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2012 was a year in which everyone was talking about the Mayas, unjustly blamed for having foretold a supposed end of the world.

However during this same year, in a much more scientific and quiet manner, a hidden truth about the Mayas was surfacing.  A secret submerged for over 2,000 years was finally rising to the surface shedding new light about the roots of this enigmatic civilization.


Samabaj is a Mayan settlement, which for many centuries was buried and invisible under 80 feet of water in the Atitlán Lake in Guatemala. Roberto Samayoa identified the place in 1998, but archaeologists had to wait until 2012 to get permissions to study it in depth. 

Finally a long process of several years of collecting proof, along with tedious processes of applications and red tape with the government, came to fruition making possible that in the Year of the Mayans, a group of archaeologists of international stature (Michael Coe, Karl Taube, Sonia Medrano, David Friedel and James Brady) accompanied by the cinematographic team of Standoff Studios, could descend to chart, unearth and document in detail the up to then mysterious ruins, which turned out to be quite a submerged fortress with an extension of 37,8 acres (equivalent to 21 soccer fields): A very big sacred site with numerous ceremonial structures in a density never before seen in any Mayan site of the pre-classic period.

The ancientness and sacredness of the site have been revolutionizing what had been known to date (or what had been believed to be known) about the earliest stages of this civilization.

A new origin of the Mayan world?  The sudden cataclysm that buried the island, added to the sacredness of the Atitlán Lake, the strong ceremonial role of Samabaj and its location by 3 volcanoes, places the archaeologists on alert at the similarities with the Mayan myths about creation, which took place “by the 3 sacred rocks”, with the Atitlán lake as “the umbilical cord of the world” from where all emerged, and with a subterranean (or submerged?) kingdom as the home of 2 important deities.  Because of this, today’s world renowned archaeologists study the possibility that Samabaj may even have been the religious cradle of the Mayan civilization and that the oral legends about the existence and disappearance of Samabaj into the depths may have in turn be the root of the myth of Xibalba, the mysterious home of the gods of the underworld.


MAYAN BLUE, art and history intertwined.

From the film record of the entire process, Mayan Blue was born.  An exquisite documentary which through a stylized cinematography transforms a slow and tedious archeological process into a veritable visual feast, a seductive journey, artistic and profound, that takes us through the history and the many enigmas of the Mayan World.

Directed by Rafael Garcia and produced by Standoff Studios from Georgia, USA, Mayan Blue included a strong participation from Guanacaste via the contribution of experienced divers and submarine cameramen based in this province: Nicolás Ghersinich, Cristiano Paoli, Edward Herreño, Danny Pérez, Ofer Ketter and Lawson Barnes, who as a group were the responsible of all the underwater scenes of the film, that from beginning to end, enrich the documentary with beauty and mysteries. 

Part of Guanacaste's team (left to right): 
Ofer Ketter
, Lawson Barnes y Nicolás Ghersinich

In addition to the Atitlán Lake, Mayan Blue includes original frames of other sacred spots such as Tikal, Chichen Itza or Palenque while at the same time submerge the spectator into the somber waters of the cenotes, where some of the most sublime images of the documentary were taken.

Meanwhile, Lawson Barnes, now a permanent member of Standoff Studios, was in charge of the pre-production started in 2010 and then the logistics during the documentary, as well as the filming and lightening for some of the submarine scenes.

We asked him about this varied and exciting experience of being part of Mayan Blue and this is what he told us.

Lawson Barnes and director Rafael García.

How do you feel about being involved in a project like this, making history and art at the same time?

“Well, (laughing) as for ‘making art’, I prefer the viewing public to judge. As for ‘making history’, to be a member of a documentary film crew chronicling the archaeologists as they lift a piece of Mayan pottery hidden under 80’ of water and 2000 years of sediment was extremely exciting. As the evidence started coming in, and everyone began to realize the magnitude and the possible implications of the discovery, ‘the excitement’ for me quickly gave way to being humbled, not just from being part of that crew, but also realizing that we were witnessing the excavation of a sacred Mayan settlement affected by a sudden cataclysmic event. One cannot help but consider what life must have been for the island site’s inhabitants, and the impact the natural disaster had on those who lived and worshipped there”.

The caves and underwater images are outstanding. How do you get images of that quality in those complicate places and conditions?

“You get them by finding your underwater videographers... in Guanacaste! (Laughs) Just kidding. Actually it was not easy at all. Lake Atitlan is at an elevation of 5125 ft. in the highlands of Guatemala. Beyond the usual logistics of maintaining expensive film gear, feeding and housing the team, and most importantly, keeping everyone safe, we had the additional complication of high altitude diving. As many divers know high altitude diving requires careful planning as the dive tables change relative to the tables used at sea level. We were fortunately able to assemble a team of highly skilled, professional divers, and through their management did not have a single injury in an otherwise very difficult diving environment.”

In which stage is Mayan Blue and when it will be available for the general public?

“Mayan Blue is finished. The movie of 1hr. 22min is a full feature documentary edited initially for Film Festivals and is already entered into the upcoming 2013 festivals season. As for availability for public viewing, Mayan Blue has already caught the attention of a large international distributor, and we are currently in negotiations with other company for worldwide television broadcasting. I can’t provide any dates yet, but you can follow Mayan Blue on Facebook for any future announcements ( However, I promise to bring a copy to Guanacaste soon and arrange a mini-premier open to the public”.

What are the next steps for Standoff Studios and for you at a personal level?

