Santiago has a distinctive style of local dress, as do many of the Maya-dominated towns of Guatemala. The women wear huipiles, usually with a pale blue background, on which are darker vertical stripes. Between the stripes there are often colourful tropical birds, though sometimes they are left plain, and around the neckline are embroidered equally colourful flowers, or sometimes more birds. Indeed the whole is a riot of colour, and quite a contrast to the more sober and ordered blue stripes of San Antonio Palopo where we had been the previous day.
Even more distinctive is the traditional Santiago woman’s headdress – a band of cloth is coiled around itself to form a huge saucer shape in red or deep orange. It is mostly the older women who still wear this, whereas the huipile is worn by young and old.
Unusually the men here also often wear their traditional costume – trousers cut off below the knee, pale cream in colour and with purple vertical stripes (see photo 3, and my Parque Central tip). For “best” the trousers may also be embroidered with brightly coloured birds. Shirts are more conventional in style, and the headgear of choice is a cowboy hat, either of leather or straw.
Perhaps understandably people going about their daily lives don’t necessarily want to be photographed, but it would be a rare tourist who didn’t want to capture such striking attire. Be discreet with your camera and you should get some good shots, or make a small purchase from a handicrafts seller in return for the photo – we bought a key ring for just 5 Q from this woman and she posed happily for us.
My other photos were snatched with the zoom and show the huipiles and other clothes of various people we encountered on our walks around the town.
A visit to the Mayan idol, Maximón, is a highlight of any trip to Santiago Atitlàn. Unlike many such figures, you won’t find him in a church or other place of worship, but in a family home. It is a great honour among local families to act as Maximón’s host, and also a great responsibility. He has his own room, and is watched over day and night. During the day he receives visitors, who light candles at his feet and offer him money, cigarettes and alcohol. At night he is “put to bed” – winched up into a private space above where he can rest.
Maximón is believed to be a form of the pre-Columbian Maya god Mam, blended with influences from Catholicism, and is sometimes equated with the Catholic San Simeon. He is also linked to Judas Iscariot, probably because the Spanish conquerors, fearing Maximón’s influence over the people, chose this way of trying to turn them against him. Nowadays he takes the role of Judas in the Holy Week procession, before moving to his new home for the coming year. But the traditional Maya religion recognises him as the incarnation of the ancient Mayan god of sexuality. The legend has it that one day while the village men were away working in the fields, Maximón slept with all of their wives. When they returned, they were so angry they cut off his arms and legs (and this is thought to be why most effigies of Maximón are short, often without arms).
He does not live up to Christian notions of sainthood, but instead is rather a bully and as likely to grant prayers for revenge as for anything else. Offerings are made less in worship and more in fear of what he might do if not so honoured.
If you want to read more about Maximón there’s a long account of the legend behind his creation on this website, taken from local oral tradition.
If you're not on a guided tour local children will meet you off the ferry and offer to lead you to Maximón for a few quetzales. You could try to find him on your own, but going with these young guides will provide them with a bit of income and you with a chance to talk to them and learn a little bit about their lives. Our young guide, David, was trilingual and spoke a few words of his Maya language, Tz'utujil, for us. He was keen to take us on a complete tour of the town’s sights but we prefer to explore on our own so declined his offer and gave him the 15 Q we had agreed on for him and his friend.
Maximon is a Mayan saint or deity, and people come to him for blessings. This particular Maximon was carved by the young shaman, Nicolas. Most of the people visiting this village have come to see Maximon. Nicolas travels around the country with him to visit people who can’t come to him. He became a shaman at 18, and is now 36. Training seems to have consisted of dreams sent to him from the “Grandfather” (Creator) rather than any apprenticeship or formal teaching.
He performed a ceremony that involved lighting a bunch of candles, waving a smoking pot around, lighting Maximon’s cigarette, kneeling down and chanting in Mayan, then tipping Maximon back to give him a drink. Nine different colors of candles represent the 9 underworld gods. More praying and smoke followed, and we had been wished good health and safe travels.
Maximon was created in 1524 A.D. as the Spanish came to Guatemala. He usually has a cigarette. The story says that 12 shamans all had a special dream that they had to climb to the top of the volcano. Once they were there, they dreamed they must build a European statue and hide their Mayan gods in it. They knew the Spanish were coming. When the Spaniards arrived, they found the local people praying in front of the statue—it looked like a Spaniard so they didn’t destroy it.
Each village has its own distinctive dress, and the women of Santiago wear a headdress that consists of a very long strip of thick fabric that is wrapped around and around.
They demonstrated how they put it on, and they can do it very quickly.
(See additional photos)
No trip to Santiago Atitlan would be complete without a visit to Maximon. Considered to be a combination of things including Mayan gods and Spanish and Biblical historical figures, Maximon is a deity much revered by the people in this town. His location various as he is passed from house to house, typically homes of local church leaders called cofradias. We were told he is moved every two years but guidebooks say it's once a year. However there is a monetary supplement that is provided by either the church or the town to whoever is hosting Maximon so there has been some infighting as to who should host him and for how long.
At any rate, once you hit the ground at the ferry dock, local children and tuk-tuk drivers will approach you offering to take you to Maximon's location. We bargained with the tuk-tuk drivers for a mini-tour of the town's sights that included going to see Maximon (90 quetzales per person). What I thought was most interesting was the opportunity to see how the locals lived as Maximon was in someone's home. The cooking area was outside and the living area was very minimalist. Maximon's room, however, was ornately decorated with offerings and even a glass-sided coffin with his supposed body. Maximon himself was situated in the center of the room dressed as a man with three hats, a couple of ties, a number of lit candles before him, and an unlit cigar sticking out of his mouth. Also in front of him was a plate for offerings. The privilege of taking a single photo will cost you 20 quetzales.
Ask the locals where Maximon is housed...good luck finding it. Then again it can be like a bit of a scavenger hunt! Or have someone take you there for the price of a tip. Be sure to negotiate the tip beforehand.
Lake Atitlan has about a dozen towns around it and all of them are inhabited by people of Mayan descent. Santiago Atitlan is the largest settlement of the Tz'utujil Mayan people who originally migrated from Mexico around 3000 years ago. Each of these groups has distinctive traditions and these variations are often most apparent in the clothing of the different groups. These locals were selling their wares on a street just off the main square.