Escape from Captive Places
Atitlan (Mayan): The place where the rainbow gets its colors
Guatemala is a magical place, and probably the most magical part of this fascinating country is the Lake Atitlan region. Mayan culture is still influential in the area, in dress and custom. Getting to Lake Atitlan is an adventure all by itself, especially with cases of gear, including rebreathers, a gas pump, scuba gear, video and still cameras, and other assorted pieces of equipment.
Lake Atitlan is a three hour ride over breathtaking mountains from the airport in Guatemala City. Once at the lake, the primary mode of transportation is fiberglass boats powered by outboard motors. Loading and unloading gear several times, the ADM team eventually disembarked at La Iguana Perdida, our base of operations, run by Dave and Deedle Ratcliff. The Iguana is worth the stay, if only for Dave’s Saturday Night Concert.
For this expedition, the team consisted of ADM Publisher Curt Bowen, Team Coordinator Keith Ambrose, and explorers Erik Foreman and Jeff Toorish. This is a continuation of a previous expedition to Lake Atitlan, and the team would operate as two smaller units to cover more ground.
Lake Atitlan is one of the largest lakes in Central America, and has tightly held its secrets for thousands of years. While there are clearly numerous small springs and underground rivers that flow into the lake; it apparently does not have a major flow of water out. More likely, the outflow consists of many small cracks and fissures, allowing the lake to maintain its depth.
There have long been rumors of an underwater city beneath the waves of the lake. One theory holds that an earthquake pushed an existing Mayan city into the lake; the other notion suggests a city built close to the lake was flooded when the waters rose tens of thousands of years ago.
While diving the lake, we did notice stones that appeared to have straight cut edges. While finding submerged Mayan ruins would have been a fantastic discovery, the faces of these rocks appear completely natural according to Dr. Robert Gustaldo, Whipple-Coddington Professor of Geology and Chairman of the Geology Department at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.
During two expeditions at Lake Atitlan, the ADM Exploration Team has found no evidence of any submerged or lost Mayan city.
Hearing the Gods Laugh in your face
Our objective for this expedition was to find relics from Mayan culture and return them to local authorities. Our previous expedition to Lake Atitlan had been primarily for reconnaissance purposes, but that trip yielded significant historical and archaeological finds. Armed with the knowledge gained from our prior expedition, we had high hopes for success this time around.
There is an ancient adage that says, ‘the best way to hear the gods laugh is to announce your plans.’ The adage must have slipped our minds as we discussed how we intended to approach this mission.
Upon arriving, we learned of a tragedy the day before; a fisherman was out at night in one of the Mayan canoes that are a staple for the indigenous people of the lake. In the dark he was struck and killed by a motor skiff. Despite the efforts by divers from around the lake, his body had not been found.
We agreed to help with the search and recovery and spent the first day of diving searching in the vicinity of the accident. We subsequently returned to the area and continued searching later.
While the recovery effort delayed our progress, we felt it was important to assist, especially after the first day when the fisherman’s family specifically asked if “the gringos” were coming back to search some more. As of this writing, his body has not been recovered. We had the difficult job of explaining to the man’s family that because of the depth of the lake, his body may never surface.
We were also plagued by equipments snafus. It is important to note that much of our gear has been modified from the original manufacturer’s specifications to accommodate exploration diving. For the most part, these were problems were caused more by the changes we had made than any defects in the actual equipment. During the course of this expedition, repairs were necessary nearly every day.
Weather was also a factor with more rain than we had experienced in the past. The rain dramatically reduced visibility in the lake. Winds also seemed more active this year, kicking up a significant chop that limited our diving on several days.
Perhaps more ominously, the team was coming up dry day after day. This was a relatively short expedition. Because of travel restrictions we truly had only 5 diving days to complete our work. Day one was strictly travel, from Miami to Guatemala City, then over the mountains by van to the lake. We met a boat on the dock at Panachel for the 25 minute boat ride to Santa Cruz and La Iguana Perdida.
Day two: shakeout dive which we used to assist in the attempted recovery of the lost fisherman. That allowed us 5 days of actual exploration because we would have to drive back over the mountains on day six for a flight out early on day seven. It was a tight schedule and our luck was not holding.
The first day of actual diving got off to a late start because we needed to modify one of our rebreathers. We were limited on tools, but fortunately the staff at ATI Divers at La Iguana Perdida was able to help. With the gear finally modified, we climbed aboard our boat, Tornado, captained by Domingo and crewed, at times, by his son, Domingo Jr.
