Lake Atitlán (which in Nagüalth means “by the water”) seems almost unreachable at first sight From one of the ¨miradores¨ of the mountain, the 125 square kilometers of the lake and its magnificence are evident before the eyes of those who come across it for the first time. We make a brief stopover for panoramic snapshots and resume our trip without delay to see the lake from a closer viewpoint.
The huge San Pedro (3,020 meters high), San Lucas Toliman (3,400), and Atitlan (3600) volcanoes seem to protect the vast water expanse. Their reflection on the water makes them look more gigantic; the tonalities of the lake vary from light green to deep blue.
There are fifteen nearby towns, twelve of them bearing the names of the Apostles. The main town is Panajachel, where shopping fans will melt at the wide range of local handicrafts. Access can be made by going down a path at an average height of 2000 meters above sea level; the abundant pine tree woods serve as a kind of green wall that accompanies the travelers.
Patzicia, one of the highest sites in the itinerary, is 2,400 meters above sea level and it is almost entire occupied by vegetable plantations, the produce of which is exported to Central America and proves to be an important source of income to the region. On the hillsides you can find strawberries and-most remarkable of all-25 different types of roses that export to the United States.
From Panajachel (or Pana, just like the locals call the town), boats sail to the different villages. The most frequently visited is Santiago de Atitlan, land of the Tzutujil natives. The boat speeds along the 15 kilometers volcanoes. Once it touches the ramshackle pier, a crowd of children approaches the tourist and offers them all kinds of handicrafts for a few coins.
A rear guard of elderly ladies proudly shows us a 25 cent Quetzal coin with an engraving of a woman wearing a tocoyal (i.e. a woven lace twisted among the hairs; the lace can be as long as 20 meters). They pretend to be the original models and in exchange for a voluntary contribution they are willing to pose for a photograph. After this friendly welcome, the town is ready to disclose its secrets.
The steep high street runs deep into Santiago. It somehow resembles the Tower of Babel, where a great many languages spoken by tourists mingles with the local language, Tzutujil, a branch of the Mayan language. The stalls offer typical multichrome weaves, bracelets, necklaces and wood-carved masks. You need not worry over the prices because bargaining, a common practice in Guatemala, is the clue to obtaining products at a much lower price than the original tender.
Like in the rest of the country, the churches play a relevant role in the life of the town. The Parochial Church of Santiago Apostol (Apostle James) is located in Santiago de Atitlán and was built in 1547. The most striking feature of this church is that all the images and saints are clad in typical multichrome costumes, matching the neckerchiefs that people give them as a token of their religious faith.
Nobody should leave Santiago without looking for and meeting Maximon. The saint is said to be a reincarnation of the Mayan god Mam; its wood-carved image is clad in Ladin clothes. The Mayan people name Ladin to all those who are different from them. During the 16th and 17th centuries, as catholicism gained ground over the beliefs of the locals, the reincarnation of this god adopted a new name: San Simon. However, the natives called Maximon, which they used to dress in black ties and suits.
Due to the fact during a whole year the saint is kept at the house of a member of the Brotherhood of the Holy Cross, it is necessary to find out where it is. Once found, pilgrims present it with money as well as alcohol and tobacco. The saint is looked after by the group chairman (i.e. a sorcerer who acts both as a witch doctor and soothsayer by means of the ecstasy technique). People come to celebrate rituals begging for the welfare of their families.
Maximon does not only entail devotion and tradition: a good deal of money circulates not only terms of offerings, pupf also as earnings obtained from the admittance charged to tourists for entering the house and taking photographs. Each May 3rd the saint is held on top of a pole and taken on a procession along the streets of the town. It is later decided which house will keep it during the following year.
Taking the boat that sails from Santiago Atitlan to Panajachel is like traveling hundreds of years forward through the time machine. The orange-hued dusk reflects on the water. The balconies of the hotel are the place to watch the sun sink in the horizon, come back to reality and get ready to enjoy the nightlife of Pana!