Mayans, Myths and Monsters

By Jeff Toorish

"Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán isComo with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing."  --Aldous Huxley

The word atitlan is Mayan for the place where the rainbow gets its colors. Perhaps that is why the remaining Mayan culture there is so powerfully colorful in culture, dress and history.

Lake Atitlan itself is colorful in other ways, from the deep greens of the surrounding hills, mountains and volcanoes to the sudden burst of unexpected hues in the flowers clinging to the sides of the surrounding steep rocks. Mornings and evenings are ablaze with breathtaking sun shows. The lake is dramatic, mysterious and charming all at once.

It also hides treasures, mysteries and, perhaps, a monster.

A four man team of explorers from Advanced Diver Magazine headed for Lake Atitlan on a pure reconnaissance expedition to determine the potential for future exploration. Meeting at the newly renovated airport in Guatemala City, the team of ADM Publisher Curt Bowen; Team Coordinator Keith Ambrose; Explorer Erik Forman; and ADM Photographer and Journalist Jeff Toorish headed to the lake arriving at about 5am local time. The late night trip over Guatemala's fabled mountains landed us on the shores of the lake just as the sun was rising, It was an unforgettable sight of one of the most magnificent places on Earth.

A short boat ride, a far too short nap and the team was at the water's edge for the first dive; a gear checkout. Because of the reconnaissance nature of this expedition, we had decided to use rebreathers to give us greater flexibility. Keith Ambrose has visited the area extensively and arranged for Oxygen and Helium at the base. Curt and Jeff used KISS Classic rebreathers, with Curt's specifically modified for exploration. Keith used an Evolution and Erik a Copis Meg.

Lake Atitlan has year round water temperatures of about 70 degrees Fahrenheit. During our trip air temperatures ranged from the 60s at night to the low 80s during the day with low humidity. We would be diving wetsuits for the duration of the expedition with the exception of Erik, who dives dry exclusively (or at least he would until an unfortunate cuff seal rip required him to switch to a borrowed wetsuit).

The lake is the primary mode of transportation in the area. The water is constantly dotted with small Guatemalan canoes usually with one or two natives aboard. The canoes take about six months to make, and involve hollowing out a log and allowing it to cure. Next, side panels are nailed in place. The canoes appear remarkably stable and the local residents use them for self-transportation and fishing.

The Nature of Recon

Reconnaissance, recon if you will, is always tricky. In all honesty the team did not expect to do much more than take the measure of the lake in an effort to determine if future exploration would be warranted. The lake itself provides a beautiful, majestic, exotic location for recreational divers. ATI Divers is located at La Iguana Perdida, and they offer excellent training for divers from beginners through rescue diver courses. And for those looking for a vacation, which offers more local flavor, nothing could be better.

Our base camp was at La Iguana Perdida (The Lost Iguana), a hostel in Santa Cruz that features traditional dorm style rooms along with some newer hotel style accommodations. It is the perfect place for a getaway with a spectacular view of the lake and surrounding mountains. Owners Dave and Deedle Ratcliffe and their staff were extremely helpful; certainly not the norm on an ADM expedition. A beautiful place, but the question would be, is there really enough to interest technical divers who wish to go beyond recreational limits?

We spent the next few days of diving finding out.

For this reporter personally, the second day was less than stellar. A camera housing flood at about 30 feet ended any chance of photography for the day (the destroyed camera and lens were later sacrificed to the lake’s dive Gods in an effort to prevent any further incidents). Partnered with team coordinator Keith Ambrose, we did continue the dive however but failed to discover any Mayan artifacts. The dive itself was beautiful and only served to whet our curiosity.

Mystery and the Monster

As with so many deep lakes, Atitlan is home to a reputed aquatic monster. The myth goes something like this: During mid-day when the winds whip around the volcanoes and mountains, the water becomes angry. That is the monster, a serpent that lures boats to the center of the lake where it sucks them to the depths, never to be seen again. The monster has been used to explain lost boats and fisherman for centuries and clearly many local Mayans believe the myth is true.

The serpent appears to have no name, although we began calling her "Ati." For some reason, we also began considering the monster to be female, although there is, of course, no actual proof of that. But somehow a female serpent seemed more accurate.

There is no doubt that a giant aquatic being could live in a lake of this size. Atitlan is the deepest lake in Central America, estimated at 1100+ feet deep in the center. It is 18 miles long and 16 miles wide with many inlets and a few islands dotting the shores. The lake is also ringed with about a dozen towns from small to relatively large by the standards of a mountainous region. The lake’s origins are volcanic, formed by a super eruption 84,000 years ago.

Volcáns Atitlán is still considered active and has grown almost entirely during the past 10,000 years. Its most recent eruption was in 1853. Geologists and historians believe the water level has risen at least a hundred feet over the centuries but on February 4, 1976 a massive earthquake struck Guatemala.  Twenty-six thousand people died from the 7.5 magnitude quake which fractured the lake bed, causing the water level to drop several feet in one month.

