The Xela to Lake Atitlan hike is a phenomenal multi-day trek through the Western Highlands of Guatemala. Also known as the Quetzaltenango to Lake Atitlan hike (Quetzaltenango and Xela are the same place and are used interchangeably), this brilliant three day trek is a lesser known hiking expedition in Guatemala. Along the trail, you’ll explore remote villages, enjoy sweeping vistas of mountain ranges and finish it all with a breathtaking sunrise during the India Nose hike in Lake Atitlan.
Xela, itself, is a bit off the beaten track and not classicly included as part of the Gringo Trail. So, from the starting point in Xela, there are fewer tourists compared with other places like Lake Atitlan, Antigua and Guatemala City. Out of the fewer travellers that do make it to Xela, not many of them will embark on the Xela to Lake Atitlan trek. Funnily enough, though, the trail is essentially exclusively a touristic trail, that Guatemalans wouldn’t actually bother doing!
In this in-depth guide, we’ll detail the three days of hiking from Xela to Lake Atitlan, including the Indian Nose hike on the final day. Of course, this multi-day hike is completed as a guided tour, and we’ll recommend a reliable, reputable and high-quality agency. Plus, we’ll showcase our favourite photos, cover Lake Atitlan hotels to stay at after the trek, how to get to Lake Atitlan if you can’t be arsed to walk there and discuss other great hikes in Guatemala.
We hope you find this guide useful. For other fantastic Guatemala hikes, check out Volcan Santa Maria, Santo Tomas, Acetanango and Pacaya. You could also check out our 17 Best Hikes in Guatemala guide.
Hiking Xela to Lake Atitlan: Independently vs. Guided Tour
With many hikes in Guatemala, there’s always a question of whether to do it independently or with a tour group. For many single day volcano hikes, doing them independently is a realistic option. But, for the multi-day Xela to Lake Atitlan hike, there isn’t a viable option to do this one independently.
Considering logistics, navigation and safety, doing this one independently isn’t an option. If you’re not convinced, let us explain below. If you’re convinced, click here to go straight to the exciting stuff about the best company to hike with and information about the hike itself.
Xela to Lake Atitlan: Logistics
Planning accommodation along the route would be very difficult to organise on your own. Because you’ll be hiking through villages, as opposed to exclusively walking through national parks and mountain ranges, camping isn’t an option.
Also, on the first night, you’ll be staying in a remote village, where there aren’t any accommodation options, other than a homestay. Tour companies have built relationships with families from these communities to set up the homestay system for the Xela to Lake Atitlan hike.
From what we’ve heard, the community at Village Comun ‘Oj (where you may spend the first night depending on your itinerary – more on this later), spoke highly of Monte Verde Tours. That’s because Monte Verde Tours, and their guides, have been very generous with donating food and gifts to the community. Monte Verde Tours also provide better monetary reimbursement for the services offered by the community.
Xela to Lake Atitlan: Navigation
If you try Googling directions or GPS-guided maps for the Xela to Lake Atitlan hike, they don’t exist! Without having a proper map or help from technology, it would be very difficult to navigate this route. That’s because the route is made up of many different and random trails connecting natural tracks with villages.
Many times, we were walking through what seemed like private property, hiking sections on farmland and through people’s backyards! Personally, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable navigating this route without a guide.
Often, the guide would greet and talk to the locals, which, very likely, built trust and acceptance in the fact that tourists were walking in their quiet communities or on their farms and plantations. Without a guide, we’re unsure if the locals would be so easy going with solo travellers trekking through their cornfields and coffee plantations. In saying that though, the locals in these communities are very friendly and welcoming.
Xela to Lake Atitlan: Safety
We were assured that hiking from Xela to Lake Atitlan is generally quite safe. In fact, this multi-day hike is much safer than many day hikes around Xela (e.g. Volcan Tajumulco) and Lake Atitlan (e.g. Volcan San Pedro), where unrest, and, robberies, respectively, aren’t uncommon.
With the assurance of a guide, we felt completely safe throughout the entire three-day hike. The guides have the know-how, street smarts and experience to avoid risky situations and places. For instance, our guide, Feliz, knew to avoid an exposed area of the Indian Nose hike, where it’s common for robberies to take place at dusk.
It’s worth noting that a group were robbed doing this hike about 5 years ago. However, our guide, Feliz, had been doing the Xela to Lake Atitlan tour for well over 10 years and has never experienced any problems. Chances are, you’ll be absolutely fine, and there is a higher likelihood of this by doing the hike with a guide.
