Guatemala 6/28/2018 - 7/8/2018

Monday, 7/2/2018 - Santiago Atitlan, San Juan La Laguna, Mayan Healing Ceremony

It is always fun to take a boat tour of some of the indigenous communities that surround Lake Atitlan. Each village has something unique to offer to a traveler, but one that absolutely can't be missed is Santiago Atitlan. It has a fascinating mix of colonial Catholic and pre-Columbian Mayan traditions.

Craig was actually feeling surprisingly well this morning, and briefly entertained the idea of joining our excursion. Humberto had a client booked for today who would be joining us. We would be starting shortly after 9 a.m. Craig decided not to come along. It would entail a lot of walking in the hot sun, and he certainly didn't want to slow us down when one of Humberto's clients was joining us. He thought that it would be too taxing. Tonight's Mayan healing ceremony in honor of my grandmother was too important for us, and he decided to save his strength and energy for that instead.

Eddy also wanted to join us, but he now takes guitar lessons on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoon. We couldn't guarantee that we would be home by 3 p.m., so he had to stay behind as well.

After a breakfast of huevos rancheros, fried plantains, black beans, and cheese, we bade farewell to Craig and walked down the alleyway to Humberto's tour office. Here we met Rose Marie, a psychologist from Pittsburgh, with whom we would spend the day. Tyson is also a psychologist, so they found lots to talk about.

We boarded a lancha and sped across Lake Atitlan. The sun was shining and the water was a luminous blue. We had seen a documentary which mentioned a Loch Ness style serpent which some people say inhabits Lake Atitlan. We had asked Humberto about it, and he was noncommital, but said that he and Paulina have friends who claim to have seen a giant serpent (with a head of hair, no less) in the lake.

We passed Cerro de Oro, which is said to be the inspiration for the boa constrictor swallowing an elephant in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's "The Little Prince." (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry had crashed his plane 10 miles outside of Guatemala City in 1938, and had spent time in Antigua recovering from the accident). Looking at the silhouette of this geographical feature, we could indeed see that it does very much resemble the illustration from the book.

The lake is extremely deep at around 1000 feet in some places (hence Tyson's mother's warning not to go swimming in the middle of the lake). The lake as it exists today formed 85,000 years ago, following three major volcanic eruptions. This resulted in the formation of three stratovolcanoes (volcanoes built up from alternate layers of ash and lava from the three previous eruptions). Volcanoes Toliman, Atitlan, and San Pedro were on brilliant display today.

Tyson got a good look at Volcan San Pedro, which he would be climbing on Wednesday. It looked as intimidating as ever to me. In 2004, when we first met Humberto, Craig had made it to the top, but I had to give up and wait for them at the viewpoint. It is a "punishing and relentless" climb, to quote Craig.

Humberto explained that pre-classic period (300 BC - 300 AD) Mayan ruins have been found 50 feet below the current water level.

We crossed the lake and approached Santiago Atitlan. Men were standing up, paddling traditional wooden canoes known as cayucos. There was a small wooden dock for cayucos, separate from the motor boat dock.

We got off the boat and browsed in the handicraft stalls which lined the streets. The dominant motifs in embroidery from this village are stripes and birds. We stopped at one stall which had some particularly beautiful embroidered pieces for sale. Humberto pointed out one huipil (traditional women's blouse) which had triangles around the neckline. He explained that the eound neckline represented the lake, and the triangles were the surrounding volcanoes.

I recognized a piece that I had seen last year and had considered buying for our bird-loving friend Mukul in India. But I hasdn't had enough cash on me at the time. Mukul would be visiting the weekend after we return home, so I decided that I would buy it this time. It depicted a flock of birds with a resplendent quetzal (the national bird of Guatemala) in the center. Tyson purchased some embroidered pieces depicting Mayan glyphs.

We stopped into another stall where I saw a familar face. Humberto has a friendly relationship with a Tzutzujil woman who sells textiles, and I recognized her broad smile immediately. Humberto likes to stop here to teach guests about the traditional tocoyal headdress worn by married women of Santiago Atitlan. This is a long thin strip of woven red fabric, with colorful embroidery on one end. The fabric is wrapped around the head like Saturn's rings, providing ingenious protection from the sun in a simple and portable form.

