One of our favorite towns on the Lake, Santiago’s appeal is in its elusiveness. It’s a town that goes about its business, and while a part of that business comes from selling goods to tourists, the town does not feel as though it is run by tourism. There is no “tourist district” separated from the rest of the town. Sitting between the three volcanoes, Santiago was the original site inhabited by the Mayans on Lake Atitlan. Today, it is still the largest of the lakeside towns, and the majority of the inhabitants are Mayan. You’ll find foreigners living in Santiago, though their presence is far less apparent than in Panajachel, San Marcos, or San Pedro, where they’re operating restaurants and hostels geared toward attracting other foreign tourists.
However, the lack of outside influence is exactly what attracts people to Santiago. Tourists show up in herds during the day, most leaving before nightfall. Many come to shop, and thus scattered around the docks and up the main road into town are tents and storefronts filled with hand-crafted goods.
Our favorite is the handicraft store Chutinamit, located on your right, up the street from El Dorado Coffee Shop. Here, though the goods are no different than any other shop in town, the couple, Daniel and Marie, are a joy to talk to. (Spanish is easier than English, and they have patience with beginners.) If you get the chance, ask Maria about being featured in the Book Series: Children of the World. The book on Guatemala is devoted to the then 12-year-old Maria and her family.
Fridays and Sundays are good options for visiting Santiago, as these are the main Market days. Early morning, the streets are filled with tents, vendors, produce, clothing, odds and ends… live chickens. You find the Market lining the streets that run perpendicular to the main street leaving the dock. Walking away from the dock, look to you left and head in the direction of the Church and Central Park.. The Market sprawls out from there, stretching back toward the lake.
Also in Santiago, perhaps you’ve heard, is the (in)famous Catholic/Mayan Saint, Maximon. We won’t pretend to be experts on the Saint, or the beliefs surrounding him, but here’s what we’ve gathered: Maximon, by another name, is the patron Saint Simon. But unlike most saintly-types, Maximon is a somewhat of a drinker, and a smoker. Like the rest of us, less saintly types, he enjoys a good time. And for offerings of booze, or cigars, or cigarettes, you can petition Maximon. Hey Max, I’ve been having some troubles with the old lady… or Max, I’m a little short on rent this month. I need some help. Max, I can’t get rid of this pain in my back, or I’m worried about my mother’s health. This is the gist of what we’ve gathered: Offerings are made, and help is solicited.
But the intricacies of the beliefs surrounding this strange Mayan/Catholic Deity will otherwise remain elusive, until we either learn the local Mayan language (Tz’utujil), or meet someone who knows a hell of a lot more than we do. We’ve talked to those who say that Maximon is evil, who say that he has an almost cult-like following, and those who dismiss him as even being considered a part of the Mayan faith. But those who you will meet at the home of Maximon, are there because they believe in and respect the saint, and thus you should show respect as well.
Don’t be thrown off by any inebriation you might encounter, on behalf of the proprietor, or others present. From what we’ve gathered, this is a part of the job of caring for Maximon.
Fortunately, Maximon is moved into a new home every year, where he will remain until the same time the following year, when a new location is chosen.
So how do you find him? It’s easy enough. During busier times of year, you’re likely to find people, sometimes kids, waiting at the Dock, asking “Mash-i-mon”? For a propina (a tip,) they’ll lead you there. If you aren’t met at the docks, start asking. Again, you’re likely to meet someone who will be willing to show you the way. And don’t be surprised if your led down side streets and back alleyways. He’s not necessarily going to be on the main drag. If you’d like, cigarettes, cigars, bottles of booze (the smaller ones work well), and candles all make for acceptable offerings to Maximon. The price asked for visitors is 2Q, and if you want to take a picture of the saint, Q10 more. You can leave the money at the saint’s feet, or tucked into the many layers of scarves around his neck.
And if you’re interested in learning more about Mayan Culture, this would be the town to ask. Local Tourist Agencies offers excursions in and around the city. Some are in Spanish, so ask if you need an English speaking guide. Tours are offered to the Catholic Church, the Market, to visit Maximon and to other cofradias (the houses for the different saints), and also to scenic overlooks, including Cerro del Oro (which has a wealth of history and culture) as well as to the archeological sites Chutinamit, and Chuk muk.
Also in Santiago, just up from the Dock on your left, is the Cojolya Weaving Center and Museum, where you can literally learn everything you would be interested in knowing about the backstrap-weaving that is popular around the lake. And, admission is free.
Sleeping: If you are staying in Santiago, the best we’ve found is Ratzon, which will be on your right as you’re heading uphill from the Dock. It’s not a very far walk. All the rooms have private bathrooms. They’re fairly large, very clean, and the rooms facing the street have small balconies for you to enjoy. Prices are around Q100/night.
Eating: If you’re around for breakfast, our favorite local option is near the Market. It’s one block past the giant Pescador restaurant, to your left. Kathyln D’Anee is small with standard fare. The tipico breakfast is Q24 (just over $3USD) but the inclusion of meat on the plate is worth the few extra Q, and will keep you fill well into the lunch hour. And we’d be willing to bet their lunches are great as well.
Getting // Going: You can take a direct boat from either Panajachel (Q25) or from San Pedro (Q20). In San Pedro, the dock for Santiago is a few blocks away from the Panajachel Dock. From any of the other towns, head back to either Panajachel or San Pedro (whichever is easiest/cheapest) and leave from there. The last boat in San Pedro to Santiago is at 4pm.