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The Silk Route - World Travel: Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala
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Guatemala: Santiago Atitlan, San Antonio Palopo
April 2012

Santiago Atitlan San Antonio Palopo
Santiago Atitlan

 

Peaceful villages on Lake Atitlan, surrounded by volcanoes, whose inhabitants are descended from the ancient Maya and still practice traditional ways.

Santiago Atitlan

Lake Atitlan
Volcano San Pedro

We spent a day visiting villages around Lake Atitlan. We started early on a beautiful morning with the volcanoes standing out against a clear sky.

Mario drove us to the public dock where we had a private boat to take us first right across the lake to Santiago Atitlan which is on the east shore of a finger of water pushing south-west out of the lake. To the south east are the two volcanoes Tolimán and Atitlán, to the west just across the water is San Pedro.

Speeding across a mirror-flat lake towards majestic volcanoes we enjoyed every second of the journey on our way to villages where the people are descendants of the ancient Maya.

stone sauna

We saw several local men out in the traditional boats with a v-shaped uplifted prow close to Santiago Atitlan, as well as a superb view of volcano San Pedro.

stone sauna

Santiago Atitlan is quite a sizeable place, peaceful when we were there as we had purposely come early. We passed through a small covered market where women sell their fresh fruit and vegetables, though many also set up their produce on the streets.

stone sauna
Traditional stone sauna, Santiago Atitlan.
santiago atitlan
Santiago Atitlan
santiago atitlan

Mario walked us up through the town talking about the local people and their customs and stopping at a lady whom he knew,  to show us the traditional stone sauna, still in use for treatment of certain ailments and for women after childbirth. There is a low stone bench along one side and water is thrown onto hot stones heated by a fire in a stone enclosure.

santiago atitlan
santiago atitlan
santiago atitlan
Maximon and attendants.

One of the most memorable experiences of our whole holiday was this lovely lady showing us how she makes yarn from raw wool and also how she winds a length of material around the crown of her head to create the traditional head-dress - an amazingly beautiful procedure.

We gave her something for her trouble, guided always by Mario as to an acceptable amount. She's quite famous, appearing on quite a few travel and tourist brochures and websites!


Video: traditional headwear.

 

 

We've seen many wonderful landscapes and architectural sights on our travels but time and again it is the people, often those living very simple lives, who form the fondest and most enduring memories.

 

santiago atitlan
We were constantly amazed by the loads men carried on their backs - here mangoes.

 

At the top of the town is the shrine of Maximon, one of the most curious idols we've come across. Resplendent in his special clothing and surrounded by offerings the model sits in the house of the family chosen each year to look after him - it is a very desirable task. Maximon is sometimes depicted as an unpleasant bully whom it's best to keep on side!

Devotees present him with gifts including cigars or cigarettes, which he "smokes", and rum, a little of which he "drinks", the rest given to the family who look after him.

Maximon is important to the local people, descendants of the ancient Maya. Mayan beliefs and colonial religious ceremonies fuse to form a  strange amalgam and during Easter week Maximon takes a prominent part in proceedings.

santiago atitlan
The Roman Catholic Church in Santiago Atitlan.
santiago atitlan church

The church in Santiago Atitlan is set on a huge plaza and reached by an impressive set of steps.

Inside the church is big and airy, white with large, gaudily clothed figures of saints and biblical characters along each of the long walls.

santiago atitlan church
Christian and Mayan motifs in the church of Santiago Atitlan.

 

santiago atitlan church
The carved wooden altarpiece in the church of Santiago Atitlan.

santiago atitlan
santiago atitlan

 

Evidence of the mixing of Catholicism and traditional Mayan beliefs can be seen if you look closely. A carved wooden lectern incorporates maize and a Quetzal bird - the magnificent national bird of Guatemala - as well as an angel and a lamb.

 

The large wooden altarpiece is carved with a series of figures, the lower ones brightly dressed, and is exceptional in its tolerant combination of both Christian and Mayan elements. It was badly damaged in earthquakes and recarved by Mayan craftsmen who were encouraged to replace unrepairable panels with new carvings incorporating depictions of traditional Mayan beliefs - one even shows Maximon!

santiago atitlan church
Carving of Maximon a Mayan ceremony with Maximon on one of the lower panels of the altarpiece in the church.
santiago atitlan
santiago atitlan
This wonderful old man, sunning himself in the town square, wears the traditional short, striped trousers.

We really enjoyed just wandering through this small town observing life go on around us. We were completely ignored, apart from one or two children keen to sell us souvenirs - we bought a decorated pen and a lovely bead quetzalcoatl which hangs on our Christmas tree.

santiago atitlan
The women effortlessly carry packages on their heads and have superb posture.
santiago atitlan
santiago atitlan
santiago atitlan
santiago atitlan

 

San Antonio Palopo

San Antonio Palopo
San Antonio Palopo's two churches.
San Antonio Palopo
Trays of drying coffee beans.
San Antonio Palopo

 

Mario left us to wander on our own until we met again at the boat to go on to San Antonio Palopo, right across the lake to its eastern shore.

San Antonio Palopo
Traditional local boats.

This is a much simpler village with no other tourists that we saw, though Mario said they would come! We walked up to the church from where there is a wonderful view across the lake. The current church is too small for this growing village and a new one is slowly being built right next to it.

 

San Antonio Palopo
View from the church of San Antonio Palopo.
San Antonio Palopo
The beautiful traditional blue dress of San Antonio Palopo.

 

San Antonio Palopo
The onion farmer.

We made a long walk back down to the boat, Mario pointing out so many interesting things along the way - the local building technique for instance, which uses a framework of bamboo poles and which is a traditional Mayan method.

San Antonio Palopo
Traditional Mayan bamboo building framework.
San Antonio Palopo
Volcanoes Atitlán, Tolimán across the lake.

Each village has its own traditional dress and distinguishing colour - here it is a beautiful shade of blue. Though the colours are not set in stone - one village completely changed the colour of their clothes because they got a good deal from a cloth salesman!

San Antonio Palopo
Leaving San Antonio Palopo - Volcano Atitlán.

We passed a local man in traditional kilt tending his onion crop. Asking Mario to ask him if it was OK to take his photograph he said yes, if we would promise to send him a copy - Mario translating. So Mario took his address and we took his photo and after we returned we sent some photographs to Mario who delivered them next time he went to Lake Atitlan.

San Antonio Palopo