The woman took off her tocoyal, and her long straight gray locks tumbled down (traditional Maya do not cut their hair). She gathered the hair together as if for a pony tail, and then wrapped it with the strip of fabric. She then wound it around her head repeatedly, like a halo. Twenty yards of fabric makes 20 rings, a number significant to the Maya because each month in their calendar has 20 days. When she got to the end, the last layer was woven in intricate patterns. There was a tassle which she tucked into the headdress to keep it all in place. Genius!

After the tocoyal demonstration, the woman showed us the calzones (traditional short pants) worn by men in Santiago Atitlan. They are white with vertical stripes and many embroidered bird motifs. They are one size fits all, needing to be cinched around the waist with a belt. Nowadays, the cost of calzones are prohibitive due to the intricacy of the work. Men can buy jeans for a fraction of the price. Seeing men dress traditionally is increasingly rare.

Next we visited the market, a labyrinth of stairs and catwalks. We stood at a vantagepoint from which we could see two levels: one where fish, crabs, shrimp, and snails were sold, and one where produce was being sold. We had a birds's eye view of the produce area; we were looking straight down at transactions transpiring below. There is a style of arte naif painting from the lake area which is "vista del pajaro" (bird's eye view), which depicts exactly this perspective. There is some debate as to whether the style was invented in Santiago Atitlan or or San Juan la Laguna (which we would visit this afternoon), but there is no doubt that it was developed somewhere around Lake Atitlan.

We proceeded to the town's namesake church, St. James the Apostle, founded in 1568. This church has a tragic history, as it is where a beloved Catholic priest was martyred during the civil war / genocide of the 1980's. Father Stanley Francisco Rother, a priest from Oklahoma, had been the pastor here since 1968. He was devoted to his parishioners. He learned the Tzutzujil language, and translated the Bible into Tzutzujil so that those who did not know Spanish could understand its teachings.

As indigenous people were being slaughtered, Father Rother provided sanctuary for them within this church. He did everything that he could to protect them. Even when he received death threats, he did not back down. He would not abandon his flock in their time of need. As a result, he was brutally murdered in 1981, and is considered a martyr.

Last year he was beatified by Pope Francis, and there was a huge celebration in town. There is now a lovely effigy of him at the front of the church, in addition to the memorial shrine at the rear of the church. I said a prayer by his effigy for my grandmother, who had recently suffered a stroke.

The main altar, installed during Blessed Rother's tenure in 1976, is made of beautifully carved wood. It is a textbook example of the syncretism which occurred between colonial Spanish Catholicism and pre-Columbian religions.

In the early days of colonialism and Catholic missionaries, it was understood that the Mayans considered the mountains to be sacred. So the Catholics put crosses on the mountain peaks so that, by worshipping mountains, they were inadvertently worshipping the cross as well. This started a synthesis between Mayan traditional beliefs and Catholicism.

The altar itself is shaped like a volcano. A priest ascends from one side, and a Mayan farmer ascends from the other. Mayan trees of life grow on the slopes and the peak of the volcano. Effigies of saints dressed in local clothes are displayed in niches, with a carving of God at the volcano's peak. Humberto pointed out that local folk saint Maximon was depicted in a series of carvings of Mayan traditions. The altar is a delicately beautiful work of art, and could easily be mistaken for being an antique hundreds of years old.

After seeing Maximon's likeness carved into the altar, we would actually visit Maximon himself.

There are different accounts of the origins of Maximon, a folk saint who embodies the melding of Catholic saints and pre-Columbian sprirituality. I found two books to be very helpful with untangling the various versions of the story: Guatemala's Folk Saints by Jim Pieper and The Lake Atitlan Reference Guide by Richard Morgan Szybist.

