Witnessing the unique beliefs and rituals of different cultures is one of the great experiences of travel. It serves as a true eye-opener to the worlds of our fellow man. What we view as fascinating and at times strange is simply a part of everyday life for many. Religion and customs can define entire trips, and for good reason.
When Lesh and I were gallivanting around Central America, we were intrigued by the Mayan people, their inspiring history, the colourful authentic dress style and their amazing and confounding beliefs. One such example is of a deity worshipped in the Guatemalan highlands. A deity that goes by the name of Maximón.
Maximón is an effigy of what is believed to be a combination of Mayan Gods. He is portrayed in a variety of different ways, in numerous towns and villages around Guatemala. Worshipped by many, he moves yearly from house to house, which is a maintained custom believed to help instill the balance of power amongst the holy Mayan religious brotherhood. Maximón is different to the common images known throughout the world of other famous holy figures. He is dressed in bright, colourful garments, he smokes cigars and loves a nip of rum. Ok, more than a nip.
During our second prolonged visit to Lago de Atitlan, a volcanic lake surrounded by mountains and jungle, we had decided to track down Maximón and make an offering to appease the Mayan deity. He was rumoured to be housed in the village of Santiago on the shores of the lake, but no specifics were known. We would have to ask around once we arrived to see if we could come face to face with him. So Alesha, myself and some friends we had met jumped on the ferry and sailed on over to Santiago.
Once we arrived, we wasted no time in asking where we could track down Maximón. Everyone said it was easy enough to find him, we just had to pay an exorbitant fee to be shown his location. We thanked those people, said we would try on our own, and ventured off deep into the town to find a better deal. Word had got around that we were looking for Maximón’s current dwelling, and we had no shortage of offers. But it was only when we were approached by a couple of young kids who urged us to follow them that we agreed to take on the services of the local youth. We settled on a price which was sure to buy the kids as much candy as they could stomach, and began our mission.
On the way to the holy house, we played street soccer with empty water bottles against our miniature guides. After many twists and turns we were well and truly lost and began to feel we were being duped by the children. But true to their word, after 15 minutes or so, they pointed up an alleyway and announced we had reached our destination. We thanked them, handed over a fistful of quetzales and watched them sprint away, probably off to spend their hard-earned cash on fireworks and soda.
As we walked up the narrow, cobble-stoned passageway we began to hear the steady sound of chanting as we closed in on the place of worship. We were stopped by a man just outside the entrance to what was obviously a humble residence who requested a small donation as an entry-fee. We happily obliged and were ushered in to the alter.
What we were confronted with is not what we expected. But to be truthful, we didn’t really have any expectations so no matter what was presented before us would have been astounding. A man draped in a shiny coat was sat in the chapel, surrounded by candles and burning incense. One man was walking around him, splashing water on his face, spitting on his coat and hypnotically singing a hymn in a language we had never heard before. Another equally imposing priest overlooked the ritual. And in the middle of the chapel was the famous Maximón. He was a wooden representation of an elderly man, wearing a flamboyant poncho, a golden tie, a black cowboy hat and a lit cigar hanging out of his mouth.
We had been lucky enough to time our visit with a blessing being performed by one of the Mayan elders. Another person waiting patiently for their own blessing informed us that the man being spat on was sick and he had brought his offerings to Maximón in order for the revered Lord to heal him. We stood around in a trance, completely engulfed in this amazing scene. The man performing the ritual paused from his chanting to remove the cigar from Maximón’s mouth. Then he pulled out a flask of rum, poured a liberal amount down the wooden statue’s orifice, and replaced the burning tobacco stick. We looked at each other and I’m sure all had the same thoughts of curiosity as to where that rum was flowing to. With a loud clap, a shake of an incense burner in the face of the sick man and the removal of his shiny coat, his blessing was over. He touched his heart, thanked the all-powerful Maximón and left, feeling much healthier I imagine.
Then we were invited to take some photos and have a look around Maximón’s small church. There were candles everywhere, a glass coffin with another effigy of Jesus Christ and pictures of other Christian saints scattered about the walls. The entire chapel, which was indeed just a room on the outside of someone’s house, had an eery and spooky feel to it, almost magical. We were allowed to approach Maximón and be stunned by his wooden stare. At that point, his cigar burnt out and was quickly swapped out for another fresh cigar for him to puff away at. But not before indulging in another swig of rum.
At that point we felt we had managed to take up enough of Maximón’s holy time, and thanked everyone involved as we left. The person waiting for their blessing then sat down in front of the timber carving and his ritual was about to begin. Our group didn’t quite know what to say as we walked down the narrow, cobblestoned alleyway back into the village, so we just reflected on the power of what we had been apart of. Who was to say that Maximón didn’t indeed herald unworldly powers and that worshipping him didn’t provide sustenance, protection and health to those who believed in him.
We returned to the boat dock and boarded our small, run-down vessel to return to San Pedro. The sun peeked out from behind some clouds, bringing light to the volcanoes surrounding the beautiful lake. We had managed to track down the elusive cigar-smoking, rum-drinking Mayan God, Maximón and made our offerings to him. As we sped across the awe-inspiring Lago de Atitlan, we glanced back at the village of Santiago and smiled. Hopefully Maximón took a swig of rum, a puff of his cigar and smiled back at us.