The strangest thing I ever saw while travelling... Spying on Shamans in Guatemala's Cuchumatanes

20th April
Rating: (2 votes)

High up on the Cuchumatanes plateau in western Guatemala, a nighttime Shaman ritual is chanced upon in a remote, roadless village...

The village of Chortiz was little more than a ramshackle collection of wooden huts, unusually high-sided enclosures or pens for the livestock and a couple of sturdier looking buildings, notably the school and the church. There we no roads in or out of the village, instead mule tracks wound their way across the almost moorland-like landscape that stretched off into the thickening mist that seemed to be descending upon us. The only crops that grew at this altitude were potatoes, the maize having given up a few hundred metres further back down the mountainside. This was a harsh environment to survive in and it was easy to forget that we were in tropical latitudes.

We came to a stop outside a large wooden building on the peripheries of the village which seemed to function as a kind of rough shelter for people passing through. It was divided into two rooms, both accessed by their own respective doors from the outside. The smaller one was locked and it was into the bigger one that we carried our stuff and set up for the night.

After building our beds it was time time to eat. The mist had come down and the light was fading as we walked along a stony path that circumnavigated the village. Shepherds were driving their flocks into their enclosures with the help of their stick-wielding kids whilst the local semi-ferrel dog population barked incessantly. There were no bars, shops or restaurants here so our guide, Pablo, had prearranged some vittles at a local family's house.
After dinner, on the walk back to our digs, we heard the first howls of the wolves that are prolific in this area. "Grab a good sized rock to protect yourself just in case" warned Pablo, deadly serious, "you wouldn't be the first person to have been attacked by a wolf up here". I realised then why the sides of the animal enclosures were built so high.

We turned in early but part way through the night I was awoken by a slow chanting voice that had permeated my dream for a few moments before and it was with great difficulty that I separated the dream-world from a reality that was becoming ever more surreal with each weary blink.

A low light seeped across the ceiling from a gap that ran along the top of the wall to my right and with it emanated a pungent smell of burning herbs mixed with a prolific amount of candle smoke. All the time the voice continued its unintelligible mantra in a low hum. I was transfixed. What was happening? I got up and shook my girlfriend awake; this wasn't the kind of situation one wanted to find oneself in alone. With some encouragement I crept over to the wall, grabbed a chair and climbed aloft to get a better look. Below me in the smaller room next to ours were sat four of five men in a rough circle. One of the men seemed to be leading the others in the chant and keeping the smoke billowing from the burning grasses in the middle of the circle by wafting a handful of herbs back and forth. Candles were placed in a kind of interior ring in front of the congregation. This was a shamanic ceremony, possibly clandestine judging by the late hour; I looked at my watch, it was 3.30am. None of the men had noticed me and I decided to keep it that way. I snuck back to the warmth of my sleeping bag and lay in a trance, hypnotised by what I'd just witnessed and feeling blessed by the magic of travel and the serendipitous experiences it throws at you.

Back on the road the following day, the events of the previous night felt like a dream. The going soon became tough as we crossed the wild plateau snaking our way through wind-whipped evergreens following an ancient path that was becoming increasingly boggy as the steady rain that had begun to fall went quickly to work on the dust and soil that covered it. We drew our coats up to the cold, put our heads down and slipped into a reverie of sharing shacks with Shamans…

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  • 21st April by steve48

    That does sound a bit spooky, especially in such a remote and mysterious place. I like your closing punch line - "sharing shacks with Shamans". That would have made a great title, too.

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  • 21st April by DANNYDL

    Thanks for your comments Steve. Spooky is a good word to describe that village - a place indelibly etched on my mind. 

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  • 24th April by amandacycles

    Mist, wolves and shamans....sounds like an amazing experience, if a little unnerving at the time!

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  • 25th April by DANNYDL

    Thanks Amanda, it was an incredible place to have spent some time (albeit fleeting). The "dangers" certainly heightened the excitement too. You've got to love travelling... 

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  • 27th April by DavidRoss

    The spookiest thing of all is that this was happening at half past three in the morning. Anytime I've witnessed anything similar, it has been obviously staged for the benefit of tourists, but this clearly wasn't. Did you ever find out what it was all about and why it was being done in such a clandestine way?

    A deserved competition winner.

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  • 27th April by CeeDee

    Golly - what an experience! Love that it all fades away in the rainy reality ...


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