Forty quetzales for an audience with a saint: it’s an offer you can’t refuse.
I practise looking pious and respectful as Francisco leads the way, past the mango sellers in their shawls of handwoven cloth, over the cobblestones of Santiago Atitilán’s central square and into the network of alleyways beyond. Ill-kept dogs with the weary look of strays patrol a courtyard that smells faintly of incense and rotting fruit. My newly appointed guide grins and motions to the doorway ahead of us.
I don’t know what I was expecting, a church perhaps, but not this low room with its breeze block walls or the trestle tables with their detritus of soft-drinks bottles and dried flowers. In the far corner, an elderly man with a stoop is conversing with the plastic statues of apostles, while another lies dozing on a bench, his chin on his chest and the brim of his hat pulled down low over his eyes. Most surprising of all are the Christmas jingles that play through crackly, consumptive old speakers. This is no ordinary shrine. But then Maximon, the wooden figure who stands before me in studded leather boots and robes of coloured silk, is no ordinary Saint.
His cult has its origins in the 16th century, or so they say, a fusion of the militarised Catholicism of the Conquistadors and the religious practices of the Maya which continue to thrive here, on the shores of Lake Atitlán. The Saint’s power is legendary. He can cure disease, bring rain and make the waters teem with fish and, despite the best efforts of the modern-day Catholic Church, he is still both respected and feared by many within Guatemala’s indigenous Mayan population. “There are people here who say that Maximon is the Devil,” Francisco tells me, “but as soon as they become ill, they run to him and beg for his forgiveness.”
As if on cue, a thickset man with a neatly clipped moustache enters the shrine and kneels before the Saint. I watch as he lays out his gifts – a dog-eared packet of cigarettes, a bottle of rum, a twenty quetzal note – placing them on the floor at Maximon‘s feet.
His prayer sounds odd in the cold acoustic of the room, a strident monotone devoid of emotion. “He’s asking Maximon to protect him from a woman,” Francisco whispers, “a temptress.”
For a moment, I feel as if I’m intruding, but then the worshipper breaks off to offer Maximon a cigarette. Francisco seems to have lost interest and is talking loudly on his mobile phone, topping-up his credit. The sleeping attendant is yet to stir.
I glance over my shoulder as I slip out into the sunshine, savouring my last image of this curious backstreet saint. Maximon remains inscrutable behind his mask of dun-coloured wood, the butt of a cigarette dangling from his lips.
– Thomas Rees
– Photo credit: A shrine to Maximon | Wikicommons
You’ll find Maximon in the backstreets of Santiago, on the southern shore of Lake Atitlán. The shrine moves on a regular basis. Ask around at the jetty for a guide and be prepared to haggle.