The Highlands Feature


Drinking and Smoking with the Saints

Arguably Guatemala's most curious object of veneration is the cigar-smoking, rum-swilling deity Maximón. He is still actively idolized a few places in the highlands, most notably in Santiago Atitlán, and in the small town of Zunil, near Quetzaltenango, where he is known by his alternate name, San Simón.

Scholars debate just what Maximón (whose name is pronounced Mah-shee-MOHN) is supposed to represent. His cult likely descended from worship of the Mayan god Mam, but the Catholic church holds that he is the apostle Peter. (Peter's original name was Simon, of course.) Some suggest that Maximón is really Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus. Others liken him to Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado. In any case, according to tradition, he is more a malevolent than benevolent being, and it's best to stay on his good side with offerings.

As you get off the boat here in Santiago, small children may offer to lead you to the Casa de Maximón, the local home housing his figure, in exchange for a few quetzals. (Five will suffice.) You will need their guidance, for Maximón's guardianship changes each year during an elaborate Holy Week observance, a different member of the local cofrade (religious society) taking charge of the wooden idol and accommodating his many faithful followers. When the children bring you to the house, you'll be ushered inside to see the shrine. Maximón's stern figure is dressed much like a 19th-century Spanish nobleman, and is said to like cigars and rum. (He apparently still smokes in spite of Guatemala's strict no-smoking laws.) If you haven't brought such items to leave in the collection plate, another Q5 bill will do just fine. (Make it Q10 if you plan to take a photo.) Maximón is reputed to have proffered myriad favors, from curing illnesses to helping the faithful get a bigger house. We can't vouch for your success.

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