I first heard about the walk from Xela to Atitlan from some Canadians at Semuc Champey. I decided to head to Xela instead of directly to Atitlan as I’d initially planned (and why not climb Tajumulco while I’m there!?). Most people I talked to, and everything I read, suggested going with guides (the NGO organisation Quetzal Trekkers is mostly run by volunteers and seems like a good option if you want a guide). But, after reading some trip reports and studying maps I was pretty sure I’d be fine doing it myself. As it turns out the route is actually clearly marked on many basemaps such as OSM and Gaia GPS… They just don’t show all the other trails that are often more prominent! Nevertheless there is sufficient information to manage it yourself. There are numerous shops in Chuisibel if you want to resupply, the arroyos before reaching Río Nahualate also seem a reliable water source. The best section is between Pacorrales and K’omo Noj, you could do this in one day getting transport to and from either end.
You can easily catch a bus from Xela to Cantel. I caught one from the bus terminal in Zona 3, calle 7. It cost me Q3 and will drop you off near the Despensa Familiar which is a good place to grab any foodstuff you may have missed. Talking the public bus (assumably) means a bit of extra up hill walking.
If you want to camp at Indian Nose be careful with locals. I’d camp at Cerro Cristalino if I was to repeat the trip (unlikely).
Day 1: Cantel to Pacorrales
Walked an hour and a half into the city passing a creek literally full of plastic. At the Zona 3, calle 7 bus terminal I found a bus to Cantel for Q3. Friendly couple on bus heading to glass fabrica.
At 10:45 I got off at the Despensa Familiar (Walmart in disguise!). Heading up the rd I received lots of odd looks – I assumed the tour groups drive their clients up a lot further up the rd. On a corner I took a trail and followed the stream a short while as it slowly climbed upwards. A number of lumberjacks passed caring their bundled faggots across their backs; a strap across their foreheads’ taking much of the weight.
I decided to head back up to the rd. At the top of switchbacks the slope flattened and forest was replaced with corn fields, discarded plastic covered the slope at the transition.
The rd continued a lot longer than expected but soon I felt like I had escaped the dirty city and towns. Many locals passed me heading in both directions., most carrying machetes, the seemingly universal tool of trade. Most traveled alone, but groups when they passed always seemed to be the same gender.
I missed the turn I wanted to make and burnt a lot of energy slogging up a hill before realising… I’m sure the rd would have gone to the top. The tread marks of a vehicle were still visible. But in the end I headed back down and took the ‘standard’ trail up. The route braided quite. It didn’t really matter which way you went. The one with more gentle gradient seemed to be marked with blue paint… A little excessively.
I rested números times watching the cumulus clouds build behind me, rain clouds on either side. Rain would catch me soon, I knew.
The forest suddenly gave way to long grass with corn fields in the distance. I was sad. I had just started seeing some larger trees (possibly fir?). The wind was more in your face up here. The clouds were closing in and soon a light drizzle started. I’d already realised I wouldn’t make my goal of the Río Nahualate without getting wet and missing the scenery. I decided it wasn’t worth it. Wormth was a concern as I didn’t have a sleeping bag with me. I didn’t want to get we). Happy I’d brought excessive food, I headed to the top of a wooded hill to look for a place to make camp. The rain picked up as I pitched my tent in a nice clearing. 15:00.
The rain eased but the clouds clung to the land. I’d wait for the morning. The wet season meant i needed early starts. Music from the outskirts of Pacorrales seemed quite close as I chilled for the afternoon.
Day 2: Pacorrales to Indian Nose
I woke around 6am. I didn’t sleep overly well… It was a cold night. 3050m. Once packed I set a good pace through Pacorrales and paused at the other end to enjoy the views at Mirador Chuopol(?). I could hear water in the valley and wondered if any canyons lay hidden in the complex terrain.
I talked with Santos for a while and he encouraged me to walk with him. Why not? His local K’iche’ accent made his Spanish hard to understand… Not to mention many of the locals barely spoke Spanish to begin with.
Another thing I found surprising about the locals is that many of the males wore a sort of simple skirt similar to a kilt… I can’t remember if Carlos wore one or not. We parted ways at one of the numerous unmarked junctions.
The route continued down the ridge. A thin waterfall could be seen in the opposite side of the valley. Many times I pictured myself on a rope abseiling down beside it.
I made a few wrong turns before reaching the road at caserío Chiri´j Ximay. I didn’t really see the village but it was supposed to be there. Maybe I popped out just down the road from it? I walked the rd past a truck stuck in the mud soon reaching the northern part of pueblo Chuisibel. After thinking I’d walked past it, many more buildings sprung up around me until a small hub at the end of the rd. No one seemed interested in talking. I heard the usual “Gringo” call and kept walking, quickly picking up the trail that continued down the ridge.
