A Three-Day Trek Through the Guatemalan Highlands

I’m afraid I wasn’t entirely forthcoming in my last blog post. It wasn’t my intention to mislead you, but I didn’t quite tell the entire truth.

The title of my previous entry—December in the Tropics (or Why I Have Cookie Crumbs in My Bathing Suit)—hinted that I ate a few cookies last month. (I suppose it could have also suggested that I had an opportunity to don a bikini and roll around in baked goods, but sadly, I would never be so lucky.) In my post, I also mentioned “no cookie was safe” during the holidays, allowing you to think, “Sure, I get it. I like Christmas cookies, too.”

But here’s the thing. You don’t get it—at least, not what I really mean.

See, for me, a cookie is not just a cookie. A good cookie is the Holy Grail of all foods. It is better than cake or pie or ice cream or anything else at the other end of the edible spectrum that one would call “savory.” I make cookies for the holidays, but I also make them for September and May and February. I make batches of dough to store in the freezer so I can have cookies any day of the week. I make batches of dough so I can eat batches of dough. Actually, I’d be hard-pressed to decide which I like more—the dough or the cookie.

I downplay the amount of cookies I eat because I eat a sick amount of cookies. When Shon comes home and an entire Tupperware container of cookies is gone, I say I threw them out because I didn’t want to be tempted to eat them. Wrong. I was tempted, and I ate them. Hell, I even interned in a pastry shop just to eat sweets (read: cookies). So, while you may “like” Christmas cookies, let’s just say that my “liking” Christmas cookies is really a euphemism for something else, namely binge-eating cookies.

And developing a cookie gut—the squishy, hard-to-hide price I pay for being a pig.

So, when Shon proposed we do a three-day hike through Guatemala’s rugged volcanic mountain region right before the New Year—and right after the peak of the Christmas cookie season—I was immediately on board. Partly because I enjoy hiking, and mostly because I was running out of loose-fitting clothing.



We invited our friends, Astrid and Alejandro, and the four of us signed up for a 45-kilometer (28-mile) trek from Quetzaltenango (Guatemala’s second-largest city) to Lake Atitlán (where we live) with the non-profit hiking organization Quetzaltrekkers.


Based in Quetzaltenango—or Xela (shell-ah) for short—Quetzaltrekkers is a volunteer-run organization that raises funds for Escuela de la Calle, a school that’s dedicated to educating Xela’s street kids. All money from Quetzaltrekkers’ trips (most of which are based in the Guatemalan highlands) is put towards K-6 education, as well as a dormitory that houses many of the school’s students. Founded in 1995, Quetzaltrekkers is staffed by an ever-changing roster of volunteers who commit to a minimum three-month guiding stint in return for a place to sleep and the chance to lead groups around Guatemala. With so many short-term volunteers running the organization (there’s no one permanent on staff), it’s incredible that Quetzaltrekkers functions at all, and yet our experience with the group was stellar from end to end.


Our hike began at 7:00 a.m. on a Saturday, just a few days before New Year’s Eve. Our group comprised about a dozen hikers—a multinational mix of couples and solo travelers from the Czech Republic, Sweden, Germany, Holland, Canada, Chicago, and New Jersey (all of whom, by the way, were absolutely lovely). Each person carried a backpack filled with personal belongings, plus food for the group like trail mix, bread, pasta, hummus, and peanut butter. The night before we left, during a meeting at Quetzaltrekkers’ headquarters, we had divvied up the communal food items for carrying and also borrowed anything we needed (backpacks, sleeping bags, flashlights, or in my case, water shoes), free of charge, from a well-stocked room of equipment donated from previous hikers.



From Quetzaltenango, we took a local bus to a small town to begin our hike. The plan was to cover 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) each of the first two days and five kilometers (3.1 miles) the last. I didn’t think that 45 kilometers total sounded that far but quickly realized that when you’re lugging a heavy, off-balanced backpack over moderately difficult terrain, 45 kilometers quickly feels like forever.