Hike Xela to Lake Atitlan with Monte Verde Tours
From the very first day, Beck and I had a fantastic experience hiking from Xela to Lake Atitlan with Monte Verde Tours. Even before the hike started, the friendly owner, Josh, was very helpful in explaining what each day would entail and exactly what we’d need to pack. So, right from the get-go, we felt very comfortable and confident that this tour agency would deliver.
Included in the price of Q750/person, is round trip transportation, six meals (lunch and dinner on the first day, three meals on the second day and breakfast on the third day), camping equipment (sleeping bag and sleeping mat), trekking poles (if available), entrance fees, rucksacks for storage and a guide.
Best of all, with Monte Verde Tours, you can start the Xela to Lake Atitlan hike on any day you like, as long as there are two people. Better buddy up with another traveller if you’re travelling solo.
If you’re interested in going with Monte Verde Tours, simply book the tour online, flick them a message on Whatsapp (+502 5729-6279) or visit their office (13 Av. 8-34 Zona 1 Quetzaltenango) to book a tour or check availability. You’ll also find that many of the hotels and hostels in Quetzaltenango recommend Monte Verde Tours.
Monte Verde Tours have plans to make the Xela to Lake Atitlan hike even better! By early-mid 2022, Josh hopes to equip each homestay en route with inflatable air mattresses, sleeping bags and water filters, so you won’t have to carry as much from Xela. It’s another example of how Monte Verde Tours go above and beyond to make the multi-day hike as comfortable as possible.
What to Expect Before the Xela to Lake Atitlan Hike Begins
At 6am, Josh (or another representative from Monte Verde Tours) will pick you up from your accommodation in Xela. On the way to their office, we picked up one other traveller (chirpy American Ben) to join us on the group tour. At the office, you’ll be provided with an appropriate rucksack for the hike, if you’re not already travelling with one (e.g. you might need one if you’re travelling in a suitcase).
Having a brilliant 70L Osprey Aether backpack, we didn’t require a backpack for hiking. But, Josh provided us with a backpack that we’d store our extra belongings in, that we didn’t need for the hike. Josh then organises the gear to be safely transported from Xela to Lake Atitlan, where it will be waiting for you in Lake Atitlan when you finish the hike.
At the office, food will be divvied up for the three days between your group, so everyone is carrying their fair share. Keep in mind, that during the multi-day hike, you’ll pass through a few villages with small shops. So, there is ample opportunity to buy food and water on the way. There’s no need to pack too much extra food.
Day 1: Xela to Village Comun ‘Oj
- Distance: 21km
- Time: 9–11 hours
- Starting elevation: approx. 2,550m
- Maximum elevation: approx. 3,055m
- Minimum elevation: approx. 1,500m
- Finishing elevation: approx. 2,000m
- Trailhead: Xecam
From the office, you’ll be driven to the trailhead, which takes around 30 minutes. Starting from Xecam (approx. 2,550m), you’ll begin to ascend a forest slope. Almost immediately, you’ll have sweeping views of mountain ranges and prominent volcanoes near Xela such as Volcan Santa Maria.
Further on, you’ll hike by a grasslands plateau, passing through cornfields. You’ll then reach the highest point of the trek at around 3,100 metres, where the views of the Guatemalan Highlands are absolutely superb.
You’ll then have one hell of a descent (approx. 900 metres), to the next prominent village. The trail winds through dense forest, with steep and uneven terrain to negotiate. Eventually, you’ll complete the forest trail and begin to road walk to the Village of Chiri’j Ximay (approx. 2,200m).
This is where some groups spend the first night, especially if there’s afternoon rain (more common during the wet season). However, visiting in the dry season, the afternoon weather was looking good, as to be expected. This meant we only stopped here for lunch, as did another group doing the trek that day (a nice group of three from Holland!) We noticed that the lunch provided by Monte Verde Tours was much more generous than what the other group had!
Village of Chiri’j Ximay to Village Comun ‘Oj
After lunch, you’ll walk another 6km to Village Comun ‘Oj, where you’ll spend your first night. From the Village of Chiri’j Ximay, you’ll continue a huge descent (approx. 700m) to Rio Nahualate (approx. 1,500m). The last multi-day hike Beck and I had done abroad was the W-Trek in Patagonia, so we were absolutely loving the tough slog!
During this section of trail, you’ll pass increasingly lush forest, explore a lovely river, negotiate the one-at-a-time river crossing and wander by coffee plantations. At around 4pm, we arrived at the small and charming Village Comun ‘Oj.
Night 1: Village Comun ‘Oj
The community from this village are warm, welcoming and very hospitable. You’ll spend a night with a local family, in one of their spare rooms, where you’ll sleep on the floor. With the sleeping mat and sleeping bag, we were surprisingly warm! We were told that the homestay would be very basic. But, there was a flush toilet and cold shower at our disposal, so that was more than we had expected!
