us to share as we took turns dowsing ourselves with the mixed water. Talk about getting to know each other.

We woke up the next morning before daybreak to a hearty breakfast of steak, beans, and tamales at a local comedor. The extra calories proved to serve us well as we began our way out of Ixtahuacan by way of the Nahualá Valley, at the bottom of which would be where we would begin the second climb of the trek. The guides call this Record Hill, the current standing at nine minutes and three seconds. Whether you decide to charge up or take a more leisurely walk up, the challenge is made more difficult not by the steep slopes, but by the heavy packs we each were carrying. Record Hill was succeeded by two smaller segments. At the top of the third we entered another village where we stopped to get some well earned ice cream.

We next came upon cornfields surrounding another highland village, near which we took a pitstop for lunch and stole a long half hour nap. Once rested, we descended once more until we heard the flowing water of the Payatza River -- a river that we wound up crossing multiple times as we hiked toward Xiprian village, and whose cold water gave fresh relief to our tiring feet. After another hour or so we arrived in Xiprian, where we were greeted by Don Pedro, whose home would also be ours for the night. After a dinner of twice-cooked chicken and roasted marshmallows over a fire pit, we were treated to music and singing from Don Pedro and his family. Quickly afterwards it became bedtime as we would be getting up at half past three in the morning.

With headlamps on, we left Don Pedro's the next morning under the lights of the stars. After twenty minutes on the road, we finished the rest of the morning hike with the escort of two local policemen. Once at the mirador, from which we would watch the sun rise over Lago Atitlán, the sleeping mats came back out as we each sought warmth from the chilly morning air. The sun slowly crept its way up, lighting up the darken sky and replacing it with an orange red glow glimmering off the waters of Lago Atitlán. Meanwhile, the black silhouettes of the Antigua and Atitlán volcanoes gave way to shades of brown and green.

After another half hour of watching the sun's rise over Lago Atitlán and the fog that hovered over the nearby town of San Pedro, we finished our final 90 minute 500m descent to San Juan La Laguna.

Where will your next Guatemalan trek take you?