Leaving the small village of San Juan behind us we head off to Santiago and although we had a smooth crossing earlier on in the day the lake was now much less forgiving. Indeed as the motor launch hit the waves it felt like we were landing on a bed of concrete. Soon I learnt to let my body relax through the bumps and in a perverse kind of way I began to enjoy the journey. Ahead of us we had a fantastic view of the volcanoes Toliman, Atitlan and San Pedro and I could begin to understand their sheer size and how impressive all this could have been to the early Maya People.
At one stage there was a discussion from our guide about whether or not we could complete the journey but she felt, on balance, that the crossing to Santiago would be acceptable and we would hope that the winds did not pick up further throughout the day. Soon our lumpy ride was over and we timidly disembarked from the boat to terra firma.
Immediately Santiago had a different feel to San Juan – this was clearly the tourist trap and the broad dusty main street was littered with craft shops and unfortunately much debris. Still the local women trundled the streets in pack-horse mode often heads piled high with goods which they seem to carry effortlessly. Certainly the shop fronts are aimed at visitors with tee-shirts, sunhats, demonstration fabrics and the like. Occasionally we saw locals selling for locals but in proportional terms there were much fewer vegetable and fruit stalls although we did see a pile of second clothing on the road side. Apparently the latter is brought in from the USA very cheaply and then sold on as individual items of clothing to people in Guatemala..
Next we went up to the local church which has a tragic history. From the outside the Church, founded in 1547 looks fairly uninspiring. There are the usual Mayan steps, signs that the original place of worship was destroyed and then rebuilt on by the Spanish invaders. The church’s violent history if very recent and relates to the 30 year long civil war. On January 6 1980 10 men were massacred by Guatemalan Military Forces and from that time onwards there were many threats, woundings and "disappearances" – Assassinations became common place until Father Stanley Rother, the Catholic Pastor, opened up the church as a place of refuge for threatened families. After a time the military became disenchanted with his intervention and on 28 July 1981 Father Stanley was himself assassinated. In recognition of his act of bravery the people of Santiago asked that his heart and blood remain in the village. They are entombed in a monument in the Church.
Another interesting feature of the Church can be seen on the altar where the wooden carvings show the story of Christ with Mayan people in the scene – a clear statement of the Maya and Catholic religions merging under the one church roof. Statues are dressed in Mayan style cloth. Fascinating.
We then set off to find Maximon, a Mayan God. The concept of Maximon (pronounced Ma-she-mohn) as a saint (Saint Simon) is a difficult one to deal with and as explained to us he was a mixture of sinner and saint. As far as I understood Maximon was a man who liked the high life – he played hard and worked hard. So he drank, smoked and womanized. The latter being his downfall because he "played too close to home" and when his fellow villagers found out about him they chopped off his arms and legs. Quite how he achieved status as a god I’m not sure. Now this armless and legless effigy is revered and each year a member of the Shaman brotherhood is charged with looking after the effigy. It’s located in a brotherhood house and people visit with gifts of alcohol and cigarettes and contribute to his upkeep by asking the Shaman to perform a ritual for them. It’s a strange one but if you want good health, a happy marriage, good crop production you’ll need to keep on good terms with this chap. He sits there with his cowboy hat, shrouded in neck ties with a cigar in his mouth, overlooked by his protectors and for a quetzal you can take a photograph. We had 2 quetzals worth of photos and I have to say Maximon posed beautifully for me.
Having made our last visit on the island our guide got a couple of tuk-tuks and we headed off to the restaurant for lunch. It was an interesting journey – weaving through the narrow streets, taking a steep hill out of town (will the tuk-tuk make the journey I wondered) and overlooked the river where people were washing their clothes in the lake as well as making use of the village laundry facilities. This was a open walled structure with a number of concrete vats in which locals washed their clothes.
Lunch was at the Posada de Santiago which overlooked the lake it was very pleasant surrounding but for some reason they chose to have a really scary mask in the Gents toilet! The food was local and we had a choice of main course and pudding. Just as we were about to complete our coffee we noticed that our guide and the boat driver were in earnest discussion.
Heads were shaking and heads scratched. Our guide came over to us and told us that the wind had got up and the crossing by the lake would be most uncomfortable. The plan therefore was that we would take a road trip to the next village on the other side of Lake Atitlan and our boat would collect us from there as we could then hug the side of the lake and avoid the waves that would make our journey most unpleasant. If you want to check on how that journey went then check out the review in this journal