Deep in the Guatemalan highlands surrounded by three immense volcanoes and home to an assortment of small Mayan villages lies Guatemala’s most beautiful natural wonder, Lake Atitlán. No trip to Guatemala is complete without a visit to this awe inspiring destination rich in Mayan tradition. Experience the highlights of the area with a full day tour that will take you across the majestic lake and into the Maya villages of San Juan and Santiago. Having maintained their proud traditions for hundreds of years, these villages will give you an in depth look into Mayan culture and society in one of the most beautiful settings imaginable. Having spoken to our Travel Specialist Alex who is currently exploring Guatemala and Belize, this blog follows one of her highlight activities, exploring Lake Atitlan and its surrounding Mayan villages.
♦ Exploring tradition Mayan craftwork in San Juan
The tour starts as you are escorted from your hotel to a ‘lancha’ (small motor boat) to cross the lake en route to the small yet progressive Mayan community of San Juan. Your boat will leave bright and early to ensure a smooth crossing on the lake, avoiding the infamous high winds that arrive later in the afternoon.
When you arrive your guide will introduce you to your expert local town guide who will accompany you throughout your walk and answer any questions that you may have on your surroundings or Mayan culture. As you make your way through this tight knit community, you will be able to meet local artists and artisans practicing their traditional Mayan craftwork. From backstrap weaving, the midwife association practicing with traditional herbal remedies, and extremely talented artists and painters; there is an abundance of history and talent on show.
San Juan is a perfect place for souvenir shopping, as the intimate layout allows you to discuss the products you are buying with the very people that made them as opposed to the hustle and bustle of a crowded marketplace. Throw in the backdrop of Lake Atitlan and the vast array of vibrant and colorful public murals celebrating the town’s history and Mayan traditions and you will understand why so many people have come to San Juan and decided to stay permanently.
♦ Meeting Maximón the Mayan god in Santiago
After spending about four hours exploring San Juan, it’s time to make your way to a different part of the lake shore to visit the much larger village of Santiago. This village is famous for having the largest indigenous population of Tzutujile Mayans and upon arrival you will take a break and stop for to sample some of the local, traditional cuisine at one of Santiago’s authentic restaurants.
Santiago is a very important for its spiritual practices, particularly in regards to the mythical figure of Maximón. The devilish Mayan god is known by many in the area to be a connection between the underworld and the heavens. The Catholic Church on the other hand sees him more close to the devil, and considers prayers to Maximón to be witchcraft. Despite the split opinion of him, Maximón remains an important part of many people´s lives and his shrines receive regular visits from Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador, and Belize to burn offerings to him. Your guide will bring you to see Maximón, but any pictures of or with him will require a small offering.
The visit to meet Maximón is followed by a trip to the local Catholic Church that was built on top of a Mayan temple and dates back to as far as 1571. The altar in particular is the perfect example of Catholic-Mayan Syncretism, as you will see traditional Mayan and Catholic symbols carved side by side. Your guide will explain the historical and religious importance of Santiago over the years, including its part in the violent Guatemalan Civil War. After your time in the church you will be escorted back to your boat as you make your way back to your exclusive hotel in Lake Atitlan.