During the evening, you’ll see other tour groups in the small outdoor courtyard-like setup, chatting and hanging out. Our guide, Feliz, cooked us a delicious dinner inside the room of our homestay.
Just a heads up – there’s a small shop here if you need to stock up on water or food. But, sometimes supplies can run low here. So, it’s advisable to actually fill up on snacks and water at the slightly larger shop in the Village of Chiri’j Ximay.
Day 2: Village Comun ‘Oj to Santa Clara
- Distance: 12km
- Time: 5–6 hours
- Maximum elevation: approx. 2,200m
- Minimum elevation: approx. 1,900m
- Finishing elevation: approx. 2,100m
After a restful night’s sleep, Beck and I awoke to the sound of roosters, well before the pre-agreed 8:30am start time for the day’s hike. If you’re up early too, don’t be afraid to explore the small village and catch sight of sunrise. There isn’t any vantage point as such around the village, but you can enjoy the orange glow on the opposing face of the mountain ranges.
Again, Feliz whipped us up another impressive meal and a strong coffee, and we were on our way. Similar to the start of yesterday’s hike, you’ll begin to ascend a forest trail. During this section of the Xela to Lake Atitlan trek, you’ll have beautiful and tranquil cloud forest to enjoy. On the way, you’ll pass more coffee farms.
Soon, you’ll be road walking through two remote river valleys. Although we don’t usually enjoy road walking, the views from the roadside were gorgeous. We experienced much better weather on the second day, so we were stoked with the vistas and clear skies.
Approaching Lake Atitlan
As you descend, in between villages, views of the many volcanoes surrounding Lake Atitlan will emerge. You’ll also get your first glimpse of Rostro Maya (more commonly known as India Nose [although this term is perhaps politically incorrect]), which is the landmark you’ll be exploring as part of your sunrise hike on the final day.
Following a long stretch of speed hiking on the dusty, and sometimes, paved sections of road, you’ll arrive at Santa Clara La Laguna (approx 2,100m). After a quick stop in the town centre, you’ll continue to walk through the streets, heading towards the outskirts of town, where your homestay is located.
What’s speed hiking? It’s a great way to quickly cover a part of a hike that’s not as exciting. For the Xela to Lake Atitlan hike, the final section of road walking towards Santa Clara was a great place for speed hiking.
Night 2: Santa Clara La Laguna
With a fairly early arrival to your homestay in Santa Clara La Laguna, you’ll have most of the afternoon to relax and recover. Beck, Ben and I decided to check out the town a little more, visiting the markets and picking up ice cream.
At the homestay in Santa Clara La Laguna, there is a traditional Mesoamerican sauna, known as a temazcal, positioned in their backyard! From 5:30pm, after some preparation, groups of two or three could have a 15-minute slot to experience the sauna. Originating from the pre-Hispanic Indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica, Beck and I were super excited to give it a go.
Basically, in the hot and steamy pit, were buckets of hot and cold water. Firstly, you’d mix them together in an empty bucket and wash yourself. Then, you’d spray a small amount of cold water onto the hot rocks, to create steam and warmth. If the pit became too hot, you could then throw cold water on yourself to cool down. Beck and I enjoyed the experience, and, admittedly, it was also a good opportunity to wash, without there being a shower at this second homestay!
After that, you’ll have dinner and then head to bed pretty early, so you’re well rested for the Indian Nose sunrise hike.
Day 3: Indian Nose Hike in Lake Atitlan
- Type: Out & Back
- Time: 2.75 hours (includes waiting for sunrise)
- Distance: 3km
- Accumulated elevation gain: 160m
Commonly, the India Nose hike is completed as a sunrise excursion from Lake Atitlan as part of a guided tour. Thankfully, the homestay is located mere metres away from the trailhead of the hike. So, completing the India Nose hike as part of the Xela to Lake Atitlan trek was very convenient.
FYI – you’ll be doing this sunrise hike as a return walk from the homestay. So, just pack the bare essentials (camera, water, headtorch, jacket), perhaps in a small drawstring bag. You’ll then head back to the homestay after sunrise to have a big breakfast, pack up your bag and then continue onto San Pedro La Laguna in Lake Atitlan to finish the multi-day hike.
Sunrise at the Indian Nose
At 4:30am, with our head torches on, we made the journey up to India Nose for sunrise. You’ll initially trek by farmland, and then ascend to the first mirador. From here, if you arrive early enough, you may be lucky enough to see Volcan de Fuego, active in the distance. You’ll also catch a good sight of Mars!
