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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A Wild Visit to Maximon of Santiago de Atitlan

The speed boat to Santiago Atitlan

The first day in Pana we set out late morning to go to San Marco reputed to be the most beautiful of the now rather touristic villages accessible by boat across Lago Atitlan. However when we got down to the shore there was no boat leaving so instead we caught a speed boat for Santiago Atitlan, a more 'work-a-day' Guatemalan town on the far shore of the lake.

The view back to Pana from the boat

The day started out sumptuously fine and sunny and I completely forgot to bring any rain gear despite knowing it often became stormy in the late afternoon.

A returning speed boat coming from Santiago

Santiago Atitlan panorama

We arrived about half an hour later and paired up with a kid from the wharves to take us to see Maximon and the local church for a fee of 30 Q (about $3.60 US). After a steep walk up the hill town, we arrived at the current house where Maximon is residing for the year.

Maximon in Santiago

The Spanish called him San Simon, the Ladinos call him Maximon and the Mayan know him as Rilaj Maam. By any name he is a deity revered through the Guatemalan highlands. He is assumed to be a combination of Maya gods, biblical Judas and Pedro de Alvarado, the Spanish conquistador of Guatemala.

He is an effigy to which Guatemalans of every stripe, go to make offerings and ask for blessings. The effigy is housed by a member of a cofradia, which is a Mayan Catholic brotherhood, moving from one place to another year to year. Anthropologist believe this was established to maintain local balances of power.

The tz'ité or fruit of the palo de pito (Erythrina corallodendron L., native in Guatemala)

In Santigao Atitlan is a wooden figure draped in silk scarves and smoking a fat cigar. His favorite gifts are cigarettes and rum. San Jorge la Laguna on Lago Atitlan is a very spiritual place for the highland Maya. Here they worship Rilaj Maam. It is possible the first effigy was made here carved from the Palo de Pito tree that spoke to the ancient shamans and told them to preserve their culture language and traditions by carving Rilaj Maam. Palo de Pito flowers can be smoked to induce hallucinations.

In San Adres Itzapa near Antigua, he had a permanent home and is brought out on October 28 in an all night hedonistic party in which dancers grab his staff to harness his power and receive magical visions.

From there we hired a tuk-tuk to get us up the hill to the local church hear the centre of town.

The church, like many other in the highlands, functions as a centre of worship both of Catholic ritual and spontaneous expressions of Mayan spirituality in individual devotion run together in a syncretic continuum. This is made even more emphatic by the fact that the population of Santiago largely speaks their own Mayan language and only a little Spanish keeping much of the influence of Spanish ritual at a distance.

Church interior with a dark altar

Saints of all descriptions with Mayan girls passing to the sanctuary

The cloister

Ceremony in the sanctuary

The sanctuary had a lay person leading a spirited devotional elegy, while a stream of Mayan women and men prayed briefly, crossed themselves and passed through in the half dark.

Santiago women bear a motif of the Quetzal on their huipils

Native sweet seller asleep outside the church

The warden who asked for a small donation for the Iglesia

The church courtyard stands above the central plaza

Woman demonstrating how her head piece is wound from a long belt for a small fee

Three images from the central plaza

From there we began walking down the tortuous steep stress back towards the ferries, eventually taking another tuk-tuk in haste to try to catch the 1.30 boat to San Pedro.

Streets near the central plaza

The large avocado market in full swing

Santiago residents in traditional gear (the man with a partner is blind)

The touristic street leading down to the wharves.

Christine teetering on the jetty which was also a challenge for my crutches

We then had to wait till 2.15 for a boat to leave Santiago for San Pedro, which then proved to be a slow boat, which ran out of fuel half way across and had to restock from a jerry can. Getting to the boat on the jetty was challenge enough on crutches, but getting in and out of a slippery high-sided fibreglass shell was even more intriguing.

Men fishing in traditional coracle style boats

Threatening weather

San Pedro de la Laguna

By this time the weather had clouded over and there was the hint of rain on the misty air over the mountains. As we finally reached San Pedro a tropical downpour burst out and we had to try to cower in the front of the boat. I got saturated in my summer clothing. The rain was teeming as we arrived at the jetty and a laughing taxi driver offered us a lift for Q10 or $1.25 and agreed to take us to the wharf to the Pana boats, ironically right on the other side of town.

Touristic street in San Pedro

As we climbed the steep narrow streets in the taxi they turned from stone paved alleyways to raging torrents almost too deep for a vehicle to pass. Finally we arrived at the other wharf down a street lined with tourist guesthouses and restaurants, only to have to get out in a torrent and luckily found a direct boat for Pana was leaving, albeit from a muddy pier across the other side of the cataract, which was now easing, but was still a challenge for the crutches.

Crossing the now diminishing torrent to get to the ferry to Pana

We took off at high speed in the pouring rain, stuck in the very front of the boat, with a flapping plastic sheet to keep the rain from driving into the front of the speed boat. I was saturated and freezing and had to content myself with holding both the front sheet and the plastic side window in place to avoid more wind and rain, while the boat crashed its way through a combination of stormy waters and floating debris (pumice and small branches) making cracking sounds like popcorn, with the hull looking like it would spring a seam at any moment.

Finally we arrived in Pana and had to make a forced 1 km march on crutches wet through and getting more hypothermic by the moment, finally reaching Mario's whose Lonely Planet commentary fames it for 'blazing hot showers' which were true to their recommendation, so we finally warmed ourselves to the bones in copious hot showers before taking off for a chunky Uruguayan hamburger at Guajimbos.

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