On Tuesday, I received an email from Ashley: she and her boyfriend John had made it to Lake Atitlán and were staying in the pueblo of Jaibalito. They were planning a trip to San Pedro that day, and would I like to join them for the afternoon?
Would I? 🙂
We met in the afternoon near the dock to Panajachel, but as we had decided to visit the pueblo of Santiago Atitlán, we needed to walk to the opposite side of town to a different dock. I gave them a quick tour of San Pedro as we zigzagged through Gringolandia on our way to the Santiago dock, where we hired a lancha. We were then joined by Maria, an older woman with a broad smile that showcased her lack of teeth. I sat next to Maria and answered her questions as best I could. She found us incredibly amusing.
“¿De donde eres?” she asked me.
“De los Estados Unidos,” I answered.
“¿Los Estados Unidos???? Hahahahahaha!!!” she replied, laughing hysterically and slurping on a snow cone in her hand. We didn’t understand why it was so funny, but she was so cute that you couldn’t help but just crack up along with her.
As soon as you arrive by boat to Santiago, you realize that this is Where You Go To Shop. Markets with local handicrafts lined the road up to the town, and every shop owner had an offer for us as we walked by. The local dress here is a bit different than in San Pedro: the women’s clothing is similar, but more of the men in Santiago wear cowboy hats, dress shirts, and brightly printed pants. (I have heard this ensemble described in one guide book as the “space cowboy” look). We stopped for a snack and then set out to find one of the other main attractions in Santiago: Maximón.
Maximón has been described as “the evil saint.” Shrines to him in different towns are a blend of pagan and Christian rituals: a sort of folk Catholicism. During Lent (and Holy Week in particular), he often becomes synonymous with Judas Iscariot. Every year, the location of Maximón’s shrine changes, so you need to ask a local where to go. It is also advisable to bring a gift, John had been told by a friend. We stopped at a tienda to buy a small bottle of rum and some cigarettes, then hired a tuk-tuk to take us to the shrine (which was a bit of a scam since the tuk-tuk took us around the block and dropped us off at a point that we had walked past two blocks earlier!) We walked through the narrow passageways between the buildings and into a small fenced courtyard where chickens were pecking at the ground.
We were charged a nominal admission fee and were led into a dark room. Smoke from burning incense hung in the air, along with suspended taxidermied animals and gourds. (Yes, you read that correctly). On the left was a glass casket with a figure of Jesus inside, decorated with colored Christmas lights, silk flowers, scarves, and crosses. On our right were other religious statues, all covered in different gifts from visitors. And in the center, surrounded by offerings and a table full of (quite possibly slightly drunken) men, was Maximón in all his glory, wearing several cowboy hats, smothered in silk neckties, and smoking a lit cigar.
One of the men asked us our names and where we were from. When we answered, he gently took our gifts of rum and tobacco from us, knelt in front of the statue, and began to pray in a mixture of Spanish and his Mayan language. I heard our names and “los Estados Unidos” several times throughout the prayer, so I assume that it was some type of intercession. A second man took and opened the bottle of rum, and with the help of the first man who tipped the statue back, poured it into the statue’s mouth. They then opened our cigarettes, placed one between Maximón’s lips, and lit it. We were allowed to look around and take photos (again, for a small fee), but the entire ceremony took maybe five minutes. Definitely a bit bizarre, but one of the most interesting things I’ve seen in a long time. (Also interesting was the sheer number of empty rum handles sitting beneath a table in the corner!)
On our way back, a local gentleman offered to show us back to the dock. It was just down the street -we had walked from there about two hours earlier- but he was so friendly that we just followed him anyway.
Back at the dock, we tipped our friend and said our goodbyes as we departed on different boats. I was disappointed to see my friends go but thankful for the invitation to join in on their afternoon. My guess is that none of us will have the opportunity to supply a saint with booze ever again.