Santiago Atitlán is a more traditional sort of place and has a very different feel from San Pedro . It’s spectacularly set in an inlet with gorgeous views of San Pedro Volcano  just across this small body of water. Atitlán and Tolimán Volcanoes rise behind it.
It is the main enclave of Guatemala’s Tz’utujil-speaking Mayans, whose wonderful painting and handicrafts can be seen along the main street coming up from the boat dock, which is lined with art galleries and craft shops. On dis a very distinct form of painting depicting various elements of indigenous life such as agricultural harvests and festivals.
Santiago suffered greatly during the civil war, as the area was a hotbed of activity for ORPA guerrillas, who established themselves in this strategic area between the highlands and the Pacific Coast.
The Guatemalan military established a base here and began systematically searching for guerrilla sympathizers, killing hundreds. As the civil war waned, the military’s presence became increasingly unnecessary, as was the case throughout much of Guatemala, and villagers became increasingly resentful of its presence. The massacre of 12 unarmed villagers (including three children) in 1990 unleashed a flood of local and international pressure to close the military garrison. A petition presented to the Guatemalan government asking for the base’s closure was soon granted.
More recently, Santiago made world headlines in October 2005 after a number of devastating mudslides in the wake of Hurricane Stan left close to 1,000 victims. The neighboring village of Panabaj was completely wiped out by the mudslides, and the scars can still be seen on the mountainside. Many international organizations are still working in the area and Santiago has become a popular center for volunteer activities in the tragedy’s aftermath.
Another Santiago curiosity is the presence of a highland Mayan deity known as Maximón, housed in the home of a different member of the local cofradía, or Catholic brotherhood, every year. The effigy is a wooden figure clad in colorful silk scarves and a Stetson hat, smoking a big cigar and receiving offerings of moonshine, cigarettes, and rum. Local village children will offer you their services to go see the idol, which you can photograph for a fee. It is not surprisingly a sore point between the Catholic syncretists and the increasingly prominent Evangelical Christian churches, which have won over many of Santiago’s residents.
You will probably be approached by innocent-looking children as soon as you arrive from the boat dock offering any of a number of services, including a guided trip to see Maximón or assistance in finding accommodations. You have the right to politely refuse, but you might be surprised at the colorful language they can resort to (in English) if they’re unhappy with you for not hiring their services or if you fail to provide an adequate tip. Internationally recognized finger gestures are also not out of the realm of possibility.
Ferry service ($2.50) departs Santiago for Panajachel  seven times daily. The ferry crossing takes about an hour and there is also faster lancha service. There are seven daily buses leaving from the central plaza for Cocales and Guatemala City  between 3 a.m. and 3 p.m. Frequent pickups to San Pedro  leave from Hotel Chi-Nim-Ya.