Hunting for Maximon in Guatemala

Escape to Guatemala to discover Drinking Deities, Ancient Traditions, Modern Artisans & Heroes Turning Gang Members into Family

Guatemala stamp
Armchair Adventure inside
envelope flap
Lake aititlan
I’ve never had a midlife crisis before so I’m not exactly sure how they work.

At the moment, I’m in the middle of Guatemala on a secret pilgrimage to visit the shrine of Maximón— the ancient Mayan patron saint of lust, mischief, and sin.  I have absolu
back of envelope
Crossing Lake Aititlan
I’ve never had a midlife crisis before so I’m not exactly sure how they work.

At the moment, I’m in the middle of Guatemala on a secret pilgrimage to visit the shrine of Maximón— the ancient Mayan patron saint of lust, mischief, and sin.  I have absolutely no idea why, but I simply have to find him.

A mid-life crisis is the only reasonable explanation I’ve come up with so far.

Bobbing across the rippling waters of Lake Aititlan on a ferry headed toward the village of Santiago de Atitlan, I’m trying to explain to Joe and Connie, my unsuspecting travel companions, why we need to deviate from our scheduled plans for a day trip to Maximón’s shrine.
According to folk legend, Maximón— a philandering, chain-smoking, alcoholic, badass— was hired by traveling fishermen to protect the virtue of their wives while they went off to work. To no one’s surprise, as soon as the men left the village, Maximón seduced and slept with their wives. All of them. When the men discovered what he’d done, they cut off Maximón’s arms and legs in revenge— leaving him an emasculated stump.

But sometimes you just can’t keep a bad hombre down.

For hundreds of years, Maximón (aka San Simon) has been beloved by the Guatemalan people as part Mayan deity, part Catholic saint, and part con man. An example of a syncretic cult religion emerging from the Spanish conquest, the effigy of Maximón blends elements of pre-Colombian culture with aspects of Catholicism. And his role is strictly transactional. He’ll grant anything your heart desires in exchange for money, cigarettes, and booze— leaving a blurry line between belief and bribery. Some consider his worship a way for oppressed indigenous people to preserve their heritage— not to mention, a creative way to give the “Mayan middle finger” to invaders and cultural disruptors at the same time.

The Catholic Church is screaming into a pillow.

But considering Guatemala’s poverty, corruption, and violence, it makes sense that people might feel more hopeful asking for help from a deity with such moxie. Maximón is like a Powerball ticket where just having a chance to dream of a better life is part of the fun. And you just never know when you might get lucky.

The more I thought about Maximón, the more I succumbed to his hypnotic spell– like that proverbial, partying bad boy my parents always warned me about.

I must be losing my mind.
Boats docked on lake
Our boat pulled up to a dock. We hopped out along with the rest of the locals and headed up a cobblestone road toward the center of town. Outside the marketplace we approached an autorickshaw driver to enquire about Maximón’s whereabouts.

¿Dónde podemos encontrar a Maximón?

You see, hidden among the cramped alleyways, Maximón’s effigy resides in a different household every year. The lucky residents convert their home into a sanctuary and spend the year as his attendants to hang out, drink, and smoke alongside him (#BestJobEver).

Only certain people know the location and the trick is finding out who.
Women chat in the street
Luckily the driver knew who to ask, so we hopped in the auto rickshaw and sped off— right, left, right, left— winding our way through the narrow streets until we pulled up outside a small bodega. Inside the store, we again asked:

¿Dónde podemos encontrar a Maximón?

The proprietor nodded and called his friend to take us to the shrine. I bought a pack of smokes as an offering and we all followed the guide back out the door. Right, left, right, left— we scurried to keep up through the dark alley until our guide disappeared into a dimly lit room veiled in cigarette smoke.

Be still my heart.
Surrounded by candles, flowers, and several sauced attendants holding vigil was a carved wooden stump wearing nothing but flamboyant scarves, a Stetson, and a smug grin. I felt an instant connection. Captivated by his stoic charm, I offered Maximón a cigarette, but he remained motionless. With his smoldering gaze and self-possessed swagger it was clear he was playing hard to get— but the chemistry between us was palpable.

Mesmerized by his presence, I moved in closer. Still not a word was spoken, yet our powerful bond was that of soul mates.

It’s so great when someone just gets you, you know?
Maximon in house

Suddenly it became clear to me why he was so beloved. In Maximón’s eyes, my vices weren’t something to be ashamed of—  just part of my charm. From my coffee addiction to my being five minutes late to every appointment to all the times I bought a carton of ice cream and threw the lid away to binge eat it in one sitting— I finally felt freed from the guilt.