Guatemala’s vast volcanic region is a windswept, rocky area of tall grasses, maguey plants, soaring stands of pine, and tiny indigenous communities. We hiked up and down ridges (the highest elevation we reached was 3,050 meters or 10,006 feet), through corn and wheat fields, along narrow, forested trails, and across a quiet river called Payatza. We passed grazing sheep and cows, squat adobe homes, and deep, seemingly bottomless ravines. There were dramatic views of cloud-enshrouded hills, coffee- and corn-covered mountains, and volcanoes like Santa María (near Xela) and San Pedro (near Lake Atitlán).




We spent our first night in the vacant municipal building of a small town called Santa Catarina. When we arrived, Shon and I put on bathing suits and headed to a nearby home—along with one of our group members, a German woman named Patricia—to crawl into a domed brick structure called a temezcal. It was a smoky sauna—about the size of a large dog house—where we splashed cold water over hot rocks to produce steam and rinsed off our dirty hands and feet. It was the next best thing to a shower, and we crawled back out into the cold evening air feeling warm and toasty.

That night, our group ate spaghetti off plastic plates while seated on the muni floor. We also shared a bottle of jet fuel (or what the Czech couple claimed was a local liquor from their native land), as well as a bottle of ponche de leche (Guatemala’s take on eggnog). Astrid and I both share a penchant for the latter, and Alejandro had kindly lugged a bottle in his bag for us all day long.



Our second day was much like the first, just slower and sorer. At dusk, we headed into a tiny town called Santa Clara and to the house of a K’iche’ Maya family. Here, we ate grilled chicken, rice, and beans and slept on the floor in a small room, sleeping bag to sleeping bag (Shon slept between me and a German snore champion).


On our third day, we woke at 4:00 a.m., packed up our belongings, and headed out under a bright moon to reach Lake Atitlán before sunrise. We arrived at a mountain clearing overlooking the lake, laid out our sleeping mats, and snuggled into our sleeping bags to watch as the night’s stars faded with the approaching dawn. All around the lake, we could see the twinkling lights of towns and the shadowy figures of hills and Atitlán’s three towering volcanoes. In the distance, we saw a tiny, bright orange glow—lava on Fuego, another volcano closer to Antigua. The sun rose slowly, creating a bruised and blushing sky—the most beautiful view of the lake I’ve seen so far.





After breakfast (peanut butter and berry jam mixed into oatmeal), we made our way down to the lake and the small town of San Pedro.




We arrived around noon and headed to a lakeside hotel and restaurant where cold beers and a Middle Eastern spread of falafel, hummus, pita, and fried eggplant awaited us. After eating, Shon, Astrid, Alejandro, and I bid adios to our awesome group, boarded a boat, and crossed the lake to Panajachel. We were exhausted, sore, and dirty, but entirely content.


That night was New Year’s Eve. Shon and I headed into town for street eats and to join the crowds walking Panajachel’s main drag. Knowing what we did about midnight celebrations and fireworks in Guatemala, we were home before 12:00 a.m. And that is where 2013 found us, toasting the New Year and the completion of our hike with a glass of cava in one hand and what else but celebratory chocolate chip cookies in the other.

11 thoughts on “A Three-Day Trek Through the Guatemalan Highlands

  1. What an amazing way to bid farewell to 2012. And what great photos. I’d say that if you were capable of such a hike, you certainly deserve to eat all the cookies that your heart desires! Wishing you an amazing 2013. I’m sure that it will be filled with… cookies! 🙂

    1. Thanks, Sara! Keeping my fingers crossed ; ) By the way, it looks like you ended the latter part of 2012 with some exciting adventures yourself! Hope you post about them soon!!

  2. Hi Melissa! We really enjoyed meeting you, Shon, Astrid and Alejandro in Guatemala. Your account of the trek is fantastic–not only is it exquisitely written, but you got some really interesting photographs in some challenging conditions. I love the one of everyone looking out, too. Nicely done! All the best to you and the gang in Pana…

    1. It was so nice to meet you guys! It really was a great trek. That said, I’m super jealous of your next big hike–Kilimanjaro! Woohoo!

  3. Wow. I didn’t realize the cookie obsession was so, well obsessive! LOL. Sounds delicious! Love this story and these are simply awesome pictures. Especially like the one with everyone looking out at the lake and the one with the tai chi? poses. Keep enjoying and save a little adventure for when Brian and I go visit, please!

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