One origin story dates back to the time of the Spanish conquest. Mayan rulers at the time were imprisoned and eventually killed after giving up their riches to the colonizers. The rulers told their people to create effigies of them and to initiate ancestor worship so as not to forget their traditional ways. These effigies was made of reeds and tied into a bundle. They were dubbed "Axmon K'in", or "tied up reeds" in the local dialect. The word "Maxmon" translates to "Noble man made by tying", so the name "Maximon" is probably a corruption of that. (Guatemala's Folk Saints, page 55)

Another origin story is that Maximon was created by the Nawales (divine spirits who served as role models for all of humanity) as a personification of the spirit god Mam, the Ancient One. The Nawal men were afraid that their women would be unfaithful, so they carved Maximon from a tree to watch over them. The women wrapped their hair ribbons around Maximon's body and dressed him in the finest clothing. But Maximon himself was not trustworthy, and seduced the Nawal women while the men were away. Upon returning home to find their women newly pregnant, the enraged men punished Maximon by emasculating and dismembering him. Without the distraction of a sex drive, Maximon transferred that energy into powers, including the ability to heal the sick. (The Lake Atitlan Reference Guide, page 122).

One of the books that I purchased at the bookstore in Panajachel during this trip, Los Nawales: The Ancient Ones; Merchants, Wives, and Lovers: The Creation Story of MaXimon by Vincent James Stanzione, should shed additional light on this story.

Over time, effigies of Maximon have evolved from bundles of reeds to wooden carvings, often wearing masks. Maximon is viewed as a communicator and facilitator, willing to petition the ancestral spirits with all requests. People leave him offerings which appeal to his vices, including cigarettes, cigars, aguardiente liquor, and cash. He has a certain worldly appeal to those who suffer from vices themselves, and he can intercede on their behalf with the ancestors.

As time went on, Maximon became intertwined with San Simon. San Simon looks more like a traditional Spanish Catholic saint, with light skin and European features. Effigies of San Simon are usually made of wood. They are usually seated in a chair and holding a staff, which symbolize authority.

It is unclear whether San Simon evolved as a folk saint when the Spanish Catholics forbade the worship of Maximon. Transferring their allegiance to him could have been a covert way of worshipping their ancestors in a way which was inoffensive to colonial Catholicism.

Effigies of both Maximon and San Simon usually have carved mouths which often are filled with a lit cigarette. As Maximon / San Simon smokes the tobacco, it is believed that the smoke carries worshipper's prayers heavenward.

In addition to the fluidity between the identities of Maximon and San Simon, both also take on the identity of Judas Iscariot during the Easter season. We had seen his participation in a Semana Santa (Holy Week) procession during our first visit in 2004. On the Wednesday before Easter, his clothes are washed in the lake by local women. He then is carried through town in a procession. On Good Friday, they hang Maximon / Judas across from the church for his betrayal of Christ. The effigy is no longer allowed inside the Church of St. James the Apostle, but as we saw, there is a depiction of him on the altar carvings.

Humberto pointed out a domed building next to the church where Maximon waits since he can't enter the church itself.

Santiago Atitlan is a village which has a very close relationship with Maximon. A special cofradia (brotherhood) exists in town to watch over the effigy. The wives of the cofradia members make and clean his clothes. Each year the effigy is displayed in the private house of one of the cofradia brothers. They take care of Maximon and make sure that he is never lacking for tobacco or booze, often spending a great deal of their personal money to ensure his wellbeing. The public is allowed to view him for a small fee.

We walked a short distance to the home where Maximon currently resides. The home was decorated with colorful papel picado (that was actually made of plastic.) We entered the building and I was immediately struck by how much more flashy this place was than last year's abode...among the various effigies was a display case bedecked in flashing Christmas lights. Maximon sat in the middle of the room, facing the entrance. He was dressed in many layers of vibrantly colored clothes, and he wore a styling hat with a silk scarf tied around the brim. He had a cigar in his mouth. In front of him were several prayer candles bearing the image of San Simon and a primitive incense censer made out of a coffee can. There were flowers positioned around the room, some hanging from the ceiling alongside cacao pods.

