In the municipality of San Martín Sacatepéquez, a red pick-up truck is being loaded with pilgrims. Its front bumper is adorned by a sculpted bull’s head with real horns. A broken siren announces the truck will begin its charge up the slopes of Chicabal Volcano, located 220km west of Antigua Guatemala. After a 20 minute drive through the cloud forest on the volcano, the pilgrims will join a larger group of people gathered to at the summit to ask the local deities for rain.
Flower offerings on the shores of lake Chicabal. The log is placed to avoid touching the water directly. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite
The crater of Chicabal Volcano has a sacred lake within it at 2,172m above sea level. It is not uncommon for rituals such as this one to take place in at a high altitude. According to local lore, mayan divinities cannot be found in plains. So, the higher you go in the mountains, the closer you are to the gods.
Mayan beliefs hold that the mist above the lake gathers its waters and takes them back among the clouds. It then becomes the rain, which, in turn, will shower the corn fields to ensure a bountiful harvest. This is why the lake is considered a sacred site. The word “Chikab’al” roughly translates as “the sweet place” or “the good place” from Mam, one of the 21 mayan languages spoken in Guatemala. To respect the harvest and the unity of life, swimming in the lake is forbidden. During the ceremonies, access to the crater is often limited strictly to religious penitents. The ritual culminates in the early days of May, when the rainy season traditionally begins.
Two musicians walk around lake Chicabal singing narco corridos. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite
The pilgrims carry a wide array of flowers with them, which they use as offerings to the sacred lake. They place them carefully on the shores or in the water and then they fall to their knees to begin the ritual. Some of them kiss the ground as a sign of profound respect for the site before praying. Ritual fires are lit in circular pyres stoked with copal, a resin from a tree in the Torchwood family. The smell from the incense flies into the air as the prayers begin. Some express their gratitude and requests for rain in Mam, while others do so in Spanish. A select few stare out into the waters in complete silence.
Just before noon, a thick mist descended onto the lake. The clouds blurred out the crowds on the shore; only short glimpses of the ritual fires could be seen in the distance. According to Esequías Romero, a young reporter covering the event, the turnout has decreased in recent years. “Five years ago, you would have seen thousands of people gather at the shores of the lake”, he says. “Now that more people have converted to Evangelical Christianity, the turnout has plummeted.”
Mam women pay their respects to lake Chicabal. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite
Once the ritual concluded, the people gathered around the lake started heading home. On the way down from the caldera, one man teased “Aquí viene la migra!”- “Here comes the Border Patrol!” In this game, once the playful threat is called out, everyone has to run off the trails and hide within the forest lost in the clouds.
Just past one in the afternoon, be it by chance or otherwise, the skies let loose hail and hard rain. And so, the people around Chicabal wait until next year to do it all over again.
A group of women pray joined in prayer as lake Chicabal is covered in mist. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite
A woman beside a ritual fire on the shores of lake Chicabal as mist starts to cover the volcanic lake. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite
Lit candles protected by a plastic shelther on the shores of lake Chicabal. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite
A family prays at the shore of lake Chicabal. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite
A woman sells cotton candy at the shores of lake Chicabal, forty days after the end of holy week, in a syncretic ritual to ask for rain. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite
A woman plants a flower as she arrives to the shores of lake Chicabal. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite
People gather for religious celebrations in lake Chicabal. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite
Two men take off their hats as a sign of respect for lake Chicabal. Photo: Santiago Billy/Chicabal
Mam elders walk and play musical instruments while visiting each of the forty altars around lake Chicabal. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite
A bouquet of flowers as an offering in the shallow waters of lake Chicabal. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite