If you find yourself in Guatemala, go to Quetzaltenango (which shall henceforth be referred to as the locals do—Xela). This walkable little city is marked by twisted streets, Gothic architecture, a good selection of restaurants, and hundreds of Spanish language schools. When people visit, they stay for a while.
But this post is not about Xela; rather, it is a post about one of the many places you can get to from Xela. This is about La Laguna de Chicabal.
About the Magical Laguna Chicabal
Laguna Chicabal is a crater lake nestled at the summit of El Volcán Chicabal. Volcán Chicabal is a caldera which stands at 8,920 feet (2,720 m) in the midst of a cloud forest.
The lake itself is 1090 feet (331 m) deep and the backdrop of the cloud forest makes a perfect habitat for native birds such as quetzals and pink-headed warblers.
This magical place is considered a sacred place of cosmic convergence by the Mam Maya. It is a place for regular ceremonies and offerings—evidence of such is shown in the altars positioned at different points along the laguna’s shores.
Because of this, Laguna Chicabal is preserved as a sacred site, and visitors are asked to respect the lake and grounds and not go swimming in the hallowed waters.
Getting to the Volcán
If you are staying in Xela, it is relatively straightforward to get to the base of El Volcán Chicabal. The volcán itself is located in the municipal boundary of the pueblo San Martín Sacatepéquez, an 45-minute bus ride away.
To catch the bus, go to the Minerva Terminal in Xela and hop on one of the many buses to San Martín Sacatepéquez (cost: 5Q). The buses run every day from 6 am-5 pm, though note that they run with less frequency on Sundays.
Once the bus passes into San Martín, you will see a large sign for Laguna Chicabal Park — this is where you get off. If you are nervous about missing the stop, tell the driver you are going to Laguna Chicabal and most likely he let you know. The starting point for the volcán is in the center of tiny San Martín, and the road winds through its small neighborhoods before heading up the slopes. This allows you a peak into the life of the local population of San Martín; the majority use the lower slopes of the volcano for agricultural purposes.
Hiking the Volcán
The hike to the entrance station of La Laguna Chicabal Park is approximately 1.5 hours from the center of town. These town roads can be convoluted and confusing, so if you get lost don’t be afraid to ask a local to point you in the right direction. Very quickly the trail heads uphill — make sure you pack water, snacks, and a sweatshirt.
When you reach the entrance station you will see an open field and some buildings. This is where you pay the entrance fee of Q15 and you will often see families picnicking or playing fùtbol.
From the entrance to the edge of the crater is another 45-minute walk. About two-thirds of the way up you’ll reach a fork, where you can either go right to head directly to the water’s edge, or left up to the miradores (lookouts), and then down 600+ wooden steps down to the edge of the lake.
Once you are by the water’s edge, you will see a path that circumnavigates the lake. This tranquil trail is less than a mile long, and the beautiful, peaceful environment allows for a reflective and profound experience. As mentioned before, you can usually see leftover altars, camp areas, and fire pits.
If it’s a clear day, you’ll be able to see several large Guatemalan volcanoes from the miradores. If it’s foggy, the only thing you’ll be seeing from the miradores is the inside of a cloud. When I visited, the entire hike up was shrouded in fog, but dissipated by the time I reached the water’s edge.
Returning to Xela
Walk back down the way you came, and once you get back into San Martín, just go out to the road and wait for a bus returning towards Xela. If you have doubts, just ask, “Xela?” as you board the bus and the driver will let you know.