This large church, dedicated to Saint James the Apostle, dominates the far side of the Parque Central, set back from it on the far side of an open space. It was built between 1572 and 1581, and has been restored and reconstructed several times after significant earthquake damage. It has three altarpieces representing the three volcanoes that tower over the village. There is also an interesting pulpit (photo 5) which shows how the Roman Catholicism introduced by the conquering Spanish absorbed some of the local traditions. Note the quetzal sporting a halo, and above it the ears of corn – corn was sacred to the Maya.
Along both sides of the church you will see wooden carvings of saints, each dressed in a fabric tunic (photos 3 and 4). These are made by local women and are changed each year. On the wall either side of the main door are some marble plaques that repay close reading. The one on the left as you enter tells the history of the village – its settlement by the Tzutuhil Maya from about 900 BC onwards, its conquest by the Spanish in 1524, the building of the first church in 1541 and of this later replacement.
But most interesting are the two on the right hand side, which tell the story of the “Martyrs of Santiago”:
"From mid 1980 until late 1990 the people of Santiago suffered from the violence caused by the thirty year civil war waged in Guatemala from 1966 to 1998. Santiago Atitlán suffered a massacre on January 6, 1980. Ten men from the village were killed on that day by Guatemalan military forces at Chacaya about three miles from Santiago Atitlán. The men were working their fields when the surprise attack occurred.
Death threats, woundings, disappearances, assassinations became common place in Santiago Atitlán at this time. This Catholic church served as a refuge for many families who came here each night to sleep in the safety the church offered.
On July 28, 1981 Father Stanley "Apla’s" Rother, Catholic pastor of the church was assassinated in the parish rectory adjacent to this church. The people of Santiago Atitlán asked that his head and blood remain in the village. They are buried in the martyr’s monument in the south west arch of the church. The violence in Santiago continued through 1990 claiming a deacon and many other church members.
On December 2, 1990 thirteen people were killed in front of the local army camp in canton Panabaj about one mile from Santiago. They went to the local military camp to protest an attempted kidnapping earlier in the day. The people of Santiago Atitlán organized peaceful protests after this massacre and the army left Santiago before the end of December 1990.
The crosses of the Martyrs’ Monument give the names of some of the people who were disappeared and or killed during the violence. The date of disappearance or death is also listed.”
The priest mentioned came from Oklahoma, and churches there have contributed to the memorial and supported this church.
Towards the top of Santiago’s main street a left turn will take you to the market area. You can’t miss it – the stalls spill out on to the street and many traders simply sit at the edge of the street with their produce displayed on an upturned box or on a cloth laid out on the road itself. If you’re discreet with your camera you’ll be able to get lots of “local colour” photos. Most of the women selling here will be wearing the traditional local costume of huipiles embroidered with colourful flowers, but you may also spot a few who are obviously visiting from another village as their costume will be noticeably different – the blue stripes of San Antonio Palopo perhaps, or a red from further afield.
I found that there were mixed attitudes to my camera – a few people seemed happy to pose, others needed to be caught unawares, and one man tried to charge me 10 Q just for taking a picture of some brightly coloured beans that weren’t even on his own stall!
If you’re hungry you can buy some of the small sweet local bananas as you need have no qualms about eating these straight away – no need to wash fruit that can be peeled. There are also stalls selling ready-prepared slices of melon, cucumber and other fruit and vegetable combos in plastic bags, but I didn’t like to risk these.
Beyond the market you will come to Santiago’s main square, called (like such squares in most Spanish colonial towns throughout Latin America) the Parque Central. Today it is a peaceful spot. A few old men dose on the benches, wearing their traditional short stripy trousers. Children play, tourists pause to eat lunch, and women sell handicrafts or bananas. But on 1 December 1990 it would have been a very different scene, because it was here that local people (men, women, and children) gathered in their thousands to march to the nearby garrison to demand an end to harassment by soldiers stationed there. They had been spurred to action by an event earlier that day. Several soldiers from the garrison had been in town drinking and had got out of control. When they started harassing local women, some villagers threw stones at them. The soldiers pulled their weapons and fired, killing one of the villagers.
When the group from the town arrived at the gates of the garrison they were met with gunfire. Eleven were killed and 40 injured. The incident caused a national outcry against the government and drew international condemnation. The government was forced to act against the military and withdrew them from the town. There is a full account of the 1990 uprising as told by a local here.
Today the martyrs are commemorated by a monument in the church (see next tip), a Peace Park on the sight of the massacre, and an annual ceremony on the anniversary.
I know visiting Maximon is THE touristy thing to do in Santago Atitlan, but I have some distinct reservations.