“The Studio is presently working on several projects both in the areas of documentary and narrative film features. I am fortunately continuing to work with this talented group of young, and very creative film artists. Eventually I hope to return to the beautiful beaches and warm seas of my beautiful, adopted country of Costa Rica, and relax back into that sweet Pura Vida lifestyle”.


Produced By: Standoff Studios

Directed By: Rafael A. García

Run time: 78 min.

Want to see more. Check out a trailer of this film.


We now invite you to read the other articles of this issue on the virtual version of the magazine.

4 Questions About Travel For Filmmaker Rafael Garcia

By: Joshua Berman.

Courtesy of  The Tranquilo Traveler.


Rafael Garcia began his filmmaking career after graduating from the Savannah College of Art and Design and working in the Atlanta area on various projects. In 2006, he joined a start-up production company that took him on diving and fishing related programs throughout Central America. During this time, Garcia met several highly qualified divers and began to organize a dive team. Mayan Blue, a feature length documentary film, explores the history of the Yucatan and surrounding regions -- often underwater in cenotes, lakes and other unique water features of the region. Mayan Blue also reveals the remarkable archaeological site of Samabaj, a pre-classic site that was flooded in a cataclysmic event on Lake Atitlan some 2000 years ago.


JOSHUA BERMAN: When did you first travel to a Mundo Maya country and how did it impact you? How did you stumble on this story of a lost underwater city?

RAFAEL GARCIA: I first traveled to Mexico in November of 2007, having just established a small but elite team of divers and securing some funding to test our underwater camera gear. As a boy, and son to a history-obsessed father, I had long developed a fascination with the Maya civilization. I remember walking up to el Castillo in Chichen-Itza actually shaking with excitement. I am extremely grateful for all my experiences on this film, and it has truly been a dream comes true. Now, having come out the other end and looking back on my experiences, I feel that I gained an appreciation, not just for the past accomplishments of the Maya people, but for a thriving, vibrant people still weaving a beautiful tapestry of culture.

We had originally begun filming throughout Mexico and Central America with the idea of creating a type of diving documentary or television pilot. We began hearing rumors almost immediately of ruins and artifacts around Lake Atitlan, and soon tales of lost cities and a 'Mayan Atlantis' began to reach us.

While relaxing after a day of diving at 'The Iguana Perdida', our dive HQ, the owner Deedle Ratcliffe pulled out a binder full of old magazine clippings featuring the lake. She drew our attention to an 'Advanced Diver Magazine' article highlighting one group of dive 'explorers' who had emerged from the lake with bags full of artifacts and pottery. The conversation soon turned to a local man who claimed to have discovered a set of ruins under the waters of the lake. In the mid 1990s, Roberto Samayoa registered what he called 'an underwater city' with the Guatemalan Ministry of Culture. His claims were shrouded in doubt. We would eventually meet with Roberto, dive on site and see first-hand that his claims were legitimate. Through the course of our relationship, the full scope of Roberto's discovery would be revealed and become the focus of the film.
JB: What is significant about Samabaj?

RG: There are a number of reasons why this discovery can be considered significant. From an archeological perspective, this is a wholly unique site, in that it is an island site and island sites in the Maya world are extremely rare. Furthermore, underwater Maya sites are largely unknown. A few sites exist in Belize along the coast, but underwater sites of this scale are unheard of in the area. It is immediately clear from the archeological evidence that the island was a ceremonial center, with large collections of stelea and a ceremonial plaza aligned to Atitlan Volcano. Classic Maya mythology describes the creation of the world as having occurred at the 'Three Stone place', a metaphor that mirrors the three volcanoes around Lake Atitlan perfectly. Lake Atitlan has long been considered a spiritual center in the Mayan world, and the lake is often referenced as 'el ombligo del mundo' or the axis mundi, the very spot from which the earth emerges.

In antiquity, the lake would have been a trade hub, a vital link in a network of Pre-Classic settlements and cities. Head archeologist of the Samabaj project, Sonia Medrano, postulates that faced with the flood event that engulfed the sacred site of Samabaj, a legend would emerge and spread throughout the Maya world, becoming the creation story of Classic era mythology with Samabaj as the literal Xibalba or underworld.

JB: You got to dive in Lake Atitlan, swim through caves, and fly in helicopters over Guatemala -- what was the most awesome travel moment you had during production of Mayan Blue?

RG: Several moments stand out from my experiences on Mayan Blue. Certainly diving in the cenotes of Yucatan is amazing. The water is unbelievably clear and gives you the impression of soaring through these caves. It's as close as I'll probably ever get to being in outer space. As a fan of all things Maya since childhood, the most rewarding experience was seeing firsthand these amazing places.

I have fond memories of standing on Temple IV at Tikal, overwhelmed with the sound of howler monkeys at sunrise and watching the fog trail through the jungle. I had the opportunity to enter the crypt within the temple of inscriptions at Palenque. Standing in the presence of the great Maya Lord Pakal is not something you get to do everyday; it is seared into my memory, a mental tattoo. Certainly we had some difficult moments too. Driving in Central America is always an adventure, and seeing the poverty that is rampant throughout the region is hard. But these things are part of what makes the Mundo Maya alluring.

JB: What advice do you have for someone traveling to a Maya village or archeological site for the first time?

RG: Be aware that you are being watched, carefully. There are too many stories of some tourist snapping a picture of a photogenic child and paying dearly for it in violence. Ask to take photos of people, and be prepared to pay. Don't be afraid to try something new as far as food, the Mayan world has much to offer in this regard, however, be aware of water sanitation concerns. Read and prepare. At an archeological site, read the plaques, inform yourself. You can avoid a lot of scam artists simply by being well read and prepared ahead of time.



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utopia magazine and travel guide

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