Spiritual worlds collide at Lake Atitlán, Guatemala

Josh Ferry Woodard 

A journey of spiritual convergence, space cowboys, hippies and Maximón, the drunken saint. Josh Ferry Woodard takes us on an adventure around the Guatemalan Lake Atitlán.

A wooden boat zipped across the glassy surface of Lake Atitlán, sending a procession of ripples in my direction: an invitation to dive in, I assumed.

The water was cool, rejuvenating and deep. I ducked under the surface and emerged on my back to take in the views.

In the distance stood an imposing landscape of rolling volcanic peaks. To my left: rectangular concrete homes with tin roofs and wooden beams formed a patchwork on the hill. To my right: a line of mothers in loud pink, purple, scarlet and blue traditional Maya outfits washed clothes in the shallows of the lake.

 Lake Atitlán
The beautiful Lake Atitlán

Aldous Huxley famously described Lake Como as the “limit of the permissibly picturesque” before going on to call Lake Atitlán “Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes”.

Floating on these turquoise waters with green forested mountain peaks in every direction, each encircled by a smoky volcanic cloud, I understood Huxley’s assertion that the lake “really is too much of a good thing.”

But Huxley wasn’t the first to fall under the hypnotic spell of this stunning location. Mayan tribes have lived around the lake for millennia, worshipping the healing qualities of the deep lagoon.

Then came the Spanish 'conquistadores' who integrated Mayan deities into their own Catholic teachings.

In recent decades, Western hippies have also come to call the lake home. Borrowing spiritual philosophies from lakeside shamans they declare Atitlán one of only three ‘energy vortexes’ in the world. The others are, naturally, Machu Picchu in Peru and the Pyramids of Giza.


‘Space cowboys’ in Sololá

space cowboys
Women shop in the busy market town of Sololá

Early one Friday morning I set off from my base in San Pedro de la Laguna to the market town of Sololá—one of the only places where men still wear traditional 'traje' attire.

Huxley named these colourful characters the ‘space cowboys’ and my journey to find them did feel a little out of this world.

The 40-minute water taxi to Panajachel was a non-stop barrage of beautiful images, like a zoetrope of enticing alpine lake postcards.

My journey then took a different tack as I boarded what is known as a ‘chicken bus’.

chicken bus
A decorated 'chicken bus'

These iconic vehicles are retired American school buses, customised with shiny chrome girders, brash orange, yellow and blue decals. More often than not they are inscribed with doting messages for 'Jesus Cristo'. While transporting Guatemalans across the country, they always drive at breakneck speeds.

Anxiously, I slipped a pair of shades over my eyes to help conceal my distress at the driver’s decision to overtake each and every vehicle—even the other chicken buses­—as we made the 2000-ft cliff ascent.

Shortly after resting to catch breath beneath the shade of a palm tree in the city park, I entered Sololá’s famous Friday market.

traditional traje attire
A space cowboy and his wife in traditional traje attire. Image via Kiva

It was like nothing I’d ever seen before. Everywhere I looked: action. Young men in jeans and second-hand branded t-shirts were frantically trying to flog fake DVDs and cigarettes.

Tiny wrinkled old ladies in patterned outfits pushed through the crowds with chickens in one hand and baby goats in the other.

Teams of dark-haired sisters, mothers and grandmothers were reeling out endless colour combinations of 'huipil' blouses and 'corte' wraparound skirts. Short stocky men with hoarse voices weighed seeds and spices against set-weight stones.

But Sololá’s crowning jewel was undoubtedly the presence of the magisterial ‘space cowboys’. Clad in black, pink, orange and white collared jackets, pink, turquoise and yellow cotton trousers, beige leather boots and beige high-crowned, wide-brimmed hats, these striking characters weaved their way through the marketplace with a poise akin to an expert painter working his brush over a beautiful canvas.

Every Friday morning Maya traders catch chicken buses from isolated highland villages to Sololá. Farmers offer their produce; weavers offer their wares, in order to purchase the necessary foodstuffs or household items for the coming week.

A timeless tradition integral to the colourful tapestry of Mayan life.


Maximón: The drunken saint of sin

Maximón saint of sin
Inside one such homage to Maximón. Image via Maya Explorer

My next excursion took me to the sleepy lakeside village of San Juan in search of Maximón: the drunken saint of sin.

The worship of Maximón is a curious case of Mayan folk culture becoming intertwined with Spanish Catholic teachings.

When the Spanish conquistadores settled in Guatemala in the 16th century they viewed the Maya as ‘infidels’ and attempted to convert them to Catholicism. After many bloody battles, the Spanish came out on top. But in order to continue with some of their traditional ceremonies, the Maya devised a clever strategy: religious mixing

The story of a drunken, cigar-toting, womanising, vagabonding Mayan shaman (Mam) was conflated with the legend of a drunken, cigar toting, womanising, vagabonding Spanish priest (San Simón).

And thus, the worship of Maximón began.

Maximón is deified at shrines scattered around Lake Atitlán and the surrounding highlands. Each year his effigy is moved to a new residence, where two members of the local confraternity are entrusted to look after the shrine while indulging in his favourite vices.

Maximon festival
A Maximón ceremony in San Lucas Tolimán. Image via Revue Mag

Worshippers pay their respects with expensive gifts. Cigarettes, cigars, spirits and money are given in the hope that the errant saint will answer prayers that other deities wouldn’t: increased wealth; success in love; and—occasionally—revenge over enemies.

After snooping around San Juan for about an hour, impressed by the mystical murals on the walls, I entered a small dimly lit shop selling cigarettes and bottles of alcohol.

The two men running the little liquor store ushered me through a side door. They whispered information to me with an overegged solemnity that suggested both supreme reverence and inebriation.

The effigy of Maximón—a wooden life-sized model dressed in suit, tie and black cowboy hat—sat on a blue and orange tasseled chair between two crucifixes on a raised altar. Colourful rugs, wooden Mayan carvings, packs of cigarettes, bottles of liquor, pots of flowers and—inexplicably—aubergines surrounded him. A residue of musty incense clung to the air.

Seeking safety in my travels, I held out a 10 Quetzal note. Maximón’s drunken keepers gestured for me to give it to the saint of sin himself.

“Para él. Para él.” “For him. For him.”


A new age of lake dwellers

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Back in San Pedro I strolled down a thin cobbled street looking at a diverse range of ventures.

Maya women selling colourful weaves from co-ops. Israeli restaurants serving falafel and hummus. Mexican joints frying up beef and onion tacos. Guatemalan tour operators with catalogues of excursions to different lakeside towns and hikes to the summits of various volcanoes.

Amid a barrage of conversations spoken in tongues from all over the globe, I encountered some hippy gringos peddling spiritual mantras such as Experience Awakening, Join The Mystical Yoga Farm and Traverse The Pathless Path.

San Pedro
Clothes for sale in San Pedro

The hippies started gathering around the lake in communes during the 60s before being turfed out during the worst days of the Guatemalan Civil War in the 80s and early 90s. When peace returned in 1996 so did the hippies, along with their tie-dye t-shirts and crystal skulls.

These days the Maya, the Spanish and the hippies live side-by-side with relatively little friction.

Most Maya men now wear second-hand branded clothes shipped in from America, like their Spanish counterparts. Catholics and indigenous tribes pay their respects to the enigmatic Maximón. And American hippies, such as the grey-bearded ‘Chocolate Shaman’, attempt to channel the lake’s mystic energy.

However, it might be a long time before the Maya start turning to crusty gringos for spiritual counsel…