Mayan culture is currently experiencing a resurgence in the Latin world and beyond, and Guatemala's Lake Atitlan, an important spiritual energy point for Mayan culture, has become a place foreigners go to try and connect with the ancient wisdom the Maya are known for holding.
The lake is home to the Tz'utujil, one of the 21 ethnic Mayan groups that still live in Guatemala. Many around the lake only speak Tz'utujil, and traditional dress and ceremonies are common practice
The area has also become a mecca of sorts for the psychedelic trance scene, dance music's patchouli-scented cousin swathed in sweaty communalism and hallucinogens alike. The all-night raves that come along with that culture have attracted the attention of not just partygoers, but the government.
In 2012, the government of Guatemala passed a law that all bars and restaurants must stop serving alcohol at 1AM. However, in the epicenter of the psytrance and tourism scene around the lake, San Pedro La Laguna, they took it a step further and enforced a law that music must be shut off in public establishments at 11pm in an attempt to end the raves. They were the only municipality in the entirety of Guatemala to enforce this law.
"It's becoming like an authoritarian police state," says Byron Molina, an American ex-pat deep in the local dance scene. "You start seeing military motherfuckers with the police, its not cops, its military motherfuckers with AK-47s. What's going on? Where's the war?"
Byron is known to most simply as "Houston." He was raised in the United States, but his ancestry traces back to several Central-American countries. As an adult, he moved to Guatemala to trace his ancestral roots, but what he found was something different: psytrance.
For Molina, the discovery was a spiritual awakening and the beginning of a new life. He has spent the last seven years promoting the psytrance scene in Guatemala, and more specifically, around San Pedro La Laguna. But since the law was passed three years ago, the late-night psytrance scene has faced a targeted crackdown from government forces.
"They'll come in one bum rush at the bar, and say they have the authority because it's a public place. But the fact that its a public place doesn't mean you can just come in when people are having a good time, putting guns in their faces, searching people. It's terrorism man. It's hard to explain it. You need to be up in there and feel it. Maybe you'll see it tonight. We'll see how it goes."
That evening, a local bar was holding a psytrance event, with an all night after-party planned for later at a large property on the outskirts of town. The bar wasn't raided that night, but when the music was shut off a man stood on a stool and started shouting 'after-party that way' pointing at the door. Hordes of Guatemalans and foreigners walked, packlike, down the highway towards an isolated house on the outskirts of town, the unofficial after-hours spot in San Pedro La Laguna.
As we approached, organizers used flashlights to lead the way, the road was dark, and people moved warily. Bright floodlights came glowing from behind and two black pickup trucks drove slowly through the masses. The backs of each were filled with military police wearing black masks, black uniforms, and black bulletproof vests holding large automatic weapons. They parked next to the entrance of a small path off the main road that apparently led to the house.
Organizers shouted repeatedly that the cops couldn't do anything because it was a private property. They ushered people past the black trucks, down a dark path with no lights. The police watched, doing nothing. It was 1:30AM.
Between DJ shifts, Houston talked with the other organizers and monitored the police outside, wondering if they would, in fact, come into the private grounds. The music was loud, but as far as I could tell, it was isolated away from town.
Psytrance is intense. It beats into your head like a jackhammer; rapid drum, repetitive bass, screeching sounds, lack of melody, and little to no drops create a sense of hypnosis amidst the chaos.
"For me it's about the music, it's really about the trans-dance experience. It's about going out there and living free, taking your mind somewhere else. Its not just about tripping and getting fucked up, although that does happen," says Houston. "There's no lyrics, there's no words; it's about your mind taking you where it wants to take you."
This ethos is common amongst revelers. "It's not about drugs. I'm not even high right now. It's about the music. The music is my drug," shouts Michael, an ex-pat who has lived in San Pedro La Laguna for over seven years and has immersed himself in the scene.
The police didn't raid the event that night. But they waited outside until the early morning hours, watchful and wary. Every person who left had to walk past the powerful weapons and prying eyes waiting within the black trucks. The imagery sits in stark contrast to the normal, serene sensation that Lake Atitlan evokes.
