Introducing Santiago Atitlán
Across the lake from Panajachel, on an inlet between the volcanoes of Tolimán and San Pedro, lies Santiago Atitlán, the largest of the lake communities, with a strong indigenous identity. Many atitecos (as its people are known) cling to a traditional Tz'utujil Maya lifestyle. Women wear purple-striped skirts and huipiles embroidered with colored birds and flowers, while a few older men still wear white-striped embroidered pants. The town's cofradías maintain the syncretic traditions and rituals of Maya Catholicism. There's a large art and crafts scene here, too. Boat-building is a local industry, and rows of rough-hewn cayucos are lined up along the shore. The best days to visit are Friday and Sunday, the main market days, but any day will do.
It's the most workaday of the lake villages, home to Maximón (mah-shee-mohn), who is ceremonially moved to a new home on May 8 (after Semana Santa). The rest of the year, Maximón resides with a caretaker, receiving offerings. He changes house every year, but he's easy enough to find by asking around.
The Tz'utujil had been in this area for generations when the Spanish arrived, with their ceremonial capital at Chuitinamit, across the inlet. Santiago was established by Franciscan friars in 1547, as part of the colonial strategy to consolidate the indigenous population. In the 1980s, left-wing guerrillas had a strong presence in the area, prompting the Guatemalan army to kill or disappear hundreds of villagers.