Discovering the Traditional Maya Town of Santiago Atitlán

by | Last updated May 12, 2021 | Guatemala | 0 comments

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Santiago Atitlán is a bustling Maya town set amid two volcanoes on the southwest shores of Lake Atitlán. It is the largest as well, with over 70,000 inhabitants of predominantly Tz’utujil Maya.

Of all the towns, Santiago Atitlán is perhaps among the more traditional. However, that is slowly changing. Over 95% of women can be seen wearing traditional trajes (clothes) such as huipiles and blouses and skirts and headdresses, while only 5% or less of the men can be spotted wearing traditional slacks with stripes and handwoven belts.

Yet, proud of their heritage, the locals and youth are spearheading efforts in the town to preserve their traditions by opening up workshops to tourists to teach them about their history and culture, including the significance of the backstrap loom for weaving.

Santiago Atitlán is also where you can witness the mixing of Mayan-Catholic syncretist beliefs. Locals worship the town’s deity known as Maximón (El Gran Abuelo), who takes up residence in a family’s home each year and can be publicly visited (if you know where to go, that is!).

Beyond its cultural significance, Santiago Atitlán has a devastating history; one of bloodshed and suffering due to massacres by the government upon civilians and the assassination of the greatly honored Father Stanley Rother originally from Oklahoma, USA. That’s why, to this day, no federal militia is allowed inside the town. The locals have forbidden it.

Little did we know of all that before visiting Santiago Atitlán. That’s why in this guide, I’m going to share with you how best to visit Santiago Atitlán including things to do and what you should know before going.

Here is the complete guide to Santiago Atitlán in Lake Atitlán, Guatemala!

Travel Guide to Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala

santiago atitlan boat dock

How to Get to Santiago Atitlan

First things first, where is Santiago Atitlan and how do you get there?

You can find Santiago Atitlan on the southwest end of the famous Lago de Atitlán in Guatemala’s highlands (in the department of Sololá). From the busy town of Panajachel, which acts as the gateway to the lake, it is a 25-minute boat ride away.

The cost to take one of the lancha boats across the lake depends on your origin and destination. Seeing as we live in San Pedro, we took the boat from the Santiago dock (muelle) east of San Pedro which cost Q25 per person. You may be able to negotiate for Q20. But keep in mind boat prices are often cheaper for national tourists and especially locals (since they use the boats daily). So if you see someone paying less, that’s probably why.

From Panajachel or another town like San Marcos La Laguna, the cost will likely be the same, considering it takes 25-30 minutes to cross (and in relatively good weather – it will take longer if it’s stormy).

tuk tuk driver and tour guide in santiago atitlan

Where to Stay in Santiago Atitlan

Since there are volcano treks, weaving workshops, and plenty of other things to do in Santiago Atitlan, you may consider spending a night here instead of packing everything into a day trip.

Not to mention, Santiago Atitlan is somewhat secluded from the other towns and boat departure times can be unforgiving with a traveler’s ambitious itinerary. Meaning, you might miss the last boat out of town if you aren’t careful. To remedy that, you should think about overnighting it here and slowing down your pace.

Here are a few recommended places to stay in Santiago Atitlan:

Things to Do in Santiago Atitlan

view of san pedro volcano from santiago atitlan dock in guatemala

To our surprise, there were many things to do in Santiago Atitlan. We weren’t able to check off our bucket list entirely, especially considering there are two awesome volcano hikes that depart from this town.

Nevertheless, the best way to visit Santiago Atitlan in one day is to hire a local guide who can take you around to Santiago’s top attractions (within and nearby the town).

Prices for guides vary, but we found that the further away from the dock you walk the cheaper the prices get.

We actually got trapped in a speech as soon as we stepped foot onto the wooden dock in Santiago. To avoid being rude, we listened to the entire spiel and then carried on on our own. Once we were higher up in the town we realized that we had almost no plan of what to see and do, so we ended up hiring a certified guide by the name of Pablo. He was much nicer and not at all forceful, so we agreed to Q65 total for him to take us to 5-6 locations around Santiago.