"This lake, it's majestic, there's something about the location here. I don't even think the local people understand what it is," said Houston.
Lake Atitlan's beauty and history in spiritualism has attracted more and more foreigners trying to understand its mysterious appeal. The town of San Pedro La Laguna is quiet. Tourists stay towards the lakefront, but just up the hill, cobblestone roads weave an intricate network that keeps the community connected. It's just as common to see a young Mayan with gelled hair wearing baggy jeans, as it is to see an old woman wearing traditional dress holding a basket on her head.
This dichotomy has created a divide in the population. Many young people want to party, while older generations want a maintenance of traditionalism and, perhaps more importantly, a bit of sleep on the weekends.
"We created the law so ordinary people can relax, to avoid disturbing the neighborhoods," the Mayor of San Pedro La Laguna, Diego Ixmatah Gonzalez, reluctantly explains. He refused to comment in-depth about the increase in government troops patrolling the city at night beyond commenting that "the efforts were ongoing."
"I spoke to the National Civil Police recently," he says. "I asked for more agents to look after the entire population. We'll have more agents soon to control the environment in San Pedro La Laguna."
The government of Guatemala has not always been a friend to the Maya. A 36-year long civil war took place largely between government forces and leftist Mayan rebels who saw their culture being persecuted. It's estimated during the war that 140,000-200,000[MACBOOK P1] Guatemalans were killed or disappeared, 83% of which were believed to have been Mayans.
The president at the peak of these mass murders, Efraín Ríos Montt, was convicted of genocide in 2013, although a supreme court later overturned that sentence, and recently he was declared mentally incompetent for his retrial[Nathaniel2] . The current president and former military official, Otto Pérez Molina, has been accused of leading some of the massacres connected to Montt in 1982, and is seen by many as an extension of the former government forces that subjugated the Maya for decades.
"There has been a systematic discrimination against the Maya from our government. At school there was always content against the Maya in the formal education. The religious institutions speak very poorly of Mayan practices. The politics and the economy fully discriminate against the culture," says Juan Manuel Chavajay. Juan Manuel is the director of Taa' Pi´t ONG, an intercultural learning center based in San Pedro La Laguna that aims to help support traditional culture and education to children in the Mayan community.
Several kids played on computers in the offices; pictures hung from the walls of well-known community members and past Maya events led by the organization; artifacts and traditional crafts were displayed around the room. We discussed the spirituality that the Lake holds for the Maya and he claimed that there were sacred events throughout the year in the hills outside the town, although he said their practices were secretive, and he couldn't tell me more except that they're held at various energy spots important to his culture.
Juan Manuel repeated several times the connection the lake has as a point for community, culture, and spirituality for the Mayans. I couldn't help thinking how this was similar to what Houston and other partygoers said about their attempts at psytrance events to connect with something greater, however, when I mentioned this to Juan Manuel, he disagreed.
"(The party goers happiness) is a temporary happiness. It's not an emotional thing or a way of life that's different. Life doesn't need a boost, life itself is a great encouragement! I think they use terms like happiness, love, community, as a distraction."
"I know many residents living near these bars and they're not happy. The people here are peasants, they work in agriculture. They need sleep because they wake up early, like 4-5AM. It's oppression in their own community."
The Maya in Guatemala have become one of the main tourism draws, which is a large part of the country's economy. It's created a delicate balance in which the government needs Mayan presence to attract tourists, and this has forced the government to finally acknowledge Mayan culture and traditions. Those same tourists are the ones participating in the raves, which affect the local community by bringing income, but also drugs. Tradition seems to be fading under the pressure of outside influences.
I looked around Juan Manuel's office, at the spirituality that bled from the walls, feeling overwhelmed by a situation without clear answers. I asked him ambiguously, so what's right for the lake?
"Well, (the Maya) see that society no longer has much spirit, it's without a lot of courage. There's too much unhappiness; humanity's collapsing. Resuming culture would strengthen the individual within, they'd be a freer, more authentic person, and have a spirit of solidarity. And surely this would create a significant change, not only with the community here, but with nature and society too."