All this may prove significant for exploration. The rising lake waters may cover Mayan artifacts and even portions of villages, kept intact by the fresh water. The subsequent drop in the lake’s level may make those same artifacts more accessible to divers within the technical limits.

But, of course, the ultimate depths of Atitlan could still hide the monster Ati until she chooses to show herself. We did not see her, but at deeper depths, there is always the thought that something is watching…and waiting.

Diving the Depths

Each day starts at about 5:30 am with our boat, the Tornado, arriving at 6:45.  TheTornado is one of the many 26 foot long fiberglass outboards that are the mass transit system on the lake. We load gear, often with the help of local youngsters who are eager to carry pretty much anything for 1 or 2 Quetzal, the local currency. The Tornado is captained by Domingo Chavajay, who also serves as our water guide on the lake. Domingo has lived and worked on the lake his entire life. His heritage stretches back generations and generations of relatives who also worked and lived beside the lake, most likely all the way back thousands of years to those people who actually made the artifacts we are searching for today. Strong in religion, dedicated to his heritage, and honored to return lost artifacts to his people. With a slight tear in his eye, Domingo kisses and softly blesses each of the team’s discoveries. I find it amazing and touching that an individual holds such a strong bond and dedication towards his heritage.

As the week progressed we clearly gained the feeling that Atitlan's depths hold wonders and treasures. For our recon purposes, we will need something more tangible for proof. We found many small pieces of clay pots, smashed, either accidentally or over time. These tantalizing clues only serve to heighten our wonder and interest.

The writer Aldous Huxley called Lake Atitlan â€œthe most beautiful lake in the world. Of course, Huxley did not have the opportunity to dive to 150 or 200+ feet below the surface to view its ultimate magnificence.  While terrific at recreational depths, the lake's visibility truly opens up below about 100 feet and almost as far as your lights will reach below 180 feet. While the water is clearer at that depth, it is also more mysterious. As we glide over massive ridges of volcanic rock we peer down the sloping walls and into a black abyss, hundreds of feet deeper. The opportunities for deeper technical diving are clearly limitless. Perhaps just as remarkable, there has been little or no previous deep diving here, creating a location of unlimited exploration and high potential for great discoveries.

For these deeper dives, we chose an easy mixable rebreather diluent of heliair with a mix of about 14% 02, 33% Helium. This would give us greater options in the event a dive to 300 feet or more was necessary. From a recon perspective however, exploration seemed most promising at depths of 90 to 180 feet.

Are You KIDDING Me?!

We had been searching and so far, our luck had not been very good. To top that off, I was having a slight equipment problem, which, even though manageable underwater, forced Keith Ambrose and I to the surface earlier than desired. We had been at about 160 feet, heading down to an area of petrified trees. The water seemed a bit murkier than we had experienced and we attributed that to a fissure, which seemed to be pouring colder water into the lake. Apparently, the fissure was the nozzle of some sort of water intake.Later inspection of my rebreather showed that it was not an equipment malfunction, but small foreign material had gotten stuck in my CCR over pressurization valve preventing it from fully closing. In two minutes I cleaned out the crap, and my KISS, as usual was back to working perfectly.

On this dive we were joined by Australian Dive Master, Gene Mills, who along with Dive Instructor, Andy Stratham from England had proved invaluable to this expedition. Their knowledge of the lake and assistance in gas preparation made things much easier. Also along that day was a very energetic and entertaining Open Water Diver, Siobhan "Rosa" Burgess.

While Keith and I were on heading to deeper depths, Gene and Rosa were enjoying a recreational dive to about 60 feet or so, poking around the bottom there to see what they might find. Rosa was on an extended tour of Central America and indicative of the travelers who you might find exploring the area around Lake Atitlan. She decided to take a year off her work as a theatrical costumer and dresser, having worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company in her native England. Apparently she could not pass up a chance to dive with the ADM explorer team. She also became a de facto team member and all around helper during the trip.

Surfacing with an equipment problem is never pleasant. In addition to getting to the surface, there is also the anxiety about what effect this will have on future dives. So when I made it to the surface along with Keith and began swimming toward the nearby dock we had used as a staging area, the last thing I expected to see were two open water divers proudly displaying a relic they had recovered on a recreational dive.

The pot appeared aged with a gray background and lighter diagonal stripes running its length. Gene was proudly holding it up and Rosa was broadly smiling.

Gene hollered, "look what we found."

My reaction was, "are you kidding me? Are you F***ing kidding me? I can't believe this!"

As we got closer Gene hollered "Just kidding, Mate!"

The "great" find was a plastic jug, probably lost overboard by a fisherman or boater near the dock; definitely not a relic. Later we would place this relic in the dive shop, tattooed with ADM, 2007 Exploration Team.

Looking for Clues and Finding “Maximónâ€

We begin each dive day early because the lake tends to get choppy in the afternoons, making it difficult to dive. This worked out perfectly because we wanted to learn more about the area around the lake. Each afternoon the team headed to a different town borderingLake Atitlan to discover more about the rich culture here. Just as importantly, the more we could learn about the lake the better the chances we would discover its secrets.

