Why the Festival of Giant Kites in Guatemala is a spectacle worth seeing

Jürg Widmer Probst Guatemala - Festival of Giant Kites

In the UK and the US Halloween gets all of the attention in the run up to All Saints Day on 1 November. But other cultures and countries observe this traditionally important day in the calendar in different ways.

Mexico’s Day of the Dead is well-known for its culturally significant celebration of the lives and spirits of lost family members and friends. Today it fuses modern variations with solemn and religious traditions, in much the same way as Guatemala’s version: The Festival of Giant Kites.

What is the Festival of Giant Kites?

Guatemala’s annual celebration to mark All Saints Day is a mashup of beliefs spanning pre- and post-Hispanic cultures. Featuring thousands of beautiful, colourful kites, the festival has its roots in indigenous Guatemalan cultures.

It’s an ancient rite formed on the basis of the indigenous beliefs that mourning the dead is disrespectful. Instead, they should be kept alive in spirit and memory. According to tradition, souls of the dead visit their living relatives on a single day every year. And the kites are the visual guides they used to seek out their relatives.

The custom evolved over the centuries and people began attaching messages for the dead to the kite itself. Messages are attached to the tail of the kite and when the wind whips it around and the words touch the kite itself, the sender knows the spirit has received it,

Over more recent years, festival goers have used the rite to deliver messages concerning all kinds of social issues. These include women’s rights, climate change, violence and indigenous rights. Today, the Festival combines modern day themes and customs with Christianity and indigenous observances. These all culminate on All Saints Day, which is known as Todos Santos in Guatemala.

The Festival of the Giant Kites (more properly known as La Feria de Barriletes Gigantes) takes place in Sumpango and Santiago Sacatepéquez. And in normal years with no pandemic restrictions, it dominates these two Guatemalan towns. Visitors are amazed by the sheer number of kites of every design, colour and size soaring above the towns, the surrounding open fields and the burial places themselves.

Traditional Guatemalan kites are made from natural materials

And these are not average run of the mill kites. They are intricate and delicate, made out of tissue paper, bamboo and string. Sheer works of art, some reach the massive size of 65feet across (around 20 metres). Featuring elaborate designs, the kite makers change the designs of the kites every year.

The biggest of the kites remain settled on the ground after they have flown, forming a beautiful backdrop as the festivities continue. Traditional food, drink and music are enjoyed by festival goers throughout the day.

Many of the kites are traditional Guatemalan kites, which are eight sided and flown by large groups of friends and family members. It’s thought that these octagonal kites represent the Maya tradition of believing in the four directions of north, south, east and west. The other four sides represent the crown of the sun (corona). Traditional designs have fringed paper glued to four of the eight sides of the kite and as the wind rustles the paper it’s thought that the sound drives away evil spirits.

Kite making teams are called barrileteros. Usually these consist of young people who spend much of the year working on their designs and artwork. Keeping the kite’s design under wraps until the big day adds to the spectacle of them slowly drifting above the crowd on All Saints Day.

A spectacle worth seeing for visitors to Guatemala

The kites are made with Guatemalan traditional materials, including a glue made from lemon peel, water and yucca flour. Stalks of castilla (a similar plant to wheat) are woven to form the frame of the small kites. The bigger ones have frames made from bamboo as they need to be more robust. Hemp and wire are tied around the frames to form the required shape using a specific process of lunada del barrilete.

At the same time that the exuberant, colourful and celebratory spectacle of the kites, there are quieter remembrances around the country at cemeteries. In the same way as the Day of the Dead is marked in Mexico, in Guatemala families visit the graves of family and friends. They clean and tend the grave before draping it with beautiful wreaths and flowers.

Incense made from pine resin wafts through the air as families chat, eat together and share the occasion. Guatemala is steeped in colourful, unique and very old traditions that are fascinating to visitors. The Festival of the Giant Kites is absolutely worth visiting. Not only is it one of the most visually stunning, it’s also relatively easy to reach if you’re travelling to Guatemala.