The beauty and mystery of Lake Atitlan attracts many travelers to its volcanic shores. Indigenous pueblos still dot the hillsides in some of the more remote areas, while larger towns like Santa Cruz and San Marcos have become hubs of travel. Even still, the Mayan culture maintains a stronghold in this part of Guatemala which is why many travelers come to the lake to seek healing and respite. We spoke with Traci Styner, founder and resident healer at Lake Villa Guatemala to find out what exactly attracted her to the Lake and how she now creates powerful custom experiences for her guests.
Located in Santiago Atitlan, Traci helps her guests integrate Mayan fire ceremony into their healing, in a respectful and authentic way, as one part of their Guatemala journey.
Originally from San Diego, CA, Traci lived in California her whole life until she moved on her own to Guatemala seven years ago. Having traveled to Lake Atitlan to cook for an organization that hosted healing trips she fell in love with the power of the lake, she knew she had to relocate from the states. Even when her arrangements with the organization fell through, she still moved forward.
“I'm called to Guatemala. When I first saw the announcement for the first trip when I came here, it was this immediate recognition. I got this email announcing this trip and I called them the minute they opened and said, I’m on this trip. I don’t have a good rational explanation, other than I was called here.”
She opened Lake Villa Guatemala after finding a house on a stunning hillside property. She knew the land was sacred as soon as she stepped off the boat. So? She set to work building her vision.
“When I bought the house it was in very bad shape. It had been bank owned and abandoned for quite some time. I fixed it up - it’s a home on three levels, so I can’t do large retreats here… So, what I chose to focus on was personal retreats and for some, doing the healing and energy work that I did when I first came here.”
Now? That healing work includes bringing retreat guests for traditional Mayan fire ceremonies held by a local Shaman that Traci works with in Santiago Atitlan. Healing in this traditional way can be a profound aspect of what her guests experience on their journey to this part of Guatemala. She explained how the ceremony proceeds:
“There are certain things about Mayan fire ceremonies that are the same no matter who does them and some things that are different, depending on the shaman and the tradition. The core thing that is the same is that the shaman use colored sugar to draw a cross inside a circle. The cross represents the four directions. And then, depending what the ceremony is for, they build from that base. They always use copal (incense) in Mayan ceremonies. And on top of the sugar and copal, they layer candles. Depending on the purpose of the ceremony, they may include chocolate and breads.”
Many of Traci’s guests want to attend ceremony for the purpose of physical healing - this is what has attracted them to her Villa, with its nourishing vegan meals and clean, peaceful landscape with a private dock. So the Shaman will offer ceremonial arrangements specific to those intentions, choosing the day to be auspicious with the Mayan calendar.
“They also lay out candles of different colours, so depending on what the ceremony is for. They always use the colours that represent the different directions on the Mayan cross, north, south, east and west, and the colours of those candles also have different significance in Mayan culture as well… And then depending on what the ceremony is for, something that somebody might specifically want to address, there might be other coloured candles that are used as part of the ceremony and in part, the fire is built with those candles.”
The ceremony is held at a home belonging to a Cofradía member who is responsible for caring for the statue of the saint. Cofradía is a “spiritual brotherhood” in the Mayan culture. The ceremony offers guests the chance to make offerings to the fire in front of a spectacular altar.
“You watch this whole lay out of the fire, and then the shaman will begin invoking the nahuales. Usually he will give the participants some candles to hold depending on why the participant is there. Whether it is physical healing or they have a business issue, or an emotional issue, or a love issue, they might have different colours of the candles that they’re holding and different other offerings to the fire. As the ceremony progresses, usually there will be some kind of cleansing that is done.”
There is, of course, a lot more to the ceremony - but for Traci, handing over the ceremony to the Shamanic lineage is an integral part of how she welcomes her guests to these Mayan lands. That, and honoring the land itself.
“What always brings me back is the lake itself. I mean, me sitting here looking at the lake, swimming in the lake is a sacred act. There doesn’t have to be a ceremony around it, it’s my own personal ceremony.”
Traci is originally from California, USA. She retired in 2009 from a career in training and technical communication with a Fortune 100 company. She spent two years visiting Guatemala and assisting with spiritual workshops before bringing the dream of Lake Villa Guatemala to life in 2011. Traci’s passions include sharing the splendor of Lake Atitlán, singing, and preparing plant-based meals that nourish body and soul. To learn more about Villa Lake Guatemala, visit the center's Retreat Guru profile.