5 Guatemalan festivals and events with fascinating stories behind them

Jürg Widmer Probst - Guatemalan festivals

Guatemala is a beautiful, colourful and exuberant place to visit. When COVID-19 travel restrictions lift and the world goes back to some kind of normal, visiting Guatemala has to be on your list of destinations. And if you can time it right, try and fit in at least one of the many Guatemalan festivals, events, national days of celebration and holidays. Important to the people of Guatemala, these special days and festivals offer the opportunity to spend time with friends and family and mark significant cultural events.

7 Guatemalan festivals you should know about

Here are some of the most famous and beloved festivals in Guatemala.

  1. The Barriletes Gigantes festival – 1 and 2 November every year

Large, colourful and fantastically designed kites dot the skies in Guatemala as part of the annual Day of the Dead celebrations. On the Day of the Dead (All Saint’s Day) hundreds of people gather in cemeteries to honour their dead friends and family. And in two neighbouring Guatemalan towns, this ‘giant kites’ festival has emerged as part of these celebrations.

The towns are Sumpango and Santiago Sacatepequez residents transform the skies with colour and beauty. Some of the kites are more than 40 ft across and they are all made by hand over the course of the preceding year.

The festival of giant kites is one of the biggest cultural Guatemalan festivals and goes back to the pre-Colombian time, way before the Europeans came. Back then, colourful kites were considered to represent a union between the land of the living and the land of the dead.

The kites are linked to different and specific family stories, or tales of the past including economic and societal struggles. They are important cultural symbols linked specifically to the Mayan identity. Today the designs promote peace and love for the living.

  1. Fiesta de Santo Tomas, 13 to 21 December every year

This days-long celebration of the patron saint of Chichicastenango is a time of partying and religious observation. Chichicastenango itself is always worth visiting if you are in Guatemala, with a traditional Mayan crafts and textiles market and sites like the Santo Tomas church to check out.

But during the week of the December festival, Chichicastenango is a truly special place. At its very heart lies the church dedicated to Saint Thomas, with its fascinating mix of Maya and Catholic religious traditions. During festival week, expect to see traditional performances from aerial acrobats who dance in the air to Guatemalan music between poles erected just outside the church.

As with all the best festivals in Guatemala, there are lots of different foods to try at the festival. Expect fireworks, dancing, fun and good cheer throughout the week, and don’t forget to climb the 18 steps to the church itself. Each step represents one month of the ancient Mayan calendar.

  1. Semana Santa, from 29 March 2021

Semana Santa means Holy Week, and it’s the run up to Easter. In Guatemala today it’s different to anywhere else in the world. The Catholic fervour combined with parts of Mayan religions gives the Easter celebrations a sort of magical air. Easter always coincides with the start of a school holiday too, so it’s a time of celebration for everyone.

Hugely important in Guatemala, Holy Week in Antigua is well worth visiting if you can. It begins on 29 March this year, which is the Friday of Sorrows (or Viernes de Dolores in Spanish). Processions, religious activities, events and traditions of all kinds go on throughout the week in Antigua.

This year, 2 April marks Good Friday, which is the most important and highly celebrated day. The streets of the town are decorated with colourful carpets and the cobbles are covered in beautiful designs made from coloured sawdust. Expect to see festival goers dressed as Roman soldiers as the Passion is acted out, and of course, there is music and food everywhere.

  1. Festival Folklorico de Coban, late July

Every year in July, Coban in Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, holds a National Folk Festival. Its objective is to show off different cultural traditions from each region of Guatemala. The event is attended by loads of people in traditional costume and folk dances are performed.

The event goes back to the first fair of Coban, which was dubbed the Departmental Fair in 1936 off the back of becoming economically successful through coffee exports. As Coban is up in the mountains, the event takes place against a spectacular backdrop, with parades, exhibitions of folk art and much more.

One of the highlights of the festival is the selection and crowning of the Rabin Ajau – daughter of the king. Mayan girls compete for the honour as part of this spectacular event that shows off so much that is wonderful about Guatemala.

  1. Guatemalan Independence Day, 15 September

One of the most important days of celebration, Independence Day marks Guatemala declaring its freedom from Spanish rule. As this was declared on 15 September 1821, this year marks 200 centuries of independence for the people of Guatemala.

While independence was declared on that day, the full process to make Guatemala a free and sovereign Republic took until 1847. Today, Independence Day is marked by parades, concerts, marimbas and festivals in every town and city. If you’re in Guatemala during the celebrations, you’ll see flags pretty much everywhere, all kinds of traditional foods on offer and a huge display of fireworks at midnight on the 14 September, leading into the big day itself.

Wherever you are in Guatemala, you will see fireworks light up the sky. Sadly in 2020, the pandemic stopped these celebrations. We don’t know yet how Independence Day 2021 will be marked, but even if there are no in-person festivities, it will always be a beacon of pride and independence for the people of Guatemala.