Some years ago, an American priest serving in the town of Santiago in central Guatemala tried to impose a degree of Catholic orthodoxy on his parishioners by cleansing the cathedral and its rituals of indigenous Mayan influence. It didn’t go down well with the congregation. An enraged mob stormed the church. The priest was only saved by the intervention of a 20-stone nun who held the crowds at bay, while he hid in the belfry. The next day he was smuggled out of town in a laundry basket.

Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

The Spanish Conquistadors may have conquered Guatemala five centuries ago, but its beating heart is still Mayan. Half the population is indigenous, still closely aligned to Mayan culture and tradition and still speaking 20 different Mayan languages. Inside grand churches in elegant colonial towns, it is common to see the Virgin Mary portrayed in forms that clearly link her to the Mayan Moon Goddess.

One of those elegant towns is Antigua, the former capital, founded in 1543, and probably the most beautiful colonial city in the Americas – all courtyards and fountains and gracious arcades. These days Antigua has acquired a cosmopolitan veneer, boasting weaving workshops, smart boutiques, excellent restaurants, and a serious café culture. This is where American exchange students come to learn Spanish, while their parents consider chasing the dream of retiring to an elegant mansion for the price of a parking space in Manhattan.

The historic city Antigua is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

But barely two hours north of Antigua is Lake Atitlán, where a more traditional indigenous world flourishes. Atitlán harbours secrets. A cult has grown up on her shores, linked to Mayan ideas of duality. It concerns a dark saint known as Maximon – an anti-Christ, a stealer of wives, a drunkard, a scoundrel, and quite a natty dresser. In the back streets of Santiago, through which the reforming priest had to flee, his effigy is still courted and appeased, fed cigars and rum. I set off to the lake to find him.

Traditional dress in Lake Atitán, Guatemala

The road north rose into the highlands through fields of maize and orchards of avocados, prospering in the volcanic soil. Along the roadside women wore traditional dress, embroidered white blouses and coloured skirts as rich as family heirlooms. The dark-skinned men were more sombre, dressed as the Latino baddies in Hollywood westerns – cowboy hats and boots; thick belts on wide pantaloons; thin moustaches.

From the high road above the town of Panajachel, I had my first glimpse of the lake – a wide silver sheen in a bowl of mountains. Visiting in the 1930s, Aldous Huxley thought Atitlan more beautiful than any of the Italian lakes. On the far shore stood three towering volcanoes, like a child’s drawing: simple blue pointed mountains, collared by cloud.

Lake Atitlán, as seen from the road near Panajachel

The next morning with my guide I set off across the lake by boat, arriving on the far shore at Santiago. Inside the white cathedral, Catholic images were overwhelmed with Mayan icons. Christ can be seen wearing a Mayan headdress and a pair of rather dashing cowboy boots. Mayan Corn Gods lurked among the carvings, while candle wax was smeared across the floor where Mayan rituals had been performed.

We had been told that Maximon is cared for by cofradias, or brotherhoods, whose members take it in turn to host the effigy in their homes. My guide made a few enquiries. People whispered to one another. Others shot us suspicious looks. Eventually a boy appeared and motioned for us to follow him. He led us through back alleys to a shabby yard where a pig, tethered to a corner post, seemed to be sleeping off a hangover. Ducking through a low doorway, we found ourselves in a dingy room with a single window.

The shrine of El Maximon in Santiago De Atitlán, Guatemala

Rows of candles guttered on the dark floor between vases of flowers. Streamers and balloons hung from a low ceiling. To one side of the room was a glass case containing a figure of Christ wrapped incongruously in a blanket adorned with penguins. And at the centre of the room, in the place of honour, stood the effigy of Maximon: a life-size doll wearing a black cowboy hat and a dark suit jacket, garlanded with coloured scarves. On his lower half was a pair of striped trousers that reached only as far as his knees. Maximon was the blade runner of Guatemala; his lower legs had been removed. His knees were perched directly on a pair of shiny boots.