We ended up extending our tour to include 2-3 more attractions, including a weaving workshop that was open, and the total price came to Q150 (duration: 2 – 2.5 hours).

That said, here is what we were able to do and see on our tour around town!

Note: You could visit most of these places on your own but you will need to pay separate fares for tuk-tuks to pick you up and drop you off at each location, considering that the town is quite big. The benefit of doing a tour is that you get explanations of everything. The tour was in Spanish and he spoke slow and clear enough for us to understand everything.

1. Visiting the Maximón Deity in a Local’s Home

Maximón deity inside local's home in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala

Maximón, also known as El Gran Abuelo, is a sacred Maya deity. Each year, Maximón takes up residence with a local family of one of the members of the confraternity (cofradía), who are elected by the community. Then, on the 8th of May, Maximón will move into his new home.

During that new year, the public is welcome to visit and offer blessings to Maximón. Members of the community gather inside this designated space to pray, give blessings, drink the local liquor, and pay their respects to El Gran Abuelo, who is always masked and dressed in local clothing.

To visit Maximón as an outsider, you must pay Q5 to the family (as a donation). Additionally, if you’d like to take photographs, you may do so but sparingly and for an extra fee of Q5. We handed our donation to Pablo, who handed it to a member seated next to the deity, who tucked it gently into the folds of Maximón’s shirt.

Locals sitting around the Maximon Deity (El Gran Abuelo) inside a local family's home in Santiago Atitlan Guatemala

Maximon Deity (El Gran Abuelo) inside a local family's home in Santiago Atitlan Guatemala

There is a lot happening inside this small space. Candles of four colors, representing the four cardinal points, are burning; men, women, and children are drinking from handmade gourd cups; and Mayan and Catholic relics, figures, and symbols decorate either side of the room.

Tip: Should you visit, speak softly and ask for permission before taking photos. It is also respectful to thank the family and dress respectively. Essentially, try not to make your presence known or disturbing.

Lastly, since Maximón is housed within a local family’s home that changes each year, there will be no signs and you’ll likely need to navigate between tiny back alleyways to get there. Going with a guide is recommended, so you don’t get lost and can have someone to refer to.

2. “Lavados” Mayan Women Washing in Lake Atitlán

maya women washing clothes over rocks in lake atitlán in the town of santiago atitlán, guatemala

For the Maya women living in Santiago Atitlan, scrubbing clothes against rocks and washing them in the lake before carrying it all home in a large basket perched atop their heads is a daily ritual. They have done this practice for decades. As such, it is considered fairly normal by local standards.

As an onlooker, however, the sight settles on one’s mind heavily. To those coming from more modern-day societies, it presents itself as an ecological and sanitary disaster. The creamy liquid from the cleaning products seeps into the lake’s water like a polluted river. Traditional wooden cayuco boats sit shoreside nearby where algal blooms cover the water not too far away.

You can witness locals of almost every town around Lake Atitlan doing this, so the women washers are not isolated to just Santiago Atitlan. However, the scene in Santiago Atitlan is a little bit more shocking, perhaps evident?

traditional tz'utujil maya women washing clothes in lake atitlán in guatemala

maya women washing clothes over rocks in santiago atitlán, guatemala

I saw an image of this exact spot, taken in 2005, and the two photos couldn’t be more different. Where there were once plants and grazing cows now lies trampled earth and the once luscious green hill set behind the shore now lies buried beneath concrete blocks and buildings. A developed park with individual bbq firepits and picnic tables now overlook the lake instead of grass-covered land.

Despite sustainable development efforts and implementation of proper wash stations nearby the shore (to reduce pollution), the locals still wash up in the lake because it’s easier and a daily ritual they’ve done for years. In any case, visiting the women washing in the lake is a sight to witness if anything but to observe and learn and appreciate others’ way of life.