We gave donations to Maximon, and his caretakers carefully tucked the bills behind his necktie. A partition decorated with religious figures painted in the arte naif style was set up along one wall. We knelt and made a petition of Maximon. Humberto gave the cofradia members a bottle of aguardiente liquor as an offering from us in honor of my grandmother. One man opened the bottle while the other prepared Maximon for a drink. They removed the cigar from his mouth, tipped him slightly backwards, put a cloth under his mouth as a bib, and carefully poured a generous swig of liquor into Maximon's mouth. Then they wiped his mouth with the cloth, set him down, and replaced his cigar.

It was an amazing experience, and I thank Humberto for arranging it. We would do more praying for my grandmother's health tonight with the Mayan priest.

Maximon Drinks an Offering of Aguardiente Liquor

After that we went to lunch at El Buen Appetito. Tyson and I enjoyed delicious steak fajitas. They were served with blue corn tortillas. Tyson had some Gallo beer and I had fresh cold tamarind juice. It was so hot out today that I was glad that Craig had decided to stay home to rest. Heat bothers his MS, and he was just starting to feel well again. He made the right choice.

I checked my phone and saw that I had an e-mail from Craig. Eddy had fallen off of the hammock and had bitten into his chin. It was bleeding badly. Paulina was away at the market at the time, but Vanesa handled the situation very calmly and effectively. Now that they have a new refrigerator, they actually had some ice cubes. She cleaned Eddy's wound and they put ice on it. When Paulina got home about 10 minutes later, everyone decided that Eddy might need stitches, so she took him to the hospital. He got 5 stitches in his chin, and they bandaged it up.

I told Humberto, and he called Vanesa to get the details. Poor Eddy, he hadn't come with us because he had a guitar lesson at 3 p.m. which he now wasn't able to attend. Maybe he should have come with us after all, and he would have avoided the injury.

Next we took the boat to San Juan la Laguna, famous for its painting and weaving. We visited a few art galleries. We were vindicated when paintings of the same quality and size of the ones that Tyson had liked in Panajachel cost just a fraction of the price that guy had tried to charge us. They were $10 or $15 here, as I had originally thought.

We enjoyed looking at the arte naif murals that adorned the exterior walls as we climbed the steep road from the lake toward town. They depicted many cultural traditions, and there were some that incongruously depicted world famous landmarks such as the Taj Mahal and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. One of the Mayan murals even depicted what could be the serpent of Lago Atitlan! Tyson cowered in fear for a photo op.

We stopped in to Utz Batz, a weaving cooperative owned and operated by Mayan women. A woman named Sandra gave us a very informative demonstration of the weaving process, from cleaning the cotton to spinning the thread to dyeing the thread to weaving elaborate patterns using a backstrap loom. The resident dog, Flaco (Skinny), napped next to us during the demonstration.

Sandra gave us each a chance to try spinning thread. It is definitely more difficult than it looks, and requires a certain kind of wrist action. We all started out pathetically, and Sandra giggled and coached us until we eventually got the hang of it.

Sandra showed us all of the natural materials which are used to dye the thread. She said that some of the plants produce a different shade of dye depending on the phase of the moon at the time it is picked. An example of this is the sacatinta leaf, which can produce light blue or dark gray dye depending on the moon. She dyed some thread in paprika to produce a bright orange color.

The textiles for sale were all of a very nice quality, and were reasonably priced. Each item had a tag which bore the name of the artisan who wove it. We each found some pieces that spoke to us.

After making our purchases, we headed back toward the lake and the skies opened up. It was absolutely pouring. We sought shelter under a roof for a few minutes while Humberto put on his rain jacket. The water formed rivers, running down the steep streets toward the lake.

Neither Tyson nor I had brought our jackets or umbrellas. It was getting late and we needed to get back to Pana, so we walked in the rain down to the docks. Tyson and I were soaked by the time we got there.

We got onto our boat, which was now protected from the rain by pliable plastic panels on the sides. Our clothes dried pretty well from the breeze. The lake was a bit choppy in the weather, but as we approached the opposite shore, the clouds parted and the sun shone through.

We dropped Rose Marie off at her hotel and then continued to Panajachel.

