Guatemala’s best festivals
Guatemala’s best festivals can transform your visit to this country, as you share the colour, passion and joy of the people in celebrations which dating back hundreds of years.
Whether it’s the gigantic kites of Sumpango on the Day of the Dead to drunken horse riders in Huehuetenango, Guatemala has a startling or enthralling festival to grab your attention.
Dia de los Muertos is one of Guatemala’s best festivals
If you see just one of Guatemala’s best festivals, you should make it the magnificent kite display which accompanies Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations in the highlands town of Sumpango.
Dia de los Muertos is a celebration of lost family and friends, and it takes place across many Latin American nations every November, but Sumpango’s barriletes gigantes (giant kites) are unique and spectacular.
The people of Sumpango, about 25km west of Guatemala City, spend months creating the kites, some of which are as tall as houses and depict animals, people, gods and a vast array of other subjects. You can also enjoy eating fiambre, a mixed dish which can include just about anything, including sausages, onions, beetroot, olives, pacaya flowers, chicken and cheese.
The day before Dia de los Muertos, the town of San Jose in Peten holds a similar celebration known as La Procesion de la Calavera (Procession of the Skulls). Three skulls, said to belong to the town’s founders, are carried through the town to be touched and kissed as a mark of respect and commemoration.
Holy Week is powerful and colourful
Religion is a central part of Guatemalan culture, and Holy Week in March or April is the most important and dramatic Christian festival of the year.
You can attend events all over the country, including Guatemala City and Huehuetenango, but by far the most spectacular are the parades through the cobbled streets of Antigua.
These marvellous processions feature thousands of people carrying shrines and icons of religious figures, and the streets are decorated with intricate, colourful carpets known as alfombras. These hand-made decorations are created from just about anything, including sawdust, sand and flowers.
Feria de Santo Tomas features traditional bungee jumping
The Feria de Santo Tomás in Chichicastenango every December features feasting, dancing and an astonishing event called the Danza del Palo Volador, which is an ancient version of bungee-jumping.
Literally translated as the “Dance of Flying Stick”, this ceremony features groups of people climbing a tall pole and then leaping off with ropes or vines tied around their ankles. Nobody is entirely sure how or when the tradition started but it is definitely incredible to watch.
Chichicastenango is not the only town in Guatemala where you can see this happen, as it also takes place at the annual town fiestas in Joyabaj in August and at nearby Cubulco in July.
Independence Day brings noise and joy
One of Guatemala’s best festivals is Independence Day, which it celebrates with a wonderful splurge of colour and sound, including the spectacular Quema del Torito (Bull in Flames).
This involves someone standing inside a fire-proofed wooden or wire framed bull model, to which fireworks are attached. The bull then dances as the fireworks are lit, creating a dramatic scene involving onlookers ducking for cover.
Independence Day is celebrated in Guatemala on September 15, the same day that Central American neighbours Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua also gained their independence from Spain, so the celebrations include a 240-mile torch relay across all five countries.
The runners are accompanied by outriders and other vehicles, with plenty of horn-honking, whistle-blowing and flag-waving.
Wild times in Huehuetenango for Carrera de Cintas
If you enjoy a bit of peril at your festivals, then you should see the Carrera de Cintas in Huehuetenango in early November. This amazing event offers the chance to see drunken horse riders in colourful ceremonial clothing dashing down a steep dirt road killing chickens and sometimes themselves.
The event is a tradition dating back hundreds of years to when the Spanish authorities did not allow indigenous Mayans to ride horses. The contest developed as a demonstration of courage, and involves compulsory alcohol drinking and marimba playing the night before.
This is a genuinely dangerous event, and it is not unknown for riders to fall off and die from their injuries. Such a death is considered a lucky omen for the town.
Burning the Devil marks the start of Christmas
Guatemalans mark the start of the Christmas season with a tradition called Burning the Devil, in which they light bonfires, set off fireworks and burn effigies of the devil.
The tradition began in colonial times, mainly as a symbolic cleansing of the home by burning rubbish, but it has grown in popularity and expanded to include the effigies more recently.
You can see this happen on December 7 all over Guatemala, although the authorities are trying – mostly in vain – to deal with the resulting pollution when people burn plastic and other toxic materials.
Guatemala has many more festivals, but these are some of the most fun and exciting, and are well worth checking out if you are visiting the country.