Santiago Atitlán is one of the larger towns around Lake Atitlán in the western highlands of Guatemala, located across the lake from Panajachel. The town is situated in the southwestern shores of the lake and, as the only major town in this particular region, serves as a gateway to Lake Atitlán for travelers coming from the pacific coast of Guatemala. Tourists come to Santiago Atitlán to experience the beautiful, natural jewel of Lake Atitlán, a crater lake formed by volcanic eruptions eons ago. The lake is nestled between three volcanoes, Volcán San Pedro, Volcán Toliman, and Volcán Atitlán, and Santiago Atitlán happens to be the closest town to all three.
Santiago Atitlán has been the home of the Tzutujil indigenous peoples for hundreds of years. The town of Chuitinamit or Chiyá, just on the hilltop north of Santiago Atitlán, was the capital of the Tzutujil tribes and was settled around 1000-1200AD. Prior to the 1524 arrival of the Conquistador, Pedro de Alvarado, the Tzutujil Mayas were at war with the Cakchiqueles, the indigenous group occupying the Panajachel to San Antonio Palopó regions of the lake. The Spanish conquered both the Tzutujiles and the Cakchiqueles, who were unwilling to join forces to fight the Spaniards.
Under Spanish rule, the Tzutujiles stayed at Chiyá until 1547 when the Spanish Roman Catholic priests forced all of the inhabitants of the lake to move to nearby Santiago Atitlán. This made it easier for them to control them religiously and to collect their tributary payments. The forced move helped Santiago Atitlán develop into a major town on Lake Atitlán, which it has remained ever since.
More recently, Santiago Atitlán was the center of much political resistance and atrocities. As the largest indigenous village in Guatemala, Santiago Atitlán resisted the political domination of the government during the Guatemalan civil war. In 1981, the Oklahoman missionary, Stanley Rother was assassinated at the altar of the town’s church for voicing his support for the Tzutuhiles; the incident brought considerable international attention and outcry. In 1990, a brutal massacre of 12 civilians also occurred during the heat of the war. After this incident, the village organized a march in protest of the military presence of the government and their oppression. The protest worked, surprisingly, and convinced the government to leave.
People and Culture
Santiago Atitlán, despite its population of 50,000, is a very traditional town. You’ll find many local women wearing their traditional head bands and huipiles and the men wearing their traditional calf-length wraparound pants. Many religious customs persist as well, such as the worshipping of the cigar-smoking god, Casa de Maximon. His wooden idol and shrine changes hands each year to a different member of the religious society. The customary way of worship is to leave a cigar or a few quetzales before requesting a favor from the god.
Santiago Atitlán offers the customary water sports activities, hiking and trekking trails, and scenic volcanoes and lakeside views found in most towns and villages along Lake Atitlán. Among Santiago Atitlán’s more unique attractions includes the Iglesia de Santiago Atitlán. This is a white church that is decorated in the interior with the woodwork carvings of Tzutujil deities. But the church is most famous for being the scene of the assassination of the Oklahoman, Father Stanley Rother, during the civil war. The American was killed by Guatemalan right-wing military squads for voicing his support for the Tzutujil cause.
Santiago Atitlán is also the home of the Cojol Ya Association Weaving Center and Museum, which showcases the history and process of backstrap loom weaving and educates on the traditional costumes and dresses worn by the Tzutujil indigenous people.
Close by Santiago Atitlán, but not exactly in the town itself, are a few exciting sites. The Tzutujil village of San Juan La Laguna is a quiet and hidden village on the lake, which can be reached by water taxi from Santiago Atitlán. San Juan La Laguna’s village center sells a variety of artesania.
The Chuitinamit or Chiyá town ruins is perhaps the most interesting of Santiago Atitlán’s attractions. The ruins are near Santiago Atitlán and include 30 structures; a Pyramidal temple and two plazas are among the structures. One of these plazas, Tinamit, is fortified and was used by the Tzutujiles for astronomical observations. The other plaza, Amak, was used as a public ceremony structure.
The dock of Santiago Atitlán is a decent shopping spot. It is lined with shops and stands on both sides of the road, selling various artesania like embroidered huipiles, handicrafts, and souvenirs.