When we got to the house, we saw Eddy with his lip all bandaged up. I couldn't help but picture Flick in A Christmas Story after he sticks his tongue to the pole. He was in good spirits though, and didn't complain. He was being very strong, and we are proud of the mature way that he handled his injury.

Tyson and I got cleaned up and prepared for the evening's Mayan ceremony. Paola and Cristian left on Cristian's moto (with Paola driving). We were honored that they wanted to join us for the ceremony. Humberto drove Craig, Tyson, Paulina, Aracely, Eddy, Ian Ivan, and me to San Jorge la Laguna to meet with the Ajq'ij (Mayan priest).

Along the way we stopped to buy bread, sugar, and other items to bring with us as an offering. We continued to San Jorge along a route which included a precarious steep hairpin turn. Humberto parked the van, and we met up with Paola and Cristian.

Marcelo Alonso Felipe, the Ajq'ij, is the father of Humberto's employee Luis. We had such a great experience last year with a protection ceremony that we had decided to return for a ceremony for my grandmother.

We walked along the path which led to Marcelo's house. The footing was steep and uneven at times, and Paola helped Craig to make sure that he didn't lose balance or trip.

When we arrived at Marcelo's house, he was with another client. That family had a sick child and needed a healing ceremony, but had arrived a bit late for their appointment. We didn't mind waiting, and we were led upstairs to the roof deck, which offers panoramic views of the lake and surrounding volcanoes. Marcelo's assistant was preparing for a ceremonial fire.

When Marcelo and the family had finished the indoor part of their ceremony, they came up to the roof and we waited in the downstairs altar room. It was decorated with a combination of Mayan and Catholic motifs, such as life-sized statues of San Simon (the Catholic equivalent of folk saint Maximon), posters of the sacred heart of Jesus, candles, etc. Crepe paper flowers hung from the ceiling.

When the family's fire ceremony was complete, Marcelo joined us in the altar room, apologizing for the delay. He said that he remembered us from last year and said he was honored that we had wanted to return to pray for my grandmother. He asked me to write down my grandmother's name so that he could pray for her. Mayans believe that prayers don't work unless you say them aloud. He also had us write the names of anyone else who needed healing prayers, and we did so.

Marcelo handed me three bundles of copal incense inside of corn husks and a prayer candle with a picture of San Simon on the glass. Everyone else was also given incense bundles and candles of various shapes and sizes. We stood solemnly in a semicircle.

Marcelo walked over to me, took the incense and candle from me, and waved them over my head while he chanted for my "pobrecita abuelita" (poor little grandmother). He prayed audibly in Kaqchiqel as he rubbed the incense and candle along my body. This was a ritual transference of bad energy from me to the sacred objects. He blew onto the crown of my head and prayed in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Marcelo held the copal and candle horizontally in front of my lips. I kissed them as he chanted "Matiosh" (thank you) and other words in Kaqchiqel. He flipped the bundle around 180 degrees, and I kissed it again, and repeated the ritual until I has kissed it a total of eight times. He lit my candle, and put the copal bundles aside on the altar. They would be burned in the ritual fire, carrying our petitions to the gods.

Marcelo went from one person to the next, repeating this ritual for protection and good health. At the conclusion of each blessing, he lit the candle and added the incense bundles to the pile on the altar.

We all kneeled down on the floor and he continued to chant.

Marcelo Blesses Humberto

Then we went outside and climbed the staircase up to the roof deck. It was sprinkling rain. We sat under the protection of a corrugate metal roof around a fire platform on which Marcelo and his assistant arranged each of our copal bundles into a circle along with thin colorful candles. They placed eggs and cigarettes in strategic places. Marcelo put a block of molasses on the top and painstakingly lit every individual candle in the fire pile. The flames took hold and soon the whole pile was ablaze.

Lighting the Ritual Fire

Marcelo gave us each thin black candles to hold in our left hands and thin white ones to hold in our right hands. He splashed aguardiente liquor onto the fire, which caused it to flare momentarily. He came to each of us and blessed us, took the candles from us, broke them in half, and placed them into the fire.

