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Posts tagged “traditions

Just Kids: Cucurucho Boys

Guatemalan catholic families initiate their kids into Semana Santa (Holy Week) at an early age.

Parents dress up their male children, some still babies, in the purple robes of the cucurucho, (the color purple symbolizing Christ’s suffering) and fathers carry them in their arms or lead them by the hand in the processions.

Some days young boys carry their own andas (floats), the main load taken by men, in mini child processions called procesiones infantiles while parents walk along beside them.

Following are some shots I took of the boy cucuruchos in Antigua.
















Holy Week in Antigua: Processions

Incense fragranced smog chokes the air while dozens of robed, head-dressed men known as cucuruchos, shoulder an anda (float) bearing a figure of Christ.

Processions ceremoniously leave churches and tortuously navigate their way step by step along the topsy-turvy cobble stoned streets between crumbling ruins and colonial houses, trampling in their path intricate carpets (alfombras) of garishly stained sawdust and flowers.

After each block, new recruits subtly weave their way into the procession relieving the tiring cucuruchos from their burden. Organized by a brotherhood or hermandad, locals pay the church to participate, considering it a great honor and a way of displaying devotion to their faith.

At the tail end musicians blow solemnly on brass horns accompanied by the pounding of giant drums as they shuffle over the mishmash of impressionistic color splashed cobbles.


Streets jostle with locals, expats and international visitors waiting patiently for a view of the passing procession then mingling with the trailing hawkers crying out their wares.

Finally, locals salvage broken stems of flowers before the advancing tren de limpieza (cleaning train) of bulldozers, trucks and an army of men wielding brooms and shovels who clear up the aftermath of trampled sawdust and trash.

2. Volcano Agua looming behind


Processions vary but each one includes an anda bearing Christ carried by purple-robed men although the hermandad wear white robes and everyone changes to somber black after the crucifixion. A smaller float with women dressed in black and white, bearing a statue of the Virgin Mary follows.

The revered Franciscan monk Saint Hermano Pedro, also known as the Saint Francis of the Americas, imported the Semana Santa (Holy Week) tradition to Antigua when he arrived from Spain about 1650. He reputedly made the earliest alfombra in Guatemala and led the first procession.

These are just a few of the images I took of the processions during this period. More will follow in my next post.

4. Early morning procession on Good Friday with romans on horseback







11. Smog fills the air in this nighttime procession



14. Another nighttime procession against a backdrop of Volcano Agua





19. Anda with the Virgin Mary carried by women





24. Cucuruchos carrying the anda with Christ are the first to step on the alfombras. Those in front walk around them.

Holy Week in Antigua: Velaciones

Velaciones or holy vigils adorn churches around Antigua, Guatemala and surrounding villages at least every Friday throughout Cuaresma (Lent) and about two days before processions during Semana Santa (Holy Week).

1. Velación with fruit and vegetable garden arranged around the blue dyed sawdust alfombra

A brotherhood, known as a hermandad, organizes their church’s velación, displaying their religious processional image near the altar against a giant biblical backdrop. At its feet lies a vibrant handmade alfombra (carpet) of sawdust, hemmed by a huerto (garden), an eye-catching display of flowers, fruit, vegetables, candles and specially shaped loaves of bread, brought to the church as offerings the day before.

2. Velación with natural colored sawdust alfombra decorated with fruit, flowers and candles

3. Colorful sawdust alfombra surrounded with fruit and flowers

4. Alfombra dyed the traditional mauve of Semana Santa surrounded by a huge array of vegetables

5. Close up of the alfombra with an image of Jesus bearing the cross

6. A brightly colored alfombra edged with displays of flowers, fruit and vegetables. Some processional images sit below the backdrop

7. Another colorful velación

8. One of the processional images, a figure of Mary

9. Close up of a velación huerto of fruit, vegetables and specially made bread

10. Some velaciones have caged birds in the garden

11. The corozo, a giant seed pod, grows on a species of palm tree in Guatemala. It's a traditional adornment for alfombras during Semana Santa

12. Close up of the corozo seed pod

Sacred music plays while the faithful or the inquisitive flood into the church to pray and admire these temporary works of religious art. A festival atmosphere fills the evening air outside as hordes of visitors hang around in groups gossiping and jostling for the best bites around smoky grills and seasonal food and drink stands.

13. The faithful praying and admiring the velación at the front of the church

14. Smoky grills awaiting the hungry

15. Firing up the comal to cook tortillas

Holy Week in Antigua: Alfombras

A religious fervor of Holy Vigils (velaciones), masses (misas) and processions (procesiones) sweeps over the Catholic community throughout Lent or Cuaresma from Ash Wednesday (miércoles de Ceniza), forty days before Palm Sunday.

Holy Week, or Semana Santa in Spanish, is the last week of Lent starting on Palm Sunday and ending the day before Easter Sunday. During this time, in Antigua, Guatemala, the passion and solemnity intensifies among the faithful with almost daily processions that bring the normal daily life of the city to a standstill.

Here, part of the tradition involves the laborious laying of ceremonial carpets or alfombras in the path of processions. The devout dedicate hours to create intricate alfombras, patiently sifting dyed sawdust through wooden and cardboard templates