Our Central America tour (22): Lake Atitlan and the living Maya

This is such a varied holiday and today (Wednesday) we spent our time on or around a lake, leaving the hotel at 8 am and returning at 3.30 pm.

Located about 1,500 metres (5,000 feet) above sea level, Lago de Atitlan – the name means ‘by the water’ – was formed in a caldera or collapsed volcano and is overlooked by three Fuji-like volcanoes (all dormant): San Pedro, Toliman and Atitlan. It is a large stretch of water measuring around 18 km across and encompassing some 130 sq kms.

All around the lake are villages inhabited largely by people of Maya descent dubbed the living Maya. They are mostly dressed traditional Maya garb which, especially in the case of the women, is gloriously colourful. For the last couple of decades, the most popular colour has been a deep blue set off with other blues and purples.

The group filled a glass fibre motor boat and set off from Panajachel in calm waters and sunny weather to visit three of the lake-side villages.

The first was San Antonio Palopo, which is on the east shore, and we spent an hour there. As we docked, a Maya woman was on her knees at the quayside hand-washing clothes in the lake. Behind her, steep hills were dotted with little homes. We walked up to the the local church and then descended to have coffee in a café overlooking the lake.

The second village was on the opposite side of the lake: San Juan La Laguna on the west shore. We spent an hour an a quarter there. There are coloured and hand-painted murals on many of the side walls of buildings depicting scenes of the lake or illustrations of legends. We called in on the Tejedoras Mayas Weaving Cooperative which brings together 22 women weavers who all work independently from home and return finished goods to the store to be sold. Vee& Roger spent $60 on gifts, mainly for children in the family. We made briefer visits to an association of medicinal plants and a small covered market.

The third and last village on our day trip was Santiago Atitlan which is located on a spur projecting from the south west of the main lake.. This is the largest (population 20,000) and most visited village around the lake and absolutely bustling with people in traditional dress, endless lines of stalls, and noisy tuk-tuks. Here we saw two phenomena which illustrate how local people have integrated Catholicism Into the pre-Columbian beliefs and iconography.

The strange character known as San Simeon to the Spanish, Maximon to those of mixed indigenous and European race, and Rilaj Mam to the Maya is an effigy revered throughout the Guatemalan highlands. The effigy is usually housed on an annual basis by a cofradia or Maya religious brotherhood and worshippers are invited to visit him and pay respects and some money (Roger had to lay to photograph him). This year in this village, it is the turn of the St John the Baptist brotherhood to host the effigy and we visited the home – no more than a room – where he is housed.

He is an odd-looking man: a wooden seated figure with a macabre face, wearing a wide-rimmed hat, and draped with bright coloured silks including a striped tie. He smokes a cigarette which is constantly attended to by one of the brotherhood members in attendance. Flowers, candles and incense add to the atmosphere. This is an odd god who appreciates particularly gifts of cigarets and liquor.

The other religious place we visited was the church called Iglesia Parroquial Santiago Apostol. Although this is a Catholic Church, it has many features reflecting local Maya beliefs and customs, including figures of corn (from which humans were formed according to Maya religion) and God the Father (whom we rarely ‘see’ in traditional churches) plus wooden figures of saints draped in clothes of bizarre colours such as chequered patterns or garish pink. This fusion of old and new religions is a notable feature of the region.

We had some lunch at a place called “El Pescador” to complete two and a quarter hours at the village, before returning across a much choppier lake than the morning now at the wind was up.

We had some time in the afternoon to chill and then, in the evening, six of us went out for dinner together: Roger & Vee, Brian & Cally, and Christine & Charmian. We ate at a restaurant called “Casablanca” where the food and wine were really good, but the production of the bills left a lot to be desired. The waiter allocated dishes to the wrong couple and made a series of basic arithmetical errors, so it took a while to sortt out who should pay what and find the necessary mixture of local currency and dollars.


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