Meeting Maximon
Maximón is a reminder that nobody’s perfect.

My mission nearly complete, I laid the pack of smokes on the altar, and took a deep breath— ready to ask Maximón my question…….
Food market in Guatemala
Bustling market
Girls walking to school
Off to school
Lake Aititlan
Floating across Lake Aititlan
Standing in line
Sisterhood
Grandmother weaving
Grandmother weaving on her backstrap loom
Lillies
Calla Lillies for sale
Mother and daughter
Mayan spirit
Men playing Marimba
Marimba mania
Church
Village church
Boys playing instruments
Festival performers
Walking down steps
Sunlight on the steps
Old building
If walls could talk
Smartphone
MAYANIZED: Culture Couture and
the Art of Storytelling
Woman weaving colorful cloth
For over two thousand years, weaving has not only been integral to Mayan daily life, but a stealth storytelling medium encoding the Mayan vision of the world. When Spanish conquistadores and priests burned indigenous books and artifacts to suppress local identity, the work of weavers– who passed down their craft through the generations– was essential for preserving important elements of their ancient culture.... continue reading
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Still today, one of the most emblematic elements of Guatemala is the huipil, or traditional blouse woven and worn by indigenous women. Like the Facebook of fashion, the huipil reveals everything from a woman’s personality and geographic location to her marital, social, economic, and religious status. Each intricate design reflects the cultural significance and sacred meaning within each region’s unique style, vibe, and pattern.

According to Mayan Hands, “through the centuries, Mayan people have also integrated elements from other cultures in their textiles which become ‘mayanized’”– reinterpreting foreign influences with their own unique spin.

Since retiring from a career in fashion to begin my current chapter working with the world’s children, my days in the design room have been limited. But a single week in Guatemala– observing the Life of Hope Ministries work in the field– spurred an artistic awakening.
Osho and followers
It’s true, Guatemala is plagued by challenges from poverty and corruption to the continued fallout of a 36-year civil war. Solvent-sniffing children wander the streets, orphanages overflow, and gang violence rips communities apart. Yet a dynamic, bursting life force and in-your-face duality reveals there is so much more to their story. With it’s vibrant juxtaposition of colors, textures, food, architecture, and landscapes– where crimson bougainvillea spills over stone ruins, horse-drawn carriages and “Partridge Family” buses roll down cobblestone streets– where sinners become saints and blouses hold the secrets of a 5,000 year legacy– Guatemala’s story is such an epic ‘life of hope’ it’s hard to find words that do justice.

Since, like my Central American “sisters," I too find that fashion has a way of communicating inspiration where mere words fall short, I dusted off my sewing machine and whipped up a few creations.

I call the collection: Mayanized.

See the collection through Rochester Magazine's coverage and photos taken by Christina Paolucci.


Guatemalan worry dolls
Guatemalan WorryDolls
Worry doll up close
Muñeca quitapena, also known as Worry Dolls, are tiny, hand-made figurines that originated in Guatemala. According to the legend, a Mayan princess named Ixmucane received a special gift from the sun god which would allow her to solve any problem a human could worry about.

Inspired by Ixmucane’s story, worry dolls were created as trusted confidants to whom brooding children could confide their sorrows, fears and worries. After the children told their troubles to the dolls, they placed them under their pillow at night– to literally and metaphorically sleep on their problems. By morning their sorrows would be taken away by the worry doll.... continue reading
Guatemalan child sleeping soundly
While these miniature therapists aren’t officially endorsed by the psychiatric world, mental health professionals have often used dolls and puppets to help people externalize problems, encouraging healing and growth.

And let’s be honest. There’s nothing more emotionally freeing than being able to say: “Here. You deal with this.” Even if only for one night. Right?

Better yet, Worry Dolls don’t cost $150 an hour like conventional therapists. They never drink too much and inadvertently blab your personal business like some human confidants do, and they never, ever judge– no matter how weird your worries may be.

