Lake Atitlan, a pristine blue lake surrounded by extinct volcanoes, is the largest body of water in Central America. On its steep shores are nestled several contemporary Mayan villages. In the center of the Mayan highlands, the Maya consider Atitlan the navel of the world (as was Delphi for the ancient Greeks), where humans came forth originally from the mud and waters, and where connection to the spirit world is strongest. Certainly it is a beautiful spot, with a greater concentration of native Maya than in other places I visited in Central America. Although these are contemporary Maya, they retain many traditional practices and habits of dress.
The Maya have distinctive facial features, and almost everybody I saw in the villages around Lake Atitlan appeared to be pure Maya, as opposed to mestiso or ladino, as they're called here, which is a combination of Native American and Spanish. The distinctly Mayan features included black, spiky hair, beak-like noses, high cheek-bones, toothy mouths with large upper lips, and dark brows with midline furrows above very dark, slightly slanting eyes.
The day after arriving at Lake Atitlan we spent a day exploring three surrounding Mayan villages. After taking a boat across the lake to Sant Iago de Atitlan, we rode tuk-tuks (small, three-wheeled motorized vehicles) to the upper part of the village, to the home of the village "Chief-for-the-Year." The current chief has the honor of housing, in his very cramped quarters, the statue of Maximon (pronounced Mashimon), a local Mayan diety. Maximon is an odd god, one we encountered earlier in Antigua, who seems to have taken hold among the highland Maya. He is a necktie-draped, ranchero-hatted, cigar-smoking caricature of something rooted in the Mayan psyche (like a finca boss?). Paradoxically, in the same room as the Mayan deity lay a glass-sided coffin with a life-sized statue of Jesus reclining in it.
The Catholic priests, who destroyed so many precious indigenous artifacts, were never completely successful in replacing Mayan idols with their own.