Santiago Atitlán is the lake’s largest settlement and the cultural center of the Tz’utujil Mayan people. Set in a secluded inlet across from San Pedro la Laguna, this traditional village is guarded from above by the imposing Tolimán and Atitlán volcanoes. Unique in that it lacks the touristy feel of the lake’s other large towns, Santiago is the birthplace of Maximón, a Mayan idol fervently celebrated during Semana Santa. If you are near Lake Atitlán during Holy Week, it would be a mistake not to visit Santiago to see the impressive parades and colorful alfombras. The Tz’utujil people are also renowned for a distinct style of painting which portrays colorful market scenes, harvests, and festivals from a top-down perspective.
Santiago was conquered by the Spanish in 1541. Like the rest of the lake, the Spanish paid little attention to Santiago for the next several centuries aside from building a massive church in the center of town. While the town is still predominantly Catholic, its style of Catholicism has always exhibited an indigenous flair, and a recent surge in Evangelism has further contributed to Santiago’s bizarre agglomeration of religious traditions. Both men and women still use indigenous traje, the highlight being the men’s white-and-purple checkered shorts. Local huipiles are similar, but embroidered figurines fill the square spaces in between.
Santiago suffered greatly during the Guatemalan armed conflict, as its surroundings sheltered some of
the army’s fiercest guerrilla combatants. The army established a direct military garrison here, from where it carried out its scorched earth operations in the early 1980’s, unsuccessfully chasing the guerrilla and massacring thousands. In 1990, years after the violence had calmed, the army killed 12 civilians, sparking widespread unrest and demands to close the army outpost. The request was eventually granted by Guatemalan President Vinicio Cerezo, and the army is still forbidden from setting foot in Santiago.
To get here, take the ferry or a smaller lancha from the main dock in Panajachel. There are also frequent boats between San Pedro la Laguna and Santiago. Dependable boat transportation runs until 5pm, but you should try and be on your way before then. Pickups run between Santiago and San Lucas Tolimán, and regular buses connect Santiago with the capital. Note: for safety reasons, do not travel the unpaved route between Santiago and San Pedro la Laguna – take a boat instead. Arriving in town, the street leading up from the dock is lined with art galleries and souvenir shops. Vendors and children can be aggressive down this way, but make your way up to the park and you should be left alone.