I had lunch at a narrow spot and soon resumed continuing past people hauling heavy loads of wood up the track that in many spots was super slick. I’d already been careless and fallen over once.
I paused to talk with a man tending to some coffee plants in a ranchito. He was from the nearby town of K’omo Noj and confirmed I was going the right way. “You can stay in my house if you want. All the tour groups do.”
“Or you could continue on to Santa Maria/Clara” he said after looking me up and down. “Its only another 3 hours or so”.
I thanked him and headed on my way. The trail was far less distinct here so it was nice to know I was going the right way. Taking a turn down the hill, I soon reached twin arroyos with clear water. It’s recommend to fill up here. The second arroyo had a small bridge… I strolled confidently across it and soon slipped landing on one of the small boards that comprised the peunte and landed in the arroyo. I was annoyed at myself and blamed the bridge and then the people who made it. A little bruised I continued on my way passing a number of small banana plantains before reaching the log bridge crossing the Río Nahualate. I’d thought about camping here, but the water was dirty and a lot of rubbish littered the edges of the stream. This is probably my least favourite thing about México / Central America.
The trail continued steeply up the other side. Quite suddenly I found myself walking cautiously into K’omo Noj. I peered into the dimly lit church. Feeling like an intruder as I wondered unnoticed around some of the concrete buildings. The way up continued up (or you could follow the rd). I stopped to watch a women making some traditional fabric on a sort of loom. She didn’t speak Spanish but some of the others did. It would take about a month to finish the metre that remained! They didn’t want me to take any photos.
I soon reached the rd. The clouds were low now so when a ute stopped to offer me a ride I hopped in the back. We picked up another lady who didn’t live too far away. I got out when she did (a small section of sealed rd) and walked the rest of the way into town passing numerous streams.
I decided to try camp up on Indian Nose. Grabbing some bananas as I walked through town, I followed the cobbled streets to the unmarked trail that descends to San Juan on the north side of the Nose. I soon had my first views of Lake Atitlan. The Nose would eventually become a disappointment. The problem is that the surrounding towns claim sections, and some locals other bits. I came across three places were you had to pay. A local told me that it all used to be free. That’s how it should be. This is my second least favourite thing about México/Central America. Of what little nature is left, it is claimed by a few and others are restricted to enjoy it. This isn’t a good model.
I soon reached the access to Cerro Cristalino. The man was very friendly and this seems like the best option for viewing the sunrise. I should have inquired about camping. Entrance was Q20. I didn’t see a point entering in the afternoon. Clouds obscured most of the view. Instead cut across to the trail that climbs to the most obvious viewpoints with structures. I relaxed at the lower one for a while. There was no one. I set up my tent and soon settled in for the night. 2200m… Quite a bit lower than the previous night… So hopfully a bit warmer!
In the early morning a dog joined me.
Day 3: Indian Nose to San Juan
The dog barked at an approaching group. They were from Israel and had a guide. It was still quite dark and lights from all the towns scattered around the lake made them easily identifiable. Now and then a red glow could be observed in the distance at the top of Volcán Fuego. Largo Atitlan itself is a filled caldera from a huge eruption some 65k(?) years ago.
The sunrise wasn’t amazing but was still enjoyable. The group left and that’s when my morning went sour. There were two locals with dogs who wanted money from me. They let me pack up, but when i tried to leave they blocked the exit. I tried to walk past but they grabbed me. The older man had little strength but the younger tackled me to the ground. The whole thing was rather silly. I didn’t want to hurt anyone and my mind was racing thinking of options… when the younger guy started getting extra aggressive I jumped from the platform and into the bush. They threw rocks at me. One might have got me in the leg, but I can’t be sure. I got a bruise just below my knee, but only felt it once my adrenaline subsided. I guess that’s why most people take a guide.
I linked back up with the trail from yesterday and made my way slowly down using a bamboo stick to take some weight off my injured leg. The views were just as good on the way down.
I soon reached Mirador Cerro Kaqasiiwaan. It was an amazing place to relax for a couple of hours. The structure was new and very clean. A security guard sat lazily around and also had a hammock below the boardwalk. I spread my gear out on the lower platform allowing my things to dry while I ate and lay down in the sun.
I talked with the security guard for a while. He also seemed a little disappointed with the situation of the Indian Nose.
I filled my bottles up from the tap before descending the rest of the way into San Juan. I had some amazing vegetarian tacos at restaurante Qaas Utz.