Some people think that Lago Atitlán is the most beautiful place on earth. Newagers believe that the “vortex” there is stronger than anywhere else (although I don’t really know what that means). After being there only a brief time, we had already met gringos that were so drawn to being there that they come back over and over again, or move there and never leave. I agree that it is extraordinarily picturesque.
As I understand it, Lago Atitlán is actually a sunken volcano that filled with water over many centuries, thus forming a very large lake (“lago” in Spanish). To give you an idea of the size of the lake, a boat ride from one side to the other at a fairly fast clip takes at least 30 minutes. Mountains and at least 3 volcanoes form the perimeter of the lake, and there are about 12 villages at various junctures around the lake. Each village has its own vibe, and some villages are very different than others. For example, Santa Catarina Palopó is an odd mix of the poor indigenous people (who have lived there for several generations) alongside the ultra rich who have built expensive second homes there. San Pedro La Laguna is a mix of the indigenous with hippies, college kids, and various other low budget bohemian types. Some of the villages have trash-filled streets and aggressive street vendors, while other villages are tidy and permit you to stroll down the streets without stuffing merchandise in your face.
Maximón is also at Lago Atitlán (pronounced mah-shee-MON). I try to keep an open mind about people, and I work very hard to find common spiritual ground with people who may be very different than I. But I must admit that I find it extremely difficult to understand why people venerate Maximón, and even more puzzling are the methods they use to venerate it. Maximón is basically a mannequin that has no arms or legs. People think that the mannequin is a physical representation of a saint, albeit an ornery saint that likes to smoke cigars and drink run. The people also think that if they bring gifts of money, cigars, and rum to Maximón that it will grant them the favors they are requesting … favors such as a job, or a husband, or even revenge against an enemy. They say it is good to stay on Maximón’s good side. As a result, people queue up to see Maximón, waiting patiently to approach the altar where there is a pagan priest who processes the requests. The priest will accept whatever gifts a person has brought to Maximón, and then the priest will perform some sort of cleansing ritual using the presented gifts, such as patting the person’s head with special herbs, and then dousing Maximón with the presented rum. It is bizarre to me. But this is the reality, and it is something I have seen with my own eyes. I went with my Spanish teacher to visit one of the Maximón shrines (there are about 3 primary sites in Guatemala), and we walked right into the shrine and stood near the altar to observe the rituals.
There are many theories about the origin of Maximón, some very different than others. Most people agree that the Maximón cult (if I may use that harsh word “cult”) is a blend of Catholic Church ritual with indigenous pagan ritual. When Spain colonized the country now known as Guatemala many centuries ago, the Catholic Church imposed it’s religion on the indigenous people who had been living there. However, the indigenous people refused to completely surrender their customs and beliefs, and thus the Maximón phenomenon was born out of this mix of oil and water. So, since it is nearly impossible to know for sure how Maximón came to be, I will just go ahead and posit a few of my own theories. What can I lose?
First, it could be that some of the indigenous people wanted to hold on to their rum-swilling and cigar smoking ways, and thus created Maximón in order to cloak their vices under the rubric of religion. That’s fairly plausible in light of the fact that people always seem to be able to justify malevolent behavior in the name of God. For example, since the beginning of time people have waged war against their fellow human beings, not blinking while babies are killed, women are raped, elderly are maimed, all while believing that they are doing the will of God by waging war.
This leads to my second theory on the origin of the Maximón phenomenon. The indigenous people of Guatemala were so severely victimized for so many generations by people who claimed to be representing God that the indigenous people created a vice-laden idol to worship, one that could not possibly be worse than the God of the so-called Christians who came and took their land by force, while raping and killing them. Thus, Maximón is an act of religious defiance, one that has lasted for generations despite how strange it might seem to the rest of us.
I’m not sure that I have a good segway from Maximón back to the topic of Lago Atitlán, but I would like to say a few more things about Lago Atitlán before I end for today.
We are now back in Antigua after our weekend spent at Lago Atitlán. If I had to do it all over again, I would have scheduled more time to spend there. It’s the kind of place I could spend a lifetime taking pictures, and never get bored. Every day is different, and every moment in every day is different. Thus the morning light on the lake is different than the afternoon light, and where there is wind one day there is no wind the next, and perhaps one day is overcast with a sliver of a moon while later in the month the moon is full and the skies are clear. The setting at Lago Atitlán is so dramatic – a great big lake held in the palm of volcanoes all bathed in the light of the sun and moon and stars – that it seems that an amateur photographer with a decent camera could make a good living just wandering around taking pictures and posting them for sale. But ultimately, and obviously, no photo will ever fully capture the beauty and essence of Lago Atitlán. The only thing that you can do is stay in the moment and soak it in as much as possible, and always be grateful for the experience. Just like life.