Here’s a great DIY site to teach you how to make your own worry dolls– but don’t just use these little ladies for the big worries of the world that everyone is panicking over (bills, health, climate change, muffin tops…). Instead, try them for all those nagging, semi-irrational worries that creep into your subconscious and ruin a perfectly good night’s sleep. Such as:
• Does my barista secretly hate me for under-tipping this morning?
• Did I remember to take the original card out of the fruitcake box before regifting it to the neighbors?
• Did that stranger I accidentally sent the drunk text to somehow figure out who I am?
• Did Alexa record my private conversation and plans to blackmail me?
You get the idea. So skip the second glass of wine this evening, whip up a few worry dolls, and sleep like a baby tonight!
Where is Somaliland?
Where is Somaliland?
"EVERYONE IS THE AGE OF THEIR HEART."
-GUATEMALAN Proverb
World map
Black tucan
Never too Great to Fail: Mother Nature's Schooling of a Former Superpower
Growing khat
Imagine living in one of the greatest civilizations on the planet– boasting a powerful military, advanced education and transportation systems, highly developed agriculture and infrastructure, abundant natural resources, and strategic geographic location. Before you start fist-pumping chants of USA! USA!, it might be worthwhile to learn a lesson from Tikal.... continue reading
Tikal reconstruction
Re-discovered in the 1840s in a northern Guatemalan rainforest, the ancient ruins of Tikal reveal one of the most powerful kingdoms and urban centers of the pre-Columbian Mayan civilization. During its heyday (200-900 AD), Tikal dominated the region politically, economically, and militarily where thousands of limestone ruins, stone carvings, hieroglyphs, temples, tombs, and pyramids reveal their incredibly advanced society. And with their complex mathematical and astronomy-based learning, the Mayans were the “Mesoamerican STEM” creators ahead of their time.

Because rain was often unpredictable, the flow of water throughout Tikal was meticulously controlled by a sophisticated water management system including canals, dikes, and reservoirs that could sustain them through dry spells. Intensive agriculture was needed to feed the masses, so complex irrigation and terracing systems dramatically reshaped the landscape.

More than 50 square miles of Mayan cities were connected by raised causeways that spanned the swampland, allowing for flourishing trade, traffic, and interaction with other regions.

In 200 AD???
Chipotle Mayan theme
Yep. Had the ancient Greeks been aware of what was happening on the other side of the world, they surely would have tweeted props.

In fact, the kingdoms of Tikal– as superpowers often are– were also led by vainglorious autocrats eager for domination. Living in constant fear of attack, they built walls, ramparts, terraces, and fortresses. Warfare was large-scale, systematic, and big business.

TI-KAL! TI-KAL!

At the time the Mayans seemed unstoppable, but sometimes Mother Nature loses her sense of humor in the face of mankind’s hubris. Despite Tikal’s sophistication, centuries of deforestation and environmental manipulation set the stage for the wrath of climate change. A decades-long drought led to low crop yields, which led to diminished political influence– which, ultimately, led to a full-on societal meltdown.
By the end of the 10th century, Tikal was abandoned as people scattered to the coasts in search of water. Slowly devoured by the jungle, the former Mayan supercity became nothing more than a mystery for the next 1,000 years– and the celebration of Mayan gods and deities have gone largely unappreciated until Chipotle’s wall art hit the hipster dining scene.
Tourists at Tikal
Today tourists can explore the winding pathways between Tikal National Park’s ruins, temples, and faded Mayan calendars. While only a small fraction of the former kingdom is accessible beneath the canopied rainforest– alive with howler monkeys, toucans, jaguars, and leafcutter ants– it’s a humbling reminder that when it comes to Mother Nature, no one’s too great to fail.

For a modern-day example of Never Too Big to Fail, check out this story.
Hello!
Hola!

How are you?
Como esta?

Guatemala is a beautiful country.
Guatemala es un paiz muy bonita.

Today we are going to explore the jungle.
Hoy vamos a explorer la jungle.

It is very hot and humid in the jungle.
Hace mucho calor aca en la jungle.

We have seen lots of animals and insects.
Hempos visto muchos animals y insectos.

Wait, don’t move!
Esperense! No se mueven!

You have something crawling in your hair.
Hay halo en su pelo.

Stop screaming.
Por favor, no gritas!

Oh, maybe it was just a leaf. Sorry.
Tal vez fue una hoja del arbol. Disculpame.

Maybe we should go have coffee instead.
Tal vez debemos tomar un cafecito.

Guatemala is famous for its delicious coffee.
Guatemala es famosos para su café excelente.

Is there a Starbucks in this village?
Hay un Starbucks en esta aldea?

A double skinny decaf please.
Uncafe descafeinado con leche descremada, por favor.