3. 13 Batz’ Weaving Co-op

backstrap weaving loom at 13 batz santiago atitlan

Visiting a weaving cooperative in Santiago Atitlán is a must. The most well-known among them is the Cojolya Weaving Center and Museum, as featured by Lonely Planet Guatemala. While you should give the museum a tour, don’t overlook the other lesser-known initiatives led by locals and youth alike.

That’s how we discovered 13 Batz (meaning “thirteen threads”), a locally-owned and operated collective that employs young men and women weavers who make the traditional trajes of Santiago Atitlán by backstrap loom, pedal loom, and handwoven embroidery.

“Somos un grupo de tejedoras y tejedores conformado por 20 familias Tz’utujiles de Santiago Atitlán Sololá, Guatemala. Elaboramos tejidos en telar de cintura y de pedal con detalles de bordado a mano, cada lienzo de tejido se realiza con los conocimientos artísticos que hemos heredado de nuestras abuelas y abuelos por lo que en cada uno encontramos la historia milenaria de nuestra identidad y de la naturaleza.”

“We are a group of men and women weavers of 20 Tz’utujil families from Santiago Atitlán in Sololá, Guatemala. We make fabrics using a backstrap loom and pedal loom with details of hand embroidery, each fabric canvas is made with the artistic knowledge that we have inherited from our grandmothers and grandparents so that in each one we find the history of our identity and that of nature.”

wooden holders for differnt threads used to make maya textiles at 13 batz cooperative in santiago atitlan guatemala

blue thread (hilo) at 13 batz weaving cooperative in santiago atitlan

handwoven maya textiles 13 batz santiago atitlan

During our visit, we had the pleasure to meet and speak with Antonio, a young weaver who explained and demonstrated the workings of the pedal loom and the significance of what 13 Batz means for them, their community, and the future generation.

Even if you don’t purchase anything, visiting 13 Batz in Santiago Atitlán is a time-worthy endeavor. You can find them located on Calle Chu Cruz. Donations are encouraged!

4. Iglesia Parroquial Santiago Apóstol

white catholic church of saint james the apostle in santiago atitlan guatemala

community gathered outside saint james the apostle church in santiago atitlan

Santiago Atitlán’s main church or parish, Saint James the Apostle (Iglesia Parroqouial Santiago Apóstol), is culturally and historically important for the community. It was incorporated into the town’s main square by Franciscans around 1524 when the Spanish arrived in Guatemala and began enforcing their Catholocism onto the indigenous populations around the lake.

The outside of the church is nothing out of the ordinary. Actually, for a Catholic church, it is quite simple; wooden statues line the interior walls, sleek tile floors expand up to the church’s nave, high ceilings with beams span the length of the room, and what appears to be transparent tin-covered gaps in the ceiling lets the light come in through the roof.

Perhaps what stands out most is the painted portrait of Catholic priest Stanley Rother, who was assassinated during the decade-long conflict that endured in Santiago Atitlan. On the right side of the entrance is a plaque, written in Spanish and in English, which explains more about the tragic events that took place on 2 December 1990 when 13 Tz’utujil civilians were shot down by the Guatemalan Army.

Tip: To visit the inside of the parish you must say that you are here to simply orar – or pray. You will be asked to not take photos and not disturb those that are worshipping.

5. Parque de La Paz

red cross and tombstone of massacre that occurred in santiago atitlan at parque de la paz

The massacre of 2 December 1990 took place just on the outskirts of Santiago Atitlán in Panajab. What once was the encampment site of Guatemalan soldiers is now called the Parque de La Paz in commemoration of the 13 people who died by gunfire here, among them women, men, and children.

Gravestones with crosses just out from the ground, each plaque ebbed with the names of the fallen victims. Each year on December 2, the community of Santiago Atitlán holds a memorial to remember those who lost their lives on this tragic day.

Just days after the massacre, the community gathered in such force to protest the presence of the Guatemalan Army, who were thereafter expelled from stepping foot into Santiago Atitlán ever again. To this day, members of the federal militia are not allowed inside the town; only local police have power here.

