International Living recently published my article about a unique Guatemalan horse race with drunken Mayan jockeys. Below is my original submission with many more than the one photo published with the article.
My childhood dream was to explore the world, treading in the footsteps of past explorers while discovering the wonders of its landscapes and people for myself.
After many long stints of traveling and returning to save for my next trip I qualified as an EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher and spent over five incredible years teaching in Thailand before hitting Latin American soil.
AWAI travel writing and photography workshops opened doors to an entirely new world and I’m now based in the beautiful colonial city of Antigua in Guatemala living my dream as a travel writer and photographer.
Last year I headed with a friend to the remote village of Todos Santos just over 8000 feet above sea level in the northern Guatemalan highlands.
We went to witness the famous annual festival with inebriated, traditionally clad locals racing horses on All Saints’ Day on November 1. All-male jockeys, hardy residents of Todos Santos, spend a sleepless night beforehand ritualistically drinking themselves into an alcohol-induced stupor.
The following morning, families dress riders in the unique traditional uniform worn every day by male villagers, tough red and white striped pants with thick blue and white striped shirts trimmed with embroidered collar and cuffs.
For the race, they wear a ceremonial red sash and their everyday straw hat brims with streaming feathers and multi-colored ribbons symbolizing the sacred quetzal bird.
Helped onto the back of a horse, rented especially for the day, these inebriated jockeys set off unsteadily in a muddle of flying legs and flailing arms, whooping and singing loudly, pounding point to point along a short dirt track in the cold mist and drizzle.
With no official start or finish, riders stop briefly at each end of the track to snatch another mouthful of booze before wildly dashing back in a tattered group, hooves throwing clods of dirt in the faces of onlookers.
Some tumble in the mud but are quickly dragged out of the path of oncoming steaming, rain-soaked steeds by helpers along the track. The chaos continues for seven hours, stopping only for lunch, participants joining and leaving (usually when they’re too drunk to stay on the horse) the event as they wish.
Spectators are mainly colorfully clad locals from Todos Santos and surrounding settlements with a handful of outsiders. Crowding against the wooden railings or scrambling up a steep grassy incline for a birds-eye view, neither cheering nor clapping, each village’s distinctive costume clashes against its neighbor.
Like no other horse race I’ve seen, Skach Koyl as it’s called in mam the local Mayan language, is more a rite of passage than a competition as there’s no winner. Its roots are vague but most agree it began around the time of the Spanish conquest when the Spaniards introduced horses to the region.
Mayan tradition expects village men to participate four times in a lifetime. The final year on the last mad dash along the track the jockey brandishes a live chicken triumphantly as he rides. Later that night he eats the entire bird alone to signify the end of his obligation.
The festival continues as families pay their respects to departed loved ones, praying and decorating tombs with gaudy garlands. The merry dance, beer in hand, in the grave choked hillside cemetery alongside marimba playing musicians.
The intrigue of new people and places, customs, foods and festivals not only quenches my lust for travel and adventure but provides an income too. Trips like these can pay for themselves with a little effort in the field to take photos and gather fodder for articles. But when you’re living your dream, doing what you love, you can hardly call it work!
Bags of labor, love and elbow grease went into the creation of the giant barriletes in Santiago Sacatepequez, Guatemala during the months leading up to and on All Saints Day or El Dia de Todos Los Santos on the first of November. Here are a few photos of the workers on the day.
Santiago Sacatepequez Cemetery
Carrying a folded barrilete to the cemetery.
Waiting for flight.
Boys with a barrilete line.
Man and machete.
Holding the lines and waiting.
Raising a giant barrilete.
Checking out the work.
Holding the lines. Close-up.
On a tomb top preparing to fly a barrilete.
More elbow grease.
Working together to raise a giant barrilete.
In Guatemala, All Saints Day or El Dia de Todos Los Santos on the first of November, is a festive day to visit, celebrate and honor the dead. People arrive early at cemeteries to clean family tombs then repaint and decorate them with flowers. They picnic by the graves, fly their handmade barriletes and in Santiago Sacatepequez, watch and cheer or join in the raising of the giants.
Santiago Sacatepequez Cemetery
People climb to the top of family tombs for a view of the cemetery and to fly their barriletes. This is the one day of the year when clambering over, sitting and standing on the graves and tombstones doesn’t offend.
Perched on a grave flying a barrilete.
A huge ball of string to fly a barrilete.
Families sitting on tombs eating ice cream with rows of newly dug graves behind them.
Flying barriletes from the tomb tops.
Trash amidst the trampled graves.
Ice cream seller.
Raising a giant barrilete among the graves.
Heavily armed police patrol the cemetery.
The first of November in Guatemala is El Dia de Todos Los Santos or All Saints Day and is the official festival of kites. They believe that the barriletes soar up to the spirits of deceased relatives and deliver messages from the living and that the sound of the wind blowing against the airborne kites keeps the evil spirits away allowing the deceased to rest in peace.
Santiago Sacatepequez is one of the places where it’s celebrated on a truly grand scale and thousands flood into the cemetery on this day to watch the exhibition unfold.
Giant barrilete bearing the name Santiago Sacatepequez.
Here, the barriletes are a super race of kites, like something from a fantasy land. They are brightly colored, oversized, circular giants of elaborate tissue paper mosaics on a bamboo framework, bound together with rope and wire and up to 20 meters across.
Rear view of the barriletes showing bamboo framework.
Groups compete to produce the most incredible works of art and judges assess them on size, color, creativity and originality. These jumbo kites usually depict religious, cultural, social, political or ecological themes.
Another with ecological theme.
Close-up of a barrilete with a folkloric theme based on Guatemalan legends. El Cadejo is a mythical dog that is said to protect drunkards and wanderers at night.
Barriletes are expensive to produce and the workmanship is painstaking and time-consuming, taking months to dream up and create.
A smaller barrilete.
Trying to resurrect a fallen giant using ropes and bamboo poles.
This one didn’t make it.
Raising another giant.
Close-up of bamboo framework.
Team working together to raise a jumbo barrilete using ropes.
Everyone running to avoid the falling barrilete. One crashed down on stone graves trapping people under it but everyone rushed to frantically raise it and help those beneath. Miraculously no-one was hurt.
Crashed and destroyed, dashing the hopes of the team.
Another being raised.
The top of a barrilete before it’s raised.
A team takes a break on the bamboo framework. Thousands of people swamp the cemetery, perching on family tombs to fly kites or get a good view of the spectacle. This is the one day of the year when people climb, sit or stand on graves without causing offense.
Working together. Most of the teams are made up of young men.
The triumphant and the fallen.
Trying to fly a smaller barrilete from the roof of a family tomb.
Looking through the wreckage at a family sitting on a grave.
Completely broken. Barrilete and team.
Only once a year, on El Día de Todos Los Santos or All Saints Day on first of November, Guatemalans prepare a traditional dish called fiambre. Originally, families took the favorite dishes of deceased relatives to the cemetery and ate them together with other families. Eventually they mixed all the ingredients of the various dishes together into one to create fiambre. Served chilled this psychedelic salad consists of a huge number of ingredients that vary greatly from family to family.
The recipe passes down through the generations and consists of a strange mix of different cold cuts and sausages, varied cheeses, hard-boiled egg, smoked fish, and an array of vegetables.
The contrasts of flavors and textures don’t agree with everyone’s taste buds but the beauty of it is that you can add or leave out any ingredient.