Lake Atitlan, Guatemala has definitely become one of the spiritual community hotspots of Central America. With all kinds of yoga, meditation, dance, kirtan and other activities, it’s easy to get in the workshop-retreat-festival swirl. These can be great to explore, but if you are not careful, you can miss the real gem of Lake Atitlan — its indigenous Mayan culture & spirituality. My intention with this article is to offer some pointers about where to begin and what to look for if you wish to explore that — the article I wish I had when I arrived!
It was in November 2020 that I first set my foot in the magical lands and waters of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. I still remember travelling from Panajachel to San Marcos feeling like a little child, sitting in the front of the boat with shiny eyes and my heart bursting open at the incredible scenery revealing in front of my eyes. What IS this place?
Sure, I had looked at the photos, but this was something else. The nature here definitely caught me unprepared in the most spectacular way!
Over time, I watched this love at first sight deepen and evolve and expand to include the Mayan culture that emerged from it.
The beauty of the traditional clothing still worn by the local women…
The little village streets…
The abundance of yummy cacao…
The local food at places like Konojel…
The arts and crafts sold in tourist shops all around the lake…
Little by little, I also started getting glimpses into the Mayan cosmovision and indigenous spirituality that had emerged from this place and its people. Once again, I was caught unprepared for the deep call I felt to go deeper and learn more, which is still with me 2.5 years later. It almost felt like the ancestors of the land saying: ‘Oh yes, we’ve seen the magic that you saw in the nature here, and there’s soooo much more to it if you are willing to listen”.
I was all ears. It turned out that it was easier to listen to the Lake than to find actual humans willing to share more!
Why so? Firstly, you can definitely say that you need to speak better Spanish than I did. But also… most of the local population here is now Christian. It is a kind of Mayan Christianity, but still Christianity and hence many indigenous practices are looked at as witchcraft and kept in secret. Then there’s also the collective trauma from the Civil War that raged here from 1960 to 1996 and cost the lives of thousands of Atitecos (especially those who held spiritual power and respect in their communities). And finally, Mayans seem to have recognised what our Western world hasn’t — that each of us has our unique essence and path, and that wisdom is the outcome of walking it, not something that can be packaged and sold to you by a teacher who has the maps.
With all of this in mind, it makes sense why it might not be so easy for a foreigner to access and learn from the indigenous wisdom. The good news is that it is literally everywhere if you know how to look, and every time it blossoms in a new shape in front of your eyes, it feels even more precious.
Below you will find something of a beginner’s guide to the local Mayan spirituality & rituals, so you know what things you can look for and experience while you are here. I am sharing the names of the people I’ve worked with below and contacts whenever possible — as you might guess many of the Mayan Wisdom Keepers don’t have websites. Ask around and trust you will find your way to the right ones.
The Mayan Sacred Calendar
Didn’t that one finish in 2012 with the end of the world? No. And it is the perfect place to start when it comes to understanding Mayan spirituality and culture. After all, in their Sacred Book the Popol Vuh, it is said that the gods created us humans for two reasons: 1) to praise them, and 2) to keep the time. Or, as Tata Tomas, a local wisdom keeper shared with me — “to understand nature, and your own nature, you need to understand time”.
Sacred time keeping is a big deal in the Mayan world, and there are people specialising in it called AjQij’s. The Sacred Mayan Calendar itself is connected to the human gestation period and one year in it is 260 days long. There are 13 numbers that are continuously rolling (corresponding to the number of joints in our bodies), and 20 Nawales, i.e. Great Spirits (corresponding to the number of fingers and toes we have). Although the interpretations of those Nawales is different even village to village, they are similar in that they point to nature, its elements, plants and animals, inviting you to listen to the wisdom of your body and the body of the Earth around you. A great place to get started with learning about them is subscribing to Mark Elmy’s newsletter where you get a daily email with information about the energy of the day.
Mayan Fire Ceremony
Based on the Mayan Sacred Calendar, the fire ceremonies here are not to be missed and probably the most accessible part of the indigenous spirituality. They are intended as a feast for the nawales and other nature and ancestral spirits, which feed on gratitude, delicious smells, beauty, artistic talent and eloquence. In their tourist/beginner’s friendly version, you learn about all 20 nawales as they are all called in sequence to receive our offerings in the form of fragrant wood, tobacco, sugar, sesame seeds, rosemary, copal and all kinds of other local wonders. It’s a beautiful ritual oftentimes accompanied with a cup of cacao that helps open the heart and connect with the experience more deeply. If you are in San Marcos, the most accessible place with regular fire ceremonies you can look at is LavaLove.
Mayan Astrology Reading
After having said hello and introduced yourself to all the nawales in a fire ceremony, you are usually left with a curiosity about ‘your nawal’ which you just found out about. ‘Your nawal’ is basically the energy associated with your day of birth, which determines your core essence and the flavour of the path you are here to walk, according to the Mayan Calendar. ‘Your nawal’ (or you as an expression of that nawal) will also have a Mayan cross, showing you where you are coming from, where you are going, your gifts and challenges. It’s a beautiful way to inquire into our nature, path and purpose, gifting us with a sort of a spirit guide to help us along the way and a new lens through which to view reality & our place in it.
Make sure you have your reading with an AjQij (Sacred Time/Wisdom Keeper), because these are the ones who have gone through the path of initiation of understanding and working with these energies. I recommend Hilda Resch, who speaks English and and whose guidance is deeply insightful, integrates light and shadow and includes an intuitive channelling and harmonising of the relationships between the different energies in your cross as they relate to you.
