My trip from Guatemala City to Lago De Atitlan started with a great taxi driver named Roberto. He hardly spoke a word of English, but he enunciated well and tried to help me speak Spanish correctly. He also encouraged my to keep talking. Roberto’s wife, I learned, is a medical doctor making $1,000.00 per month, not much money by our standards.
The lake is surrounded by volcano cones rising to over 9,000 feet above it. My first view from above the town of Panahachel was breathtaking, even though the day was a little hazy from smoke, slash, burn operations and the normal wood burning of stoves. My ride across the lake was arranged by Roberto while we had a late breakfast overlooking the lake. The regular shuttles had left for the day; so I had to pay a much steeper price to arrange a charter. I had been roughing it for over a week and didn’t mind a day of pampered taxi and shuttle service.
I was told about the town of Santiago de Atitlan by an elderly couple in the Rio Dulce. Rather than staying at Panahachel, as many do, I went over to Santiago and was happy I did. Without prior reservations, our boat approached the Hotel Bambu, I alighted, told them espereme and went to see about lodgings. They had a room they could rent for a few nights for $45.00 per night, with two beds, a bathroom and a deck overlooking the manicured grounds, the lake and part of the village.
After settling in, I inquired about how to get to the town and was advised to take the path along the lake. It was good advice since the path wound through small vegetable plots that were being intensely cultivated in a traditional manner, with the plants hand watered and carried from the lake. People, children, a few goats, and a cow were working the fields, while 15 women were standing in the lake, washing, clothes, using piles of rocks to clean their clothes.
As I walked along, a calmness suffused the tableau. It was much as it has been for probably centuries. I wandered for several hundred yards, the path lined with small thin green shrubs of some kind that hid me from view as I looked on at the villagers going about their tasks. Eventually I arrived at the dock area. I was greeted by an old man in a chartreuse and black shirt, black hat, wrinkled brown skin, and with one good eye; another in need of cataract surgery.
He asked me if I wanted to see Maximom. I had heard about this cigar smiling old man who was sort of an anti Christ and someone to ask favors of. He was moved from house to house to keep his location somewhat secret. I agreed to allow the old man to take me on a roundabout scenic tour of the town, visiting the market stalls selling handicrafts, meeting Tonita (a persistent saleswoman), seeing the town square and the Catholic church. A young boy, perched on a high stoop, much like a crow on a light pole, smiled and quietly said “Maximon”. Obviously I was getting closer to his secret lair.
It was about this time I discovered I had forgotten my wallet and passport in the room. Imagine my embarrassment asking this poor old man for a loan of two quetzales (about a quarter) to see Maximon and 10 quetzales to take one picture. I got the loan. We then crouched under the eve of a roof, entered a small tin-covered patio, encountered a wizened old lady who looked me over but showed no emotion. We climbed a few stairs and entered through a low doorway into a darkened room lit by a few candles which were resting on the ground in front of this character with a hat on his head, a cigar in his mouth, a coat and brightly colored tie, seated on a chair, a pot of quetzales by his right side; a man seated on his right and another seated on the far wall.
I placed my two quetzales in the pot, sat on a stump that put me at a level where I had to look up at this Maximom, respectfully. I put a 10 quetzala on the plate and took my one picture.
I was invited to Salvador’s house where I met his wife and two other women busy weaving. They showed me some finished Huipiles, asking price 900 quetzales, quickly reduced to 700, about $95.00. These ladies were proud of their work. From there we went down to the dock and set off in a funny looking canoe to get my money. I ended at the central market where I bought a couple of ripe avocados for a quarter and five slices of watermelon for $1.25 total; one for myself and four for a few school girls who were looking at the slices. It is a treat to make people happy and not spend much money doing it.