Our next stop was in the mountainous areas, the highlands in the east. The cold climate, exuberant nature, and land fertility are trademarks of the highlands, the home of Guatemala’s Mayan descendants. Located in the highlands is Lake Atitlán, which sits at about 5,000 feet above sea level and is surrounded by three majestic volcanoes—Tolimán, Atitlán, and San Pedro. The cities of Chichicastenango, Panajachel, and Santiago Atitlán gather the liveliest manifesto of Mayan culture in the highlands. In this region, the lifestyle of the indigenous population still consists of the rituals, traditions, and teachings passed on by Mayan ancestors.
The Guatemalan highlands are filled with peculiar beauty, sprinkled with the traditions and unmistakable presence of important Mayan communities. Located in the northeastern region, the highlands boast unique attractions such as Lake Atitlán, which is captivatingly gorgeous. Its waters shimmer in the afternoon, and tranquility brings peace to mind and soul. It is amazing how an 85,000-year-old lake can still calm anyone who comes in contact with its picturesque scenery.
Along the shorelines of the lake is the town of Panajachel, Cakchiquel territory. Panajachel is a laid-back, sleepy town with incredible views across the lake. Since Panajachel is small, we walked all over the town and enjoyed the open Mayan markets, the restaurants, and the town itself. The town is a quaint little Kodak moment. Then, we jumped on a speedy boat and after a twenty-minute taxi boat ride across the lake with the water splashing on our faces, we arrived at the other side.
We made our way to the small village of Santiago de Atitlán. This quaint setting offered an upfront, eyewitness view of an odd ceremony that centered on one of the Mayan-Catholic idols. The deity’s name is Maximóm; on this day, he was in a local house of a cofradía, a Catholic brotherhood. As it was explained to us, Maximóm stays in a different member’s house each year. It was quite unusual for a westerner to witness the true mixture of the two religions that was being practiced that day with a shaman in action. Maximóm is a wooden figure clothed in western clothing and colorful scarves and wearing a cowboy hat. Moreover, he was smoking a real cigarette, and the members were giving him rum to drink. This all sounds weird and it looked weird, too, but this cofradía, or brotherhood, believes strongly in its deity’s powers. We were fortune that the owner of the home allowed us to take live video footage of this ceremony.
After visiting Maximóm, we wandered over to the Iglesia Parroquial Santiago Apóstol, the church of Santiago Apostle. This structure dates back to 1572 and 1581 and is located in the central plaza of the village. The outside is not much to look at, but the inside is an impressive Catholic syncretism with Mayan images and idols. This little holy site hid a mouth-dropping moment inside it: We were able to witness Mayan descendants praying. It was an eerie feeling as we watched from the background in silence. In this small village, indigenous life is very much the norm, with women in their colorful clothing and men in their striped embroidered pants walking up and down the narrow streets.