An egg exploded on the fire and a cigarette flew off of the fire pile. Marcelo said that this was a good omen for my grandmother and that it signified that she was not ready to leave this world yet, and that I would see her again. (This proved to be true!)

Marcelo continued to tend the fire until it was down to the coals. A rooster next to me kept clucking, and we could hear the sound of the neighborhood women making tortillas, patting the dough between their palms. This ubiquitous sound was also in the background when we visited Maximon this morning.

Marcelo anointed us with flower oil and gave me the remainder in a small plastic bottle. He said to bring it to my grandmother and mark the four cardinal directions with it (which I did after getting home).

We all went back into the altar room, and enjoyed a delicious cup of hot chocolate. Mayans view hot chocolate as the drink of the gods. The Nawales (divine ancestors) cultivated cacao on the Boca Costa and used their merchant prowess to trade it far and wide. Cacao nibs were used to produce a frothy hot drink called "chocolatl" that was so delicious and popular that the Nawales' livelihood thrived (Los Nawales: The Ancient Ones; Merchants, Wives, and Lovers: The Creation Story of MaXimon, p. 22). We certainly felt like it was the nectar of the was so delicious. Tyson commented that it was probably the best hot chocolate he has ever tasted, and we were inclined to agree.

We had bread along with the hot chocolate. Poor Eddy was having a hard time eating and drinking due to his new stitches, but he was being a trooper and handling it quite maturely.

Tyson had mentioned to Humberto that he had had a dream about a snake. Humberto told Marcelo about it, and asked him to interpret it. Marcelo stared at a pile of beans and read their positions to determine that the dream was about heaven. Tyson definitely has had serpent on the brain during this trip!

It was so great to get the opportunity to participate in another ritual. It was such an amazing cultural experience and we are very grateful!

We said our goodnights and headed back to Pana. It was late and everyone was a bit tired. We would have an early start for a day of sightseeing tomorrow. We had a quick dinner of ramen noodles and black beans before heading to bed.

Santiago Atitlan

San Juan la Laguna

San Jorge la Laguna
Steph and Tyson on the lancha to Santiago Atitlan

Steph and Tyson on the lancha to Santiago Atitlan

Santiago Atitlan

Santiago Atitlan

Tzutujil Maya woman showing traditional men's trousers of Santiago Atitlan

Tzutujil Maya woman showing traditional men's trousers of Santiago Atitlan

Bird's eye view of a market transaction, Santiago Atitlan

Bird's eye view of a market transaction, Santiago Atitlan

Church of St. James the Apostle

Church of St. James the Apostle

Blessed Stanley Rother

Blessed Stanley Rother

Altar commisioned by Blessed Stanley Rother, Church of St. James the Apostle

Altar commisioned by Blessed Stanley Rother, Church of St. James the Apostle

Maximon's abode

Maximon's abode


Maximon (photo courtesy of Tyson)

Tyson has found the fabled serpent of Lago Atitlan

Tyson has found the fabled serpent of Lago Atitlan

Tyson and Rose Marie at Utz Batz women's weaving cooperative in San Juan la Laguna

Tyson and Rose Marie at Utz Batz women's weaving cooperative in San Juan la Laguna

Arriving in Panajachel

Arriving in Panajachel

Arriving in Panajachel

Arriving in Panajachel

Craig and Steph preparing for the Mayan ceremony

Craig and Steph preparing for the Mayan ceremony

Paulina, Ian Ivan, Eddy, Paola, Cristian, and Aracely

Paulina, Ian Ivan, Eddy, Paola, Cristian, and Aracely

Ajq'ij Marcelo Alonso Felipe's home altar in San Jorge la Laguna

Ajq'ij Marcelo Alonso Felipe's home altar in San Jorge la Laguna

Tyson, Cristian, Paola, Eddy, Aracely, Paulina, and Humberto

Tyson, Cristian, Paola, Eddy, Aracely, Paulina, and Humberto

Ajq'ij Marcelo Alonso Felipe performs a healing ritual on the roof of his home

Ajq'ij Marcelo Alonso Felipe performs a healing ritual on the roof of his home

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