Day one of diving proved a bust, and as the afternoon waves started to pick up, we decided to re-evaluate our plan of attack that evening to focus on other areas of the lake. But even using a sonar unit to help map the bottom along the shore and some of the inlets things were looking bleak.
Face it, we need help
By day three, we were concerned that the expedition would be a failure, not like part one of the effort a year ago when we had made finds from the beginning. This time, we came up literally empty handed; coupled with continuous equipment problems and oddly unpredictable weather patterns, things were not looking good.
It was time to call in some serious help, and we went looking for the one guy who could turn things around for us. The problem was finding him. He could be anywhere, off drinking, smoking and who knows what? Or he might be nowhere, preferring to hole up. It didn’t matter, we had to look.
Our travels took us to Santiago Atitlán, the largest town on the lake where we would be most likely to find him; Maximón.
The Face of an Idol
Maximón is an idol; a combination of traditional Mayan deities, Catholic saints and the legends of Spanish Conquistador. He can be helpful, if paid the proper homage –along with some cigarettes and liquor. Or he can work against you if you don’t show the proper respect.
We tracked him down inside a ramshackle building, up a narrow alley off a run down street. There he was in all his splendor and glory and we were only too happy to pay the required tribute for an audience. We wanted the Idol to bring us luck on the lake, and help us in our quest for Mayan relics for the local historical museum.
Now we will see if Maximón would be with us or against us.
Facing the new day –almost our last
Day four dawned with clear skies, a slight breeze and glass smooth water on the lake. Our equipment woes were at a bare minimum, and things were running on time for a change. After a short morning conference, we decided to head out to a relatively shallow area across from La Iguana Perdida where we would stage from the rocky shore or one of the docks nearby.
We continued to operate in two teams; each with one primary explorer and one photographer. Curt Bowen and Erik Foreman were team two, Keith Ambrose and Jeff Toorish were team one. Bowen and Toorish were carrying photography gear. Captain Domingo and the Tornado dropped team one off at a small beach where they suited up and silently slid into the oddly clear water. Then Tornado quietly motored about kilometer away and dropped team two on a small stone dock.
Normally the individual teams try to stay together for the entire dive. Both members of the team carry sufficient bailout gas in case of a problem with their closed circuit rebreathers. Each member also carries a reel and safety sausage, which can be used to mark the location of a found artifact or signal the boat.
But on this day, for whatever reason, both teams wound up separated. On team one, Ambrose and Toorish swam together for about fifteen minutes. Then while exploring a promising looking rock pile; they lost sight of each other at about 50 feet of depth. While Ambrose continued to search in one direction, Toorish followed the rocks down to about 110 feet and began to hunt.
While slowly scanning the murky, sloping bottom, Toorish’s light skipped across the bottom of a large water jug. It was more than half buried and the bottom was shattered, but it was impressive nonetheless. It was a find, the first significant one of the trip. The jug was filled with sand and even after emptying, it was still heavy. Rather than risk a clumsily attempt at bringing it up, Toorish shot inflated a bag and sent it to the surface to mark the site.
Once back on Tornado, team one quickly located the marker and Ambrose “power snorkeled” down to retrieve the pot.
About a kilometer and a half away, Team two was just coming out of the water and they had also made significant finds, including entire bowls and shards with intricate designs. While the water jug was the largest piece, the most interesting and perhaps most significant was a partial bowl that was most likely used for ceremonial purposes.
The Face of Maya
The bowl shard with the face was unique and nothing like it had showed up in our research. We had also toured local museums where we saw nothing even remotely similar. The piece most likely dates back between two and three thousand years. It shows what is clearly a depiction of a Mayan face from that time.
Explorer Erik Foreman, a prolific digger, found the shard buried in silt. He had been carefully and gently working through the soft silt at about a hundred feet off shore. He had already collected several important pieces when his hand felt something rounded and smooth. After carefully extracting it, he moved it through the water to remove sediment and there, staring back at him, was a mystical face from the past.
The face relic, the water jug and several other pieces were passed along to the local historical Museum at San Pedro. An official from the municipality was there to take custody and informed the ADM Exploration Team that the pieces would be used in an exhibit at the municipal building.
The official also proudly invited ADM and the exploration team to return with the words, “you are always welcome here.”