The origins of the cult of Maximon are a trifle obscure. Some say the real man was a priest; others say he was a Spanish Conquistador; still others that the figure is entirely legendary with no basis in life. Whatever the case, the story goes that when the village men were away working in the fields, Maximon slept with all their wives. When these dalliances came to light, the villagers were enraged and promptly chopped off his legs at the knees.

A shrine of El Maximon in Santiago De Atitlán, Guatemala

Yet somehow, with time, Maximon managed to graduate from love rat to powerful benefactor. Perhaps the menfolk were impressed by his sexual success. Perhaps their wives told stories of divine love-making. After his death, a cult developed round Maximon. He began to be worshipped – though more in the manner of Godfather than God. Villagers came for help, for jobs, for justice, for revenge.

Recognising that Maximon was a man of vices, supplicants generally brought rum and tobacco, though he was not averse to a cash payment (as evidenced by the banknotes pinned to his jacket). While my guide and I took our seats on a low bench, one of the guardians poured the rum I had brought between the saint’s open lips. Apparently some internal tubing drained the liquor down his torso and away through a back wall. Outside I could hear pigs lapping it up.

A fisherman on Lake Atitlán

Moments after our arrival, more visitors turned up: a shaman accompanied by a young man and his mother. The shaman produced yet more rum, feeding it carefully to the saint, before offering him a cigar, sticking a fat Cohiba between his lips and lighting it. Then the shaman got to his knees and launched into his pitch on behalf of the young man. It was like eavesdropping in a side room at a Mafia wedding. “He needs your help, Maximon”, the shaman said. “You know his family well. He comes here to you with respect.”

The shaman got up to pour more liquor down Maximon’s neck, then offered us a couple of shots before filling a pint glass for himself. Then he sat back on his haunches in front of the indifferent statue and mopped his brow. Jesus looked on from beneath his penguin blanket.

Maya shaman with the divinity of Maximon at Santiago de Atitlán, Guatemala

“A fisherman has refused him a place on his boat”, the shaman said. “Maximon, please make the fisherman understand that he must change his mind. You know what will persuade a fisherman. Show him your power – a storm, torn nets – so that he will understand he must accept this boy.” The shaman was asking Maximon to make the fisherman an offer he couldn’t refuse.

The shaman’s rambling went on for a bit. He dispensed the booze to everyone present, always reserving a big slug for the effigy, while cajoling and pleading with the saint. He produced another cigar. He veered at one point into a drunken rant about politicians and shopkeepers, before remembering his mission and coming back to the boy and his current employment issue.

Eventually we made our excuses. Outside in the yard two pigs staggered around a corner, coming from the rear of the house, like a couple of drunken sailors.

A woman in Lake Atitlán, Guatemala

Climbing through the town, past Mayan women spinning wool by hand, we emerged again in the cathedral square. Below us, we could see cloud shadows as big as counties gathering on the surface of the lake. Atitlán’s mood was darkening. We hurried down a side alley towards our boat. Maximon was already at work on that fisherman. We needed to get back across the lake before the storms broke.

As they did that night. From the terrace of my hotel I gazed across the black lake, outlined with a necklace of shore lights. Thunder rolled down from the volcanos and sudden lightning flashes illuminated the lake and the mountains. To the shaman and the cofradias, Maximon was at work. To the rest of us, the evening was swept up by one of those intense atmospheric storms that only the tropics can offer.

A Mayan Catholic altar in a village near Lake Atitlán, Guatemala

untitledStanley Stewart is the author of three highly acclaimed travel books and several-hundred articles based on journeys across five continents, for which he has won numerous journalism awards. He is a contributing editor of Condé Nast Traveller and his work appears regularly in the Sunday Times. He has also contributed to the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, the Independent and the Times. He writes for the National Geographic Traveler in the US, the Sunday Times in South Africa and the Australian.