As intrepid travellers, we’re always looking for the best travel experience. We’re embarking on these epic journeys to do crazy and wonderful things, experience the unknown and leave our comfort zone far behind.
I recently returned from one such trip: a Central America adventure where I ate uncountable amounts of ceviche, guacamole and tacos, swam with dolphins, sharks and manatees, explored shadowy cenotes, ancient ruins of Tikal, Tulum and ATM caves full of Mayan history. In short, there were a lot of highlights. Picking a favourite was almost impossible. But there was this one thing, that wasn’t nearly as pretty, scary, daunting or delicious as the others, that I felt I had to share. Mostly because it was unbelievably strange and wonderful: a visit to Maximón, the Smoking God.
Our day trip on Lake Atitlan
Towards the end of my 17-day trip (Intrepid’s Mayan Encounter), we arrived at the breathtakingly beautiful Lake Atitlán. We organised a guided tour to some of the villages along the lakeshore with Josh, an ex-Intrepid leader, who had settled down in the area with his girlfriend. Our boat started from the busy little town of Panajachel, and we visited the villages San Pedro La Laguna and Santiago.
The weather was on our side and the lake was incredible – views over moss-green volcanoes, snacks of bitter coffee and sharp chocolate, visits to women’s weaving collectives and art studios where we learnt about our Mayan birth symbols. Our boat landed in the little harbour of Santiago, where we stopped for lunch. You know those people who say Mexico is the king of Central American food? Those people are nuts. The food in Santiago was ridiculous, and the special beef Lomito platter with plantains, beans and guacamole is a dish I’m never going to forget.
Secrets of Santiago
For those of you who may not know, Santiago is not only home to an incredible restaurant, El Pescador, it also has a pretty interesting history. Visiting the local church is a must – it showcases the peculiar Mayan interpretation of Christianity. Jesus and the saints decked out in the conical red hats and green robes of the Mayans. Guardian spirits of Catholicism and the Tzutuhil pantheon at the same time. The church is also burial site for the heart of Father Stanley Rothers – literally, just his heart. Stanley Rogers was an American missionary from Oklahoma who fell in love with Santiago and lived here for 13 years. He learnt the local Tzutuhil language, translated scriptures, preached in the local language and taught the indigenous people to read and write. Obviously a popular man with the locals, he was sadly murdered by the Guatemalan army during the civil war in 1981. While his body was transported back to America, his heart remained in Santiago, following his parishioners’ request. He always said he lost his heart in Santiago, and in a good example of Central American literalism, they took him at his word.
But there is more to Santiago than meets the eye. Even if you’re a well-travelled adventurer with a passport full of stamps, I bet you’ve never done anything like pay homage to Maximón, the smoking God.
The legend of Maximón
Josh stopped a few locals and soon found a man who was happy to guide us through little backstreets to the home of Maximón, or at least the effigy of Maximón. He’s also known as San Simon, a saint venerated in various forms by Mayan people of several towns in the highlands of western Guatemala. As we walked to the place, Josh told us one of the many legends surrounding Maximón: one day, long ago, while the village men were off working in the fields, Maximón slept with all (!!) of their wives. When the men returned, they were so enraged they cut off his arms and legs (most effigies of Maximón are short, often without arms). They also threw him in the lake for good measure. He somehow survived, or returned to life, which is why he was then recognised to be a saint. There were also a few stories about him running into conflict with Spanish Conquistadors – and nothing stirs Guatemalan piety like someone who stands up for the old ways against European aggression.
The effigy of Maximón in Santiago stays with one of five families, who are members of a religious brotherhood looking after the saint. He stays there for an entire year, and is moved during the procession of Holy Week. Maximón lives in a room within the family home, and he is accompanied by two chosen family members at all times. Yep, you read that right: at all times…for a year. The chosen two won’t work for a year; guarding Maximón and spending time with him is their full-time job for 365 days.
But that’s not all. These guys are also there to pass on offerings from visitors to the effigy, which are usually in the form of cigarettes, cigars, money or spirits (because that’s what Maximón used to like – not a bad way to spend eternity). Visitors can then ask for good health, good crops or marriage counsel. The two guardians usually put on one of Maximón’s two cowboy hats and speak to him in a local dialect.
We entered Maximón’s room cautiously and had a look around. Both sides of the room were filled with Jesus figures and little figurines of the Three Wise Men or other Saints, standing, kneeling, or lying in glass sarcophagi, tucked into animal blankets and keeping Maximón company. There were candles and incense burning everywhere. The ceiling was covered with bobbing balloons and fairy lights, and jolly but slightly tinny Guatemalan folk music blared from a speaker somewhere. There was a palpable air of mystery.
We bought Maximón a couple of cigarettes so he could smoke, and his guardians introduced us to him in Tzutuhil, explained which countries we were coming from and asked for good health and luck and blessings for us. It looked like they were having a casual chat, the guardian resting his arm on Maximón’s shoulder in a brotherly way, stopping his speech every once in a while, as if listening for Maximón’s reply, or simply to tip the ash off his cigarette.
If you want to share a drink with Maximón, you can do that too. He likes the local ‘Quetzalteco’ and his guardians will pour it through Maximón’s mouth. Because he’s hollow, the liquid flows through him and out between his leather boots. It’s then caught in a glass and drunk by the guardians or other family members who happen to be passing through. Like some kind of spiritual keg you can tap. If you’re wondering ‘How often do they clean Maximón’, the answer is never. This means the guardians are always drunk, or at least sleeping off a big drink. All the time. During our visit, the two guys on drink-shift were tuckered out, resting their heads on the table behind Maximón, having a little nanna-nap, until they had to down the next shot. What a way to spend an entire year!
We were with Maximón for about 10 to 15 minutes, and I think the family was genuinely happy that we came to hang out. It was getting late, and soon Maximón had to sleep. He was places in a little alcove under a hole in the ceiling. It was a relaxed atmosphere, but when we left the small and dark room and walked back to the boat through the back alleys of Santiago, I was asking myself, ‘Did that just happen?’. It was one of the most intimate moments I ever shared with a local community. A totally bizarre insight into a way of life I’d never heard of before. I couldn’t wipe the grin of surprise off my face the whole time we were there. It felt special to be welcomed into Maximón’s inner sanctuary.
It’s one thing to learn about other cultures or religions, walk through foreign streets and stare up at beautiful buildings, but to become a part of people living it, even if only for 15 minutes, is what travelling to these far away destinations is all about. Thanks Maximón, for giving us your blessing. I hope I will see you again. And when I do, the drinks are on me.
Want to explore Santiago? Check out our Guatemala group adventures for all the info.