Thanks to the Keith who speaks fluent Spanish, and help from others we were able to discover a great deal about the area. Lake Atitlan’s history is varied, with an odd collision of the modern and traditional Mayan worlds. Tourism is clearly important to the area, but it is not the large scale type of tourism found in other parts of Central America.

Religion clearly plays a critically important role in the daily lives of the Mayans here, with Protestant and Catholic rivalries historically significant. This has also been the scene of bloodshed during its history. The Mayans of this area have shown a strong ability to adapt to new religious practices while still maintaining many of their traditional views.

And that brings us to Maxima. Maxima is an idol or saint, possibly the reincarnation of the pre-Columbian Maya God, Mam blended with Catholic influences. He is portrayed by a life size wooden doll dressed in human clothing, sometimes relatively formally. The cult of Maximón is centered in the highlands of Guatemala but its origins are not very well understood by outsiders.

Sometimes called San Simon, Maxima resides in a different house each year and is moved during a procession during Holy Week. Maxima is attended by two people who are members of the Cofradia who keep the shrine in order and pass along offerings from Visitors. Maximón is a fun guy, and visitors ply him with liquor, cigarettes, cigars, and money. He invariably has a lit cigarette dangling from his lips and a hole in his mouth so attendants can give him liquor.

Maxima is also something of a bully whom it isbest not to cross but who can grant wishes for success. With that in mind, we found a guide who could lead us up steep hills and through narrow winding streets to Maxima current shrine. We entered and engaged in ritual negotiation with the attendants. Eventually we made appropriate offerings hoping, with his influence, we could increase our chances of success in searching for Mayan Relics.

Turning Recon into Discovery

Although we began this expedition for purely reconnaissance purposes, we never lost hope of making a significant find. Without doubt, there are Mayan relics hiding deep under the waters of Lake Atitlan. We had been scouring old maps, interviewing local historians, boat captains and residents. We toured museums and took careful notes in addition to the research we had done prior to the trip. And of course, there was the tribute to Maxima.

The time was ripe and the exploration team was eager. We felt we had to be getting closer to a find but in exploration nothing is certain. Still we set out to dive a particularly promising area and the feelings aboard the Tornado seemed heightened.

Explorer Erik Forman was in good visibility at 97 feet scouring the bottom for pieces of Mayan pottery. ADM Publisher Curt Bowen was a few feet above him, camera in hand, looking for suitable photo opportunities. They had already been in the water for about 90 minutes and preparing to begin heading to the surface via a series of decompression stops. At this point, they believed this area was barren of artifacts but where enjoying the final part of the dive.

The boat had dropped them near some buoys marking a small pinnacle of volcanic rock. The two clear and one yellow buoy served as a navigation point on the surface and the line down helped Erik and Curt specify a search area.

Curt had already swum past the table type rock, concentrating on a potential photograph when Erik suddenly spotted something different, something that seemed out of place.

At first Erik saw only the color, but the color was different than the surrounding rock. His excitement increased.  Then the shape of the object came into focus; it was round, perfectly round. Round is not a shape you find in Nature very often and never in these conditions.

There it was; an intact Mayan incense bowl, about 18 inches across with four formed legs, weighing about 10 pounds and used most likely in a ritual type offering. It was the team’s first significant discovery and the validation that this reconnaissance mission was valid. Lake Atitlan not only holds Mayan artifacts and relics, but also with enough prodding, will give them up!

Curt and Erik completed deco and waited as the Tornado smoothly slid alongside them for pickup. The other members of the boat crew and exploration team moved into position to help the divers climb aboard, Curt smiled and said, "Nice dive, too bad we didn't find anything."

"Except this," said Erik, holding up the ancient mayan pottery.

It was a significant find; later described by local historian and guide Miguel Tzul with these words, "This artifact is from the classic era," about 1800 to 2000+ years old. With the discovery of this artifact came even more questions. The pot was found under a massive rock being naturally held up by two table leg type boulders. Close inspection and photography taken by Curt prior to removal indicates that it would be almost impossible for a fragile piece of pottery to sink in the water, bounce off the hard rocks and land perfectly with legs down underneath a massive table type rock. Was the lake over 100 feet shallower 2000 years ago? Was the incense pot placed under the rock by human hands? If this is true, could there be a lost Mayan city hidden under the waters of Lake Atitlan? Future exploration will be needed to revile all the wonders the most beautiful lake in the world is secretly hiding in its extreme depths.


The finds are significant, and each piece was carefully transported to the local museum in Panajachel for safekeeping and closer inspection my archeologist

In the end It is hard to say what caused this expedition's success. It may have been detailed pre-expedition planning or possibly the diligence and perseverance of the team that led to the discoveries. But maybe that offering to Maximón did the trick.

Lake Atitlan holds many more secrets and the promise of excellent discovery diving for future expedition teams.




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