One of the first things you will notice upon arrival at Lake Atitlan is that cacao is literally everywhere. If you think chocolate is awesome, wait till you try cacao and experience its heart opening and medicinal properties! It’s very easy to buy and make on your own, and to stumble upon it in the numerous community events happening in San Marcos & Tzununa. Virtually every serving of cacao will be called a ‘ceremony’ here, which can be a bit confusing, because there is a huge difference between a ‘ceremony’ and a ‘ceremony’.
What you want to look for is people who have a history of working with the medicine in deeper ways, facilitating individual and group process. One such person is Nana Miriam, who holds a traditional lineage from the ocean coast south of Lake Atitlan that has been running in her family for generations. Unlike the spiritual community cacao ceremonies, she works with the nawales and the spirits of the land, with whom she already has a relationship as an AjQij. She will not get you to meditate with the cacao before drinking as foreigners do, but instead will open the gates for the spirit world and create a safe setting so that whatever needs to move for you will be deeply supported from the beyond.
Another person we can’t not mention here is Keith, the Cacao Shaman — a foreigner who has been living here for 20 years, the founder of Keith’s Cacao and an amazing elder. Besides making amazing cacao (my favourite here), he is highly respected for his individual and group ceremonies and even though he doesn’t work so closely with Mayan spirituality, is very connected to the spirit of cacao itself and does incredible work with it. At the time of writing this article, his students Herb and Alla have just opened the Black Lotus — a beautiful new space dedicated to shadow work and inspired by Keith’s way, where regular cacao ceremonies are hosted.
The locals have their own version of sauna called ‘Temazcal’. It is quite easy to rent a space in a property that already has one. If not — they are very accessible (eg. in places like La Paz Hotel) and if you keep your ears open, you’ll soon hear of an event, gathering or retreat in which a temazcal is included (eg. like Community Day in Eagle’s Nest).
However, the real Mayan Temazcal magic happens when you go in with a local temazcalera, a woman that does energy and healing work in an individual or group setting. Each temazcalera will have her way, and a session can include elements of conversation, limpia (cleansing with a specially prepared floral water), Mayan abdominal massage and other forms of intuitive work, as she attunes to you and sees what you need on a physical, emotional and energetic level.
I will be forever grateful to Nana Lucy who helped me immensely just within 10 minutes of personal work within a group setting. It was a profound experience involving a few words, gentle touch and work with the temazcal stones (which they call abuelos or grandparents). It opened the gates for a huge layer of grief to be released from my being, one that unbeknownst to me needed the community space, so that I would know this level of intensity was something that others could hold and support me with. I’ve also worked with her privately after, helping clear my ancestral lineage and my body and her work is truly amazing.
There is a form of divination that involves working with little red beans called Tzite, which they say draw their power and connect us to the Heart of the Earth. People consult with Tzite readers with important questions and challenges. A reading is done with 260 tzite, one for each of the days of the Sacred Calendar, and you will need someone to open a sacred space to connect with the nawales and ask for their help and guidance through the beans. All AjQij’s (Wisdom Keepers) will have their bag of tzite beans. However, some are more connected with this way of divination than others and hence more skilled in channelling their guidance. If you find red beans on your walk in nature, or need some clarity around an important decision or challenge, going for a tzite reading is a great idea! Nana Feliciana is the one who is famous around the lake with her work with tzite and is an incredible human and guide I highly recommend.
It can be a challenge to go deeper into the Mayan cosmovision than the beginner’s understanding of nawales and the experiences you can have with a session of cacao, temazcal, tzite or other. There are courses you can take (eg. for working with cacao), which can help you get more perspective. But unless you get close to an AjQij, or walk the path of becoming one, there are not many containers around that can help you advance in your learning of Mayan spirituality.
If you find yourself in such a position, or just wishing to understand deeper the culture and history of Lake Atitlan, I highly recommend you to have a look at the work of Martin Prechtel. Originally a Native American from the US, he made his way to Santiago Atitlan several decades ago, at a time when the local culture and traditions were much better preserved than they are today. He was initiated both as a Mayan shaman (working with individuals with specific challenges) and as a member of the Mayan priesthood in the village (a collective body intended to keep the traditions, initiations, myths, culture and the heart of the village alive and healthy). He wrote all about it in his books which are absolute masterpieces, connecting us to the beauty of Mayan spirituality and way of life in the not-so-distant past.
A great place to start are ‘Secrets of the Talking Jaguar’ (available online here if you can’t get a hold of a paperback) and ‘Long Life, Honey in the Heart’ (available on audible, read by Martin himself!). Martin currently lives in New Mexico, US where he had to emigrate to save his life and that of his family during the horrific events in Santiago during the Mayan civil war that killed most of what he writes about. He teaches what he knows in his school Bolad’s Kitchen, which has a long waitlist. If you wish to understand the deeper layers of the beauty of the Lake and its spirituality while you are here, his books will fill your journey here with immense beauty and reverence.
I think that’s about it to get you started, I trust this article helps you find your way to some of the hidden gems of Lake Atitlan easier than I did! As with any spiritual community, in Lake Atitlan it is also important to be careful and feel into the energy of people who offer guidance and rituals, including indigenous ones. Trust your intuition more than someone’s title or story, because… let’s just say light and dark energies are finding a great balance here. You can also reach out to me ahead of time if you’d like my help in creating a journey with shamanic culture & ritual while you are here.
Enjoy your exploration and keep in mind it’s a rabbit hole! If you are like me, you run the risk of going down with curiosity and finding yourself still in wonderland several years later.