Burrowed in the mountains above Lake Atitlán and just a 10-minute bus ride from Panajachel, San Jorge La Laguna is a tiny, compact community where locals speak Kachiquel (a Mayan dialect), wear colorful traditional dress, and practice centuries-old Maya customs. Most travelers breeze by San Jorge en route to Panajachel, but there are two great reasons to make time for a quick visit, as Shon and I re-discovered last weekend.
Reason #1: From its precipitous perch, San Jorge offers some of the best, most easily accessible views of Lake Atitlán. A cliff-side mirador (lookout) sits on the outskirts of town and is reached via a short trail from the main road, where buses drop off passengers. Arrive early for clear, crisp views of Panajachel, Atitlán’s volcanoes, boats on the water, and hawks in the sky. Shon and I settled into a rocky outcrop to snap photos and eat chuchitos, taking care not to sit on dried candle wax and the ashes of old fires–this windswept area is used for Maya ceremonies; indeed, in the woods just 20 feet away, a small bonfire and incense burned as a group of locals prayed.
Reason #2: In addition to first-rate bird’s-eye views, San Jorge features fascinating ceremonial dens. Just off the mirador trail, another dirt path detours down the mountain to a handful of Maya altars located in small rocky alcoves and a large cave. Locals visit these spots–often with a shaman (spiritual leader)–to give thanks to the gods or to ask them for assistance. (The Mayas pray to myriad deities including a sun god, rain god, and earth god). As part of the religious ceremony, candles are lit, incense is burned, and offerings are made in the form of food and alcohol.
We’ve visited the San Jorge altars twice and have yet to witness an actual ceremony (we have watched them elsewhere), but seeing the remnants of recently performed rituals is still fascinating, particularly inside the cave. Black with soot, the sprawling space is filled with makeshift altars, crosses, ash, candle wax, and aging flowers. The view from the cave of the forest and valley below isn’t too shabby, either.
After visiting San Jorge’s mirador and altars, there are two ways to return to Panajachel: Hop on a bus or simply continue down the mountain trail, as we did (and, in my case, not always gracefully). The trail leads to Pana’s nature reserve, where it crosses hanging bridges (great, if you like a shot of adrenaline; bad, if you’re…ahem…afraid of heights) and ends at the reserve’s visitors center, the perfect for spot for toasting San Jorge with a cold strawberry smoothie.