By Candice S. Ofulue
Surrounded by the volcanic peaks of the Western Highlands, where the majority of Guatemala’s six million Maya live, Lake Atitlan is the gem of Central America – its magnificent ecology attracts many visitors to the region, some of which never leave.
It’s also where to experience Guatemala’s vibrant indigenous culture. For the villages bordering the lake preserve pre-conquest Maya customs, as well as ceremonies and beliefs born of the blending of Mesoamerican and Catholic theologies. Your best chance of a panoramic glimpse into modern Mayan life is on a market day, which will introduce you to Mayan food, crafts and dress, while an excursion to the chapel of Maximon in Santiago Atitlan will plunge you into the mysterious, if not intoxicating world of Mayan ritual.
Where to Begin
Particularly if you plan to stay just a couple days, but regardless of your length of stay, the most convenient base is Panajachel on the northern shore. Here, the transport links to more remote lakeside villages are the best, plus it’s the most accommodating for tourists. Otherwise known ‘Pana’ or Gringotenango (because of its dependency on tourism), the village itself offers little in the way of sights. It does, however, have several excellent hotels with superb views across the lake and volcanoes on the horizon. Its atmosphere is still tranquil, owing to the bohemian vibe brought to the area by drifting hippies in the 60s.
The Origin of Lake Atitlan
Lake Atitlan’s current form dates back to 85,000 years ago when a large caldera was formed by continuous volcanic eruptions, one of which forged a barrier preventing local rivers from draining into the sea. The crater was eventually transformed into a colossal lake, measuring around 300m (984 feet) deep and 18km (11 miles) wide. Today it is a vital life source for wildlife, while also supporting the livelihoods of surrounding Maya villages, which, according to archeologists, have been in the region since 50 BC. Unfortunately, increased urbanization and deforestation around the lake has been detrimental to its nature. Nevertheless, there is still much biodiversity and natural beauty to experience.
Santa Cruz La Laguna, west of Panajachel, is your gateway into the natural splendor. Over recent years, this village has consolidated its identity as an eco-tourism destination, offering nature enthusiasts hiking, kayaking and diving experiences, as well as yoga and spa vacations. Accommodation here is limited and merges boutique and rustic living. If you want to visit Volcan San Pedro, however, you’ll need to base yourself in San Pedro La Laguna, where you’ll find sufficient accommodation options.
Of course, Guatemala’s highland ecology is an attraction in itself, but what makes this region special – in this small country so rich and diverse in nature – is unquestionably the Maya. The Peten region may be the heartland of the ancient Maya, but in the Western Highlands you’ll find the enduring soul of the modern Maya.
If you’re lucky enough to be in Santiago Atitlan on Good Friday, you’ll witness the dramatic confrontation between Maximon and Christ. If not, however, then visit a market to sample Mayan agricultural existence in full flux. All villages have market days, but the apex of commerce in the highlands is the market in Chichicastenango, staged twice a week, which attracts vendors from across the country. This is the place to buy crafts and textiles, though, admittedly, it is some distance north of Lake Atitlan. Therefore, if you’d prefer to remain close to the lake, then San Antonio Palopo, east of Panajachel, is renowned for its textiles and has a market.
Among the most traditional villages, where you’ll find both men and women wearing garments dating back to the Classic Maya age is Santiago Atitlan. In this Tz’ utujil Maya village, the women still wear ‘huipils’ (loose fitting blouses), woven with colors and patterns representing their village, as well as traditional wrap around skirts, sashes and shawls known as ‘tzuts’. Shamanic culture and the cofradia system (introduced by Spanish colonial priests in 16th century to embed the Christian faith, and arrange the Maya into a network of ‘brotherhoods’ dedicated to a particular saint) remain strong here, which is why fiestas and rituals are often a more memorable, if not subdued affair.
Santiago Atitlan is also home to one of the three shrines of Maximon, a formidable, evil deity with a cult following. He is thought to be an incarnation of Judas Iscariot, conquistador Pedro de Alvarado and several Mayan gods. An attendant looks after him in his abode, ensuring his cigars are lit and his thirst for alcohol continuously quenched. Maximon moves home each year, but it is general knowledge across Santiago Atitlan where he lives from year to year, so your guide may be able to take you to his residence. Make sure you take him an offering of ‘Venado liquor’ and a cigar, plus pay his keepers a couple of dollars on entry and ask permission before taking photos.