Getting cleansed for Maximon in San Andres Iztapa

On our way out of Antigua, we decided to stop by the small town of San Andres to visit a shrine of Maximon to ask for good luck on our travels. With about 20 shrines found throughout Guatemala, Maximon is considered to be a manifestation of Pedro de Alvarado (the Spanish Conquistador who conquered Guatemala), the underworld Mayan god Mam, and the biblical Judas. Wearing a 18th century style black suit and hat, he can be found sitting in a chair smoking a cigar. Depending on the shrine you visit, he may be wearing other accessories such as sunglasses, a bandanna, or even an ammo belt.

At first glance it seems strange that anyone would come to worship such an evil character. However, you do not come to worship Maximon, but more to offer gifts to appease him. He is like a Mafia deity that works on extortion – you need to offer him gifts of alcohol, cigars, cash, and candles or you may run into trouble.

Without good directions and no road signs, our recent Spanish classes came in handy as we talked to people on the side of the road to first find the town, and then to find the small unmarked road in the middle of a corn field that led us to the shrine. Small vendors outside the shrine’s gate sell colored candles, amulets, fragrant bundles of herbs, cigarettes and alcohol so pilgrims could purchase their offerings. We wanted to participate in a limpia, or cleansing ceremony, so we bought two bundles of herbs, blue candles for safe travels, yellow candles for protection, a bottle of beer, and headed in to the temple. A local woman spotted the slightly confused looking gringos and immediately offered to help us find a shaman who could perform our cleansing ceremony. After a hurried and incomplete negotiation about the price of the cleansing, the shaman grabbed a bundle of herbs, our beer, and Chris. He poured the beer over the herbs, and thoroughly beat Chris with the dripping bundle. At this point I decided one limpia would be enough for the two of us, and grabbed the camera. The shaman than took large mouthfuls of beer and sprayed them all over Chris until he was dripping and sticky (they say a picture is worth a thousand words, I think our video below is worth a million).

A bit bewildered by this ceremony, we assumed we had been duped as clueless tourists until we saw the line of Guatemalans waiting to be subjected to the same cleansing ceremony. Unlike our ceremony, the Guatemalans we witnessed were taking this process very seriously, and spending a good amount of time after their cleansing talking and praying to the shrine. This ceremony is very similar to the Mayan medicine rituals we learned about while in San Cristobal, Mexcio. For some ailments, Mayan shamans will sweep herbs over the body while sprinkling floral water.

We joined the line to climb the stairs and stand in front of the shine in order to make our offering of a few Guatemalan quetzal coins and a Darien Plan card to the effigy of Maximon. Back at the car Chris changed into a clean shirt and we set out for the small market town of Chichicastenango knowing that our travels are now being protected by a powerful Guatemalan deity.