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Chicabal Lake Volcano: Grassroots Ecology in Guatemala

Created by Ted Campbell

voices echo across the lake to where I sit on a bench, breaking open rambutans, small fruit the size of golf balls with hairy red peels. Three women bow down at the shore as they sing and pray, wearing the multicolored, woven dresses of Guatemalan Mayans. A man in jeans sits behind them and two small children quietly play. From about 50 yards away, I’m close enough to see, but I hope not close enough to be intrusive.

All I can understand from their songs and chants is Gracias Senor – thank you, Lord. A cloud gathers over the lake and rises up in a column, like a slow motion eruption of steam.

I start walking on the trail that goes around the lake. Wooden signs along the shore are written in a language that isn’t quite Spanish, messages about different Mayan gods and requests to take out your garbage. Sometimes the trail dips into thick forest. I walk for an hour until I finally reach the worshippers, but I don’t want to disturb them, so I walk by as lightly as possible. 

If distracted by an attractive hiking companion, you might not realize that Lake Chicabal fills the crater of an extinct volcano. Though it’s a rough circle on the top of a mountain, tall pine trees and thick underbrush disguise its once-violent origins.

The journey to the Chicabal volcano began with a ride on a chicken bus, a colorfully painted former U.S. school bus used for public transportation. It’s common for residents to bring their chickens along with them on these kinds of buses, hence the name. The bus took me to a steep dirt road that led up to a quiet farming community called San Miguel Sacatepequez. Walking along the road, I was given a glimpse into the daily lives of the smiling, well-dressed locals, many of whom waved and said, hola. San Miguel Sacatepequez is known for the special clothing worn by the men, a white short-sleeved smock and white pants, trimmed in multicolored woven designs. 

The road eventually broke free from the forest and I crossed a small field to the base of the volcano. The path I was on would lead me up to the rim of the crater, where I would find Chicabal Lake and the trail that circled around it.

Chicabal isn’t only a mystical, sacred lake in the crater of a volcano. It’s a private park owned by local farmers who are members of the Mam tribe.

The Mam have lived in small communities throughout western Guatemala and in parts of Mexico for around 2,600 years. Many escaped subjugation during the Spanish conquest, and due to the isolation of their mountain villages, many groups were left alone until the late nineteenth century.

Like other Mayan communities, the Mam can be identified by the colorful dresses worn by women. Large extended families may share one home, with men doing the farming while women focus on the complicated tasks of weaving and cooking. Children marry young and often live with the groom’s parents. They follow a religion that combines elements of Catholicism and indigenous tradition. The worshipping of both mountains and saints is common practice, and many saints have taken on the characteristics of Mayan Gods. Maximon, Guatemala’s favorite rebel saint, smokes cigarettes and drinks moonshine. His Catholic name is Saint Simon, although the Catholic Church refuses to recognize him as an official saint.  

Farmers began tending the land on the slopes of the Chicabal volcano 12 years ago. They planted the Guatemalan staples of corn, beans and squash on the slopes, and had a decent first harvest. However, many problems like mudslides hindered their progress. One farmer decided to blast and then drill through the crater in order to guide lake water to his farms on the outer slope of the volcano. His machine broke twice. After that, the residents decided that the lake water wanted to stay. This decision influenced the widespread belief that the lake is sacred.

While more and more people came to worship, the harvests grew worse and worse. So, after years of hardship, the owners finally gave up. They formed a collective and started charging entrance fees: five quetzales for locals and 15 for foreigners, about two dollars.

The collective is called ASAECO – Asociación de Agricultores Ecológicos. The families collect the money, run a lodge, host educational programs, and most of all, keep the place clean. Their biggest problem is garbage left by pilgrims. The lake water is sacred, but unfortunately this reverence doesn’t always include the shore and forest.

On my way out, I sit down with Andres, the teenager who took my fee at the entrance. His parents are part owners. He didn’t learn Spanish until he started working there a few years ago, after he finished secondary school. As a member of the Mam community, his native language is Mam, the second most spoken Mayan language in Guatemala.  

San Miguel Sacatepequez was in bad shape 30 years ago. Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996, was going strong. While the community mostly avoided the horrors of genocide and resettlement experienced by other Mayan tribes, times were hard and marked by fear. To this day indigenous groups are treated like second-class citizens in Guatemala. Andres doesn’t say too much about this, except that people went around with bamboo baskets to steal food from farms.

Now in his late teens, he hasn’t seen such bad times, but has heard about them all his life. He grew up on the volcano, where the family farm once stood. Before the lake became a tourist destination, there wasn’t much to do other than farm. This part of Guatemala is quite isolated, and all the nearby villages have distinct languages.

Andres says working at the lake has been his real education. He saw the place evolve into a private nature reserve, with more and more pilgrims every year. Then foreigners started to come. They were blonde and impossibly tall. Sometimes they had hair all over their arms. They scared him. He and everyone his age had been told by their parents that foreigners steal children. Nowadays the rumor has mostly died out, but back then, it was a Santa-Claus reality.

That’s old news for Andres, who tells me that having foreigners come to Chicabal is a dream come true. Foreign visitors keep the place self-sustaining. They appreciate the value of the place in its natural state. They don’t leave garbage. The residents don’t need to farm anymore. Plus, they can’t charge thousands of Mayan pilgrims what they charge foreigners, which still only amounts to a few dollars.

Worshippers come year-round, but 40 days after Semana Santa (Holy Week) in April is the busiest time of year. This is when La Ultima Rogativa de la Lluvia takes place– the last rain prayer. In 2011, 4,000 people came, most without tents or shelter, to offer candles and food to God and the saints. They stayed for two or three days, singing, praying, and lighting incense and candles. They also came with buckets to take a little water from the lake back to their crops.

Before leaving, I splash water on my face and take one more look up at the clear blue sky. The group of singers has left. It’s dead silent and I’m alone. As the wind picks up and the water begins to ripple, I turn into the forest and climb back up the rim and out of the crater.  

HOW TO GET THERE: Go to the big Minerva bus lot in Quetzaltenango, the capital of the Guatemalan highlands and Guatemala’s second largest city. Many chicken buses travel down the highway to San Miguel Sacatepecez. Guatemalan bus yards are full of people who ask you where you are going and point out the right bus. Don’t worry, they don’t expect a tip.

If you ask for San Miguel Sacatepecez (and good luck memorizing it beforehand) you will go to the town. But past the town center and farther down the highway is the road that leads to Chicabal. So, at the bus yard, just ask for Laguna Chicabal or Volcan Chicabal. Sit close to the money-collecting guy on the bus in case he forgets you. You will go though a few towns. Right when you have given up hope of ever arriving, the guy will yell, “Chicabal!”

Once you get off the bus, you will see signs for the park. Eventually there will be no more signs – just follow the road up the mountains. Wave at people and they will probably wave back. A few people offered me rides, but I wanted to walk.

To get back to Quetzaltenango, wait for a bus or van with a sign for it in the front window. The ride is about one and a half or two hours.

Remember, in Guatemala, photographing locals without their permission is extremely rude. And if you ask, don’t be surprised if you are told no or asked for money.

August 5, 2016

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