Thank you. Goodbye.
Gracias. Adios.
Bug
Bug on a leaf
Bus
Vibrant bus
Jungle landscape
Jungle mist
Authentic Huipil
Colorful Huipil
Oscar Peren
Getting Oscar Peren's autograph
Guatemalan fisherman
Young Fisherman
Food bag
Colorful food bag
Jungle flora
Jungle flora
Enjoy the sounds of Guatemalan radio!
Smartphone
Spices
Oscar Peren: Breathing Lessons in San Juan Comalapa
Oscar Peren
Only an hour outside of the Guatamala City hustle, the sleepy town of San Juan Comalapa reveals another dynamic chapter of the Guatemalan legacy.

Award winning artist, modern-day Mayan hero, and sombrero-sporting visionary, Oscar Peren is the founder and leading painter of Guatemala’s “Comalapa School”– a colony of Kaqchikel painters dedicated to celebrating the customs, life experiences, and traditions of indigenous towns on canvas.... continue reading
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Peren painting
With their unique style of paintings– emphasizing placement, geometric design, and balance– processions, parades, funerals, and fireworks become immortalized. Simple moments in daily life become sacred.

Peren’s endearing scenes in signature splashes of turquoise, sunflower, lime, and fuchsia combine storytelling and historical preservation– evoking both the joy and pain of Mayan daily life. He studies ordinary happenings from new vantage points and then illuminates the extraordinary moments within.

By capturing a culture in constant flux, Peren offers a momentary respite from the daily commotion to simply stop, reflect, and breathe.
Oscar Peren
Scanning the walls of his studio, one piece in particular caught my attention. It featured a kaleidoscope of colorful shapes, but I couldn’t understand exactly what I was looking at. (And abstract isn’t his thing.) Peren explained that it was a bird’s-eye view of a Saturday market in full swing– again showing how a shift in perspective can turn ordinary activities into magical moments.
Painting hanging on the wall
Today Oscar Peren’s autographed painting proudly hangs in my laundry room amidst the abyss of washing, drying, ironing, and folding my kids’ clothes. While one might consider the laundry room an unorthodox place for an original work of art, to me it’s the part of my culture in the most constant state of flux. Week after week, month after month, year after year, the clothes cycle through. The styles change and the sizes grow. Pant legs become longer. T-shirts become trendier, and with every pair of socks matched I am reminded that one day this chapter of my life story will end. The daily commotion of a house full of kids will one day be replaced by quiet rooms and empty hampers.

Oscar Peren reminds me of the magical moments of my own life’s story to savor. Reflect. Breathe.
Guatemalan textile
"A PERSON WHO DOES NOT TAKE GOOD ADVICE, NEVER GETS TO AN OLDER AGE."
-WISE GUATEMALAN SAYING
Smartphone
"I STARTED LOOKING AT THE OTHER SIDE OF THE 'SOCIAL MONSTERS,' AND THEY ARE HUMAN BEINGS."
-TITA EVERTSZ
Woven baskets
Colorful baskets
Old building
Market architecture
Young kid playing drum
Young drummer
Textiles
Textiles for sale
Women's feet
Foot fashion
Taxi in Guatemala
Taxi
Huipil
Huipil design
Kitchen utensils for sale
Marketware
Colorful buses
Psychedelic buses
Women at street market
Women at market
Women wearing Huipil
Every huipil tells a story
Listen to the GSD Podcast
Tamale Day and the Paradox of Perspective
Guatemalan textile
"WHEN IT'S A TAMALE DAY, ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE."
-DINA FESLER
Somali mother and child
Ready for an exotic, desert adventure?

Next stop... Somaliland!
Photo credits
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Worry dolls: Leena [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)] - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Worry_dolls.jpg

Map of Central America: Cacahuate, translations by Joelf, Globe-trotter and Piet-c. [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)] - https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a6/Map_of_Central_America.svg

Mayan painting: Izord [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)] - https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/45/Iz_%28depiction_in_Mayan_art%29.jpg

Tikal ruins: From the Mayan site Tikal, Peter Andersen [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)] - https://es.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archivo:Tikal12.jpg

Tikal stone: HJPD [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)] - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tikal_St26.jpg

Tourists visiting Tikal: Dennis Jarvis from Halifax, Canada [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)] - https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/88/Flickr_-_archer10_%28Dennis%29_-_Guatemala-1619.jpg

Textile: By Hazzaffie Chinchilla (Flickr: Textura, Textil) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)] - https://www.flickr.com/photos/hazzaffie/3887816705

Flower Textile: randreu [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)] - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Guatemala_-_Antigua_201312_FYE_(Textiles_Guatemaltecos_)_-_panoramio_(2).jpg
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