After catching your breath at the first viewpoint, you’ll continue to climb to the mouth (la boca) of India Nose (approx. 2,200m). Given safety concerns, we didn’t continue to the actual nose part of this landmark. Instead, we enjoyed sunrise from the safety of the lower and less-exposed mouth-section of the lookout. Don’t worry, this viewpoint is absolutely spectacular and provides a phenomenal spot to enjoy the sunrise.
As you wait for the sun to emerge, you’ll be given some sweet bread and coffee. Of course, the wait is well worth it. The sunrise over Lake Atitlan at Indian Nose is a highlight of the Xela to Lake Atitlan hike.
For more information, we’ve written a specific Indian nose sunrise hike guide to help you enjoy the experience safely.
Day 3: Santa Clara La Laguna to San Pedro
- Distance: 6.5km
- Time: 2.5 hours
- Maximum elevation: approx. 2,260m
- Minimum & finishing elevation: approx. 1,500m
Following breakfast, you’ll begin the final stretch from your homestay in Santa Clara La Laguna to San Pedro La Laguna in Lake Atitlan. Initially, you’ll take the same path as you did earlier for the sunrise hike. But, instead of turning right for the lookouts, you’ll continue straight.
This trail steeply descends through forest trail, and provides exceptional views of Lake Atitlan. There is one mirador in particular that provides an awesome view of the lake and surrounding volcanoes.
The steep and dusty trail down eventually joins a flat and even path, leading to a large Mirador – Mirador Kaqasiiwaan in San Juan La Laguna. It’s a beautifully decorated platform with sweeping views of Lake Atitlan. By the time we had arrived here around 9:30am, the Mirador was already heaving with people.
After checking out this popular Mirador, you’ll descend a paved trail down to San Juan La Laguna (approx. 1,500m). Your guide will pay the entrance fee (Q30/person) for your group as you exit, and then you have another 45 minutes or so of road walking to arrive in San Pedro. Waiting at Maya Tzutujil Travel Center Tour Operador in San Pedro is a van with your belongings. After you’ve collected your stuff, it’s time to farewell your group, guide and bolt to your Lake Atitlan hotel for a hot shower!
The multi-day Xela to Lake Atitlan hike is a unique and diverse walking experience. Not only will you encounter gorgeous scenery in the Western Highlands of Guatemala, but you’ll have fantastic insight into the way of life for those living in remote areas of the country. We highly recommend doing the hike as part of your Guatemala itinerary.
Lake Atitlan Hotel
Where to stay at Lake Atitlan? After roughing it out for a couple of nights, it’s time to live it up and stay at a nice hotel in Lake Atitlan, overlooking the stunning area. Because you’ll be exhausted from the hike, we recommend staying in San Pedro La Laguna, where the hike concludes, as opposed to venturing off to another lakeside town to find a hotel. Most hotels in Lake Atitlan should only be a 5–10 minute walk from where you finish the hike.
Best Place To Stay in Lake Atitlan
We reckon Hotel Peneleu in San Pedro would be one of the best hotels in Lake Atitlan, as it ticks a lot of boxes. You have stunning views of Lake Atitlan spread across four levels and better yet, the price for a private room with your own bathroom is only $14USD/night!
Admittedly, when windy, the roof can be a bit loud for guests staying on the top two levels. When we experienced this, the staff were super friendly and helpful, relocating us to a room on the second floor, which was much quieter, and still had phenomenal views from the shared balcony area.
Five Hiking Esentials For the Xela to Lake Atitlan Trek
There are definitely some hiking essentials that you’ll want for the Xela to Lake Atitlan hike.
Why do you need this?
See it in action
These hiking boots are super comfy and a great choice for the Xela to Lake Atitlan hike
This camera is lightweight and compact, so it's perfect for a multi-day hike. The Sony Cybershot RX100 VII takes high-quality photos and 4K videos
A waterproof jacket is a non-negotiable, particularly if you do this hike during the wet season
Monte Verde Tours can provide you with a hiking backpack if required. But, if you're looking for a fantastic backpack for hiking and general backpacking, we recommend the Osprey Aether AG 70L backpack. The anti-gravity suspension makes the backpack feel really light and you can adjust the back support so it fits your body perfectly
There are plug sockets available to charge your electronics at each homestay, but it's always best to have a power bank as back-up just in case
You’ll also want to pack a hat, sunscreen, sunglasses and 2L of water for the first day.
For a more comprehensive hiking gear list, check out our 66 Travel Accessories That You Must Travel With. Otherwise, for a general summary of everything you’d need for a trip, visit our Ultimate Packing Checklist.
Five Camping Essentials For the Xela to Lake Atitlan Trek
Although Monte Verde Tours provide a sleeping bag and sleeping mat, we highly recommend these other bits of camping equipment.
Why do you need this?
See it in action
A sleeping bag will be provided and they are cleaned after very use. But, for an extra layer of warmth, cleanliness and an extra anti-mosquito measure, you should take a sleeping bag liner
A headlamp is necessary, not only for the India Nose sunrise hike, but for navigating the homestays during the evening
The most convenient, comfortable and compact camping pillow you will ever find! This pocket size pillow is a must for multi-day hikers
The homestays are quite remote, so you won't have to deal with much light pollution. But, if you're in a big group, chances are, you'll want a sleep mask to prevent the light from other people's head otrches or iPhones ruining your sleep
Once the sun goes down, it can get quite cold at the homestays. The North Face TKA Glacier Fleece Jacket is lightweight and compact, but very warm!
Xela to Lake Atitlan Bus
If the Xela to Lake Atitlan hike doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, you can simply catch the Chicken bus or organise a private shuttle to get from Xela to Lake Atitlan.
There are many places in Xela where you can catch a Chicken bus to Lake Atitlan. But, the easiest place would be Minerva Terminal, which is the main bus terminal found in Zone 3. From there, you can take the PANA Chicken Bus for around 20–25Q, leaving every hour from 9am–5pm. The journey takes around 3–4 hours. There are options to go to either Panajachel or San Pedro La Laguna in Lake Atitlan.
A private shuttle is the pricier option (approx. 150–175Q) but is much more convenient and quicker (approx. 2 hours). Private shuttle services will pick you up from your accommodation. For 150Q, Monte Verde Tours offer an 8:30am departure to Panajachel or a 3pm departure to San Pedro La Laguna for 175Q.
Hiking near Xela
Before you set off on the Xela to Lake Atitlan hike, there are plenty of hikes near Xela you’ll want to smash out first. High on your to-do list should be the Volcan Tajumulco trek, which reaches the highest point in Central America at 4,203m. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to do the Tajumulco hike when we visited in February 2022. That’s because there was a flare-up in violence between the towns at the base of the volcano over land disputes.
Fortunately, there are plenty of other fantastic hikes near Xela to enjoy, including:
- Volcan Santa Maria: our favourite hike in Xela
- Lagauna de Chicabal: the best views for the least amount of work
- Volcan Santo Tomas: the most challenging and rewarding hike we faced in Xela
Lake Atitlan Hiking
Once you have arrived in Lake Atitlan and had a day or two to rest after the multi-day hike, you’ll want to do some hikes around Lake Atitlan itself. Unfortunately, due to ongoing safety concerns, we decided against hiking Volcan San Pedro.
But, there are many beautiful lakeside walks to do around Lake Atitlan that are much safer. We hiked the San Marcos to Santa Cruz trail and absolutely loved it.
Best Hikes Around Antigua
It’s very likely that you’ll end up in Antigua as part of your travels in Guatemala. We reckon these are the best hikes around Antigua:
- Volcan Acatenango and Volcan de Fuego: an incredible once in a life time sort of hike. This overnight hike was one of our best experiences whilst travelling in Central America.
- Volcan Pacaya: a unqiue hiking experience in Guatemala, walking over lava fields recently formed by eruptions in 2021.
- Corazon de Agua: a short but steep hike offering a great vantage point over Guatemala City.
A word on Quetzaltrekkers
We had read on many blogs that Quetzaltrekkers were the best tour agency in Xela because of their community work and because they give work to locals. However, we were told by our guide, on the Chicabal de Laguna hike, that, in fact, it’s mostly international volunteers that work for Quetzaltrekkers. That’s at least one reason why they’ve had to close during the COVID-19 pandemic, as they haven’t had the usual international staff to help keep things afloat.
- Best time of year to hike from Xela to Lake Atitlan: like most hikes in Guatemala, it’s best to do them in the dry season (November to April).
- Don’t pack too much or snacks: We made the mistake of packing too many snacks, as we’re used to doing multi-day hikes in national parks where there are no chances to buy supplies on the way. During the Xela to Lake Atitlan hike, there’ll be ample opportunity to buy food and water as you pass through villages.
- Lake Atitlan altitude: at approx. 1,500m, the altitude at Lake Atitlan is much lower than in Xela and many points along the three day hike. So, you shouldn’t have any problems with Lake Atitlan altitude.
Are you planning other hikes in Central America? Check out some of our hiking guides from El Salvador and Nicaragua (coming soon).
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