1. Housing Maximon and receiving a significant cut of the fees for picture taking etc is lucritive enough that there have been major battles over who gets the priviledge. There have been deaths over it.
2. Although the cult of Maximon grew out of the Catholic confraturnities, the lore is more of a devil figure than a Christian "saint."
3. "Worship" of Maximon involves a lot of drinking shots of local firewater and cigars. It can get quite rowdy and probably not good for family life.
As a practicing Christian, I just can't do anything that supports this. In spite of the tourist money it brings in, I see the influence as unhealthy spritually and socially.
Santiago's large church was founded in 1541 and the structure was completed in 1582. Along the side walls of the church are wooden figures. Each alcove contains a group that is dressed in a certain theme. The local women make the clothes and change them each year. There is what looks like a very old baptismal bowl carved from stone to the left of the carved wooden pulpit in the foreground of the main altar. In the back of the altar are three colonial era carved wooden altar pieces each of which also have wooden figures dressed in handmade clothes. The three altarpieces represent the three volcanoes in the area which are believed to provide protection to the town.
The church is also known for the missionary priest, Father Stanley Francis Rother from Oklahoma, who was murdered in 1981 during the civil war. There is a memorial to his memory along the right wall just after you enter the church.
The scene from this viewpoint is stunning for more than one reason. Below is the inlet of Lake Atitlan on which Santiago Atitlan is located. From the opposite shoreline one gets an incredible view of Volcan de San Pedro rising to an apex height of 3020 meters. Also below you will notice a cove protected by a point that juts out into the inlet. This cove has served as a Mayan bathing/clothes washing basin for centuries. Local women still come here daily to do laundry and to bathe. Please be discrete and respectful if there happens to be women bathing in the cove.
In late 1990 a local leader was taken into custody by the Guatemalan army. Villagers grouped together to protest and demand his release. Eventually the soldiers fired on the group of protesters resulting in the death of 13 people including at least one child. A monument in the form of a peace park (Parque de la Paz) has been built on the site of the massacre to remember the 13 persons who were killed. It is best if you can go with someone who can explain the details of the event which makes the park a much more meaningful place.
hes got three names.... Latino, Mayan, and Spanish respectively.... But hes the centerpiece for this perfectly placed at the foot of the hills at Lake Atitlan, across from Panajachel... Take about a 30 min boat ride across (take one of the smaller, faster boats that leave more frequently) if the waves arent too rough. When you show up at the docks, there will probably be a flock of kids, each bidding for the right to take you to see Maximon... It will probably be a short 5 min walk... Youll pay a few quetzal at the door, then take a seat... You will be asked to leave a gift ($10 quetzal) if you want to take a picture... Maximon also welcomes cigarettes and liquor... Every few minutes, the care takers will give Maximon a drink, and light a cigar for him... we also saw a ceremony in which numerous candles were lit.... one said a prayer, cutting back and forth from spanish to mayan... He then came around wafted incense under our armpits... Supposedly, it lasts hours.... All in all, you can get there cheap, see Maximon fairly cheap (depending on how many pictures you take) and get back cheap.....
One of the most interesting things about visiting Santiago Atitlán, was searching for the mysterious Maximón. MaxiWHO? Well, Maximón (aka, San Simón) is a local saint or in some peoples' minds, a demon. I'm not 100% sure of his origins. Some say he was an ancient Mayan deity and some say he is the indigenous people's answer to the Catholic Saint Simón. After departing the boat, we were immediately approached by a number of kids offering to show us the way to Maximón, but we decided to try to find him ourselves. We walked up the main street, lined with stalls selling local craft items and found ourselves in the main square. Eventually, we made our way through the dusty streets to a small little house and entered a tiny, dark room to visit Maximón. There were two guys keeping watch and collecting offerings to the "saint" who is a wooden deity that is believed by locals to grant wishes. It's tradition to give him an offering of liquor, beer or cigars, but all we could muster was one of Ryan's cigarettes and for that, we were granted this photo. The whole experience was a bit weird and I must admit, old Max wasn't much of a conversationalist, but it was a fun adventure finding him.
Just as you head up the hill from the Dock in Santiago Atitlan theres and amazing FREE textile & Weaving Museum run by a weaving co-op Association Cojolya.
Looks at history and myths of weaving and tells about beautiful indigenous costume worn by the Mayan Villagers. Explanations in English and spanish, women weaving at the museum daily, tours to see them in their own homes and beautiful, high quality, fair trade textiles for sale.
Well worth a visit...
The traditional costume of Santiago is beautiful and unusual...Men wears long shorts embroidered with flowers, birds and other figures, and women wears huipiles...
Santiago´s catholic church is an old and interesting building...When i was there, the saint´s were covered with a kind of modern uniform.