Guatemalan holidays are no laughing matter. Fun-loving chapines can be found celebrating something just about every week of the year. The following is a list of must-see celebrations and when they occur so that you can plan your trip to take part in the fun.
Semana Santa (Holy Week) – March/April
Holy Week in Guatemala may be the country’s largest party, especially in and around Antigua. One of the most interesting and beautiful traditions nation-wide is the creation of intricate alfombras, or carpets, out of natural materials. Sawdust is painted and laid on the streets in a variety of designs using cut out patterns. Fruits, vegetables, and flowers are thrown into the mix as well. Impressive parades, music, and fireworks are the rule during this weeklong celebration. Dates change every year, but Holy Week is always the week preceding Easter. In 2016 Semana Santa will be from March 20th to 28th.
Día de la Independencia (Independence Day) – September 15th
Guatemala celebrates its Independence Day on September 15th. On that date in 1821, Guatemala, in addition to the Central American countries of Chiapas, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica were freed from Spanish rule. The day is filled with parades, fireworks, plenty of liquor-swilling, and the lighting of the famous antorchas (torches). These torches are lit and carried between cities in honor of the horseback riders who rode throughout the isthmus announcing its freedom from Spain.
The antorcha tradition wasn’t actually started until 1959, when a lit torch was run from Guatemala City to Cartago, Costa Rica over the course of six days. Be careful when participating in the antorcha run, as the combination of running, fire, and flammable liquids has been known to cause serious burns. Be sure to listen to at least one rendition of the Guatemalan national anthem on Independence Day. One will be enough, as the song lasts over ten minutes. Another Independence Day tradition is the Dance of the Conquest, a ceremonial dance performed across the country. It is a reenactment of the battle when the Spanish, led by conquistador Pedro de Alvarado, defeated the Mayans in 1524.
Día de Todos Santos (All-Saints Day) – November 1st
The day after U.S. Halloween, Guatemalan All-Saints Day is a much more spiritual affair and doesn’t include any trick or treating. On November 1st families gather at the cemetery to remember deceased loved ones and rejuvenate their tombs with fresh paint, flowers, and fresh green pine needles. Kites are made from scratch and flown to symbolize the spirits or souls of the deceased flying upwards to heaven. The traditional dish on this day is known as fiambre, and while each family has its own unique recipe, it can contain more than 50 ingredients. One of the most famous celebrations of Día de los Santos occurs in the aptly named village of Todos Santos Cuchumatán in Huehuetenango. Here, an annual horse race pits drunken riders in traditional dress against each other in a booze-filled good time. The other most famous celebration of the day occurs in Sumpango, Sacatepéquez:
Festival de Barriletes Gigantes (Giant Kite Festival) – November 1st
Every year, on November 1st, el Día de Todos Santos (All-Saints Day), a festival is held in the town of Sumpango, Sacatepéquez. People from all over the Guatemala, in addition to countries around the world, visit to behold the spectacle that is the Festival de Barriletes Gigantes (Festival of Giant Kites). People gather in a field beside the cemetery to see the massive kites, ranging in diameter from 1 to 30 meters, made entirely from colored crepe paper, bamboo, and string. Barrileteros, or kite makers, spend months preparing for the festival, and receive no monetary compensation for their work. These groups are incredibly secretive, revealing each year’s design to no one outside their team. Often times only a select few team members are let in on the entire design – the rest simply follow orders.
The kites on display at this festival are incredible works of art. At the end of the afternoon, participants attempt to fly the smaller kites over a large field crammed with people. While the 30-meter monsters stay put, the bamboo-lined kites that take flight usually only stay airborne briefly. When they come back to earth, onlookers scamper to get out of the way. The sun setting behind the kites’ brilliant colors never fails to be an incredible sight.
Día del Garífuna (Garífuna Settlement Day) – November 26th
Garífuna Settlement Day is celebrated each year on or around November 26th. This holiday commemorates the arrival of the garífuna people to Guatemala, almost all of which reside in Lívingston (aka “La Buga”) or Puerto Barrios, Izabal. This party gets started early in the morning, when a reenactment of the first garífunas’ arrival to the country happens around sunrise. Boats land on either side of the island and are met by lively music, singing, and dancing throughout the streets. They then make their way to the local church and continue the celebration all night. If you’re looking to head to Livingston, there’s no better time than this to experience the vibrant, fascinating garífuna culture.
La Quema del Diablo (Burning of the Devil) – December 7th
Leading up to Christmas on December 7th is the Quema del Diablo (Burning of the Devil) ceremony. The purpose of this mini-celebration is to clear the way for the feast of Mary’s Immaculate Conception by getting rid of the devil and all the evil of the past year. The best devil-burning ceremonies occur in and around Antigua. In nearby Ciudad Vieja, for example, a three-story tall devil is constructed and then burned magnificently in the city square.
Nochebuena y Navidad (Christmas) – December 24th and 25th
In Guatemala, Christmas Eve is a much bigger celebration than Christmas, perhaps because locals have not lost sight of the holiday’s origins. Families typically prepare tamales, corn dough with meat and sauce wrapped and cooked inside special leaves. They then stay up until midnight to light an obscene quantity of firecrackers in honor of the birth of Jesus Christ. Christmas Day is a relaxed affair, and families spend the day sharing food and each other’s company. Gift giving is minimal, and Santa Claus rarely makes an appearance.
Año Nuevo (New Year’s) – December 31st and January 1st
New Years is one of the Guatemalan holidays that is most comparable to celebrations in the U.S. and Europe. The only difference is that restrictions on fireworks are universally ignored. Similar to Christmas Eve, at midnight on December 31st drunken locals set off a series of veritable mortars. For several hours the night sky glows with exploding cohetes (firecrackers) and bombas (literal translation – bombs). It’s an explosively good time for all involved.
Each municipality in Guatemala has a patron saint to which people pay homage once a year in a special celebration. Feria, which translates to a county fair, is a weeklong party filled with games, food, music, and booze, though there are often religious undertones and special services as well. The famous convite, when men and women dress up in elaborate rented costumes to drink and dance around town all day, is a site to see. Arguably the country’s most exciting feria is Xela’s, which coincides with Independence Day on September 15th. At any feria be sure to try an elote loco, a festival staple consisting of a corncob slathered in ketchup, mayonnaise, spicy sauce, and cheese – they’re much better than they sound.