The park sits just alongside the road heading out of Santiago toward San Pedro La Laguna. It is free to visit and does not take long to do so. The sign that you can read in English inside the church is also written here, however only in Spanish.

6. 150-Year-Old Tombs in the Local Cemetery

colorful cemetery in santiago atitlan guatemala

One of the stops on our extended tuk-tuk tour around Santiago Atitlán was to the local cemetery to look at old tombs dating back 150 years ago.

The cemetery was similar to what we’ve seen in Mexico – raised concrete structures, some ornately decorated and painted while others remain plain, jut out of the ground with slots and plaques designated for each family member.

Historically, families who had money to spare were the ones able to afford such luxuries for the dead, while the poor members of society were left to bury their loved ones in the ground. It was an interesting visit and learn more about the community, however, we didn’t linger long.

7. Mirador del Valle

mirador (viewpoint) overlooking San Pedro volcano and Santiago Atitlán in Guatemala

tuk tuks in santiago atitlan guatemala

Down the road from the cemetery is where guides bring tourists to look out and give an introduction to Santiago Atitlán. the Mirador del Valle was the first stop on our tour.

On a clear day, you can see the impressive Volcán San Pedro towering behind the part of the town jutting out into the bay. The viewpoint isn’t very official, as in there is no infrastructure or viewing deck, but we saw many tuk-tuk guides explaining to Guatemalan tourists about the history of Santiago and its unique location at the base of two neighboring volcanoes.

Note that this viewpoint isn’t the same as the Mirador Rey Tepepul, which is a must-visit as well if you have time. It can be found inside the protected Parque Regional Municipal Rey Tepepul (also known as the Reserva Natural de Atitlán), 7 km outside of Santiago Atitlán. It’s inside this park where you can observe the majestic quetzal – the national bird of Guatemala.

8. Art Gallery

Although you don’t need a tuk-tuk guide to take you to the local art galleries in Santiago Atitlán, our driver did drop us off at one tienda in town. The owner, Gustan, then gave us a brief explanation of the style, history, and symbols represented within the different paintings. It was interesting to have what we were looking at explained to us, as we’ve seen similar artworks in other towns.

For example, there are really unique paintings of scenes (i.e. coffee farmers) from an aerial perspective. There are also some images where the figures are appearing to look down at you – so the other way around. You can see such art displayed on a lower viewing deck atop Mirador de la Cruz in the town of San Juan La Laguna.

9. Local Market

local market in santiago atitlan guatemala

ice cream vendor at market in downtown santiago atitlan, guatemala

Market days in Santiago Atitlán are quite the scene. Vendors line the streets selling all sorts of food and drink and local goods and textiles. Even if you don’t need to purchase anything, it’s interesting to just go and stroll through the market to observe and people watch.

In the center of the town, there is a small plaza. There, you’ll find a circular fountain-like centerpiece displaying a raised map of Lake Atitlán. You can see all the volcanoes and towns around the lake.

As for other things to do in Santiago Atitlán, don’t forget that you can also go on treks up to Volcán Tolimán and Volcán Atitlán. You could also hire a local birding guide to take you to spot birds such as the quetzal in the nearby reserve.

There is a lot to do and see in Santiago Atitlán – more than meets the eye. If you are planning to visit, it would be wise to carve out at least a full day if not 2-3 in order to take advantage of nature and outdoor activities (in addition to all the interesting cultural and historical things to do and see).

I hope this guide helps you plan your trip to Santiago Atitlán! I think my favorite experiences were getting to speak with the weavers at 13 Batz and visiting the deity Maximón inside a local family’s home.

Please remember to visit these destinations with respect and make sure to Leave No Trace! Before you go, be sure to check out my other guides for traveling in Guatemala.

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Hi, I’m Bri! I’ve been slow traveling around the world in search of new adventures since 2013. I have lived in 8 countries on 4 continents including Nepal, Mexico, Colombia, and parts of Europe! I created this blog to inspire others to live a life of adventure, seek out meaningful experiences, and to travel slowly and mindfully. Join me on this journey and let’s tick off our bucket lists! Read my story here.

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