Lago de Atitlan

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The volcano-ringed Lago de Atitlan has been attracting tourists to its shores for decades.  The lake is beautiful, though as it turns out, the real attractions are the several small villages surrounding the lake.  Somehow, despite the influx of tourists in recent years, the traditions of the indigenous communities that surround the lake and stretch across the highlands remain strong.  It’s not uncommon to see people washing clothes, swimming and even bathing along the shores of Lake Atitlan.  Nor is it uncommon to see people in traditional dress carrying impossible loads of firewood and other supplies on their heads.  In fact, for many in these communities, Spanish is a second language and a surprising number of people speak little or no Spanish at all.

Traveling from Quetzaltenango, better known as Xela, we arrived in the village of San Pedro la Laguna.  San Pedro is located across the lake from Panajachel, the largest of the lakeside villages and easiest to reach from both Antigua and  Guatemala City.  San Pedro’s location is slightly more remote and more difficult to access.  Instead of a large tourist population, this small village is home to a colorful group of expats and attracts a steady stream of backpackers and wanderers.  Narrow paved alleyways snake through the center of town connecting the town’s two docks.  San Pedro offers a wide array of basic budget rooms and we had no problem finding a nice room with a shared bath and kitchen access for only 40 Q/night, or about $5. 

Two days turned into three and then four and before we knew it we had been hanging around for almost a week.  And then there’s Maximón…       

lago-de-atitlan-027From San Pedro it’s an easy and inexpensive lancha ride to the other lakeside villages including Santiago Atitlan which is home to Maximón the Maya god of drinking and smoking.  A wooden figure, draped in silk scarves and smoking a cigar, Maximón resides in the home of a member of the town’s cofradia (Maya Catholic brotherhood).  Maximón moves from home to home each year, a custom that local anthropologists believe were established to maintain the local balance of power.  Even so, he’s not too difficult to locate and just about anyone in the town will point you in the right direction. 

We found Maximón in a small home at the top of a hill behind the town’s church.  Surrounded by candles, guarded by locals and worshipped frequently, visiting Maximón requires an offering of a few quetzales (a few extra if you want a photo).  And if you’re so inclined, he also enjoys Payaso cigarettes and Venado rum.  Interestingly, Maximón also makes an appearance alongside the figures of Jesus in Santiago Atitlan’s Semana Santa processions.  It has been suggested that the confrontation between the two on Good Friday symbolizes the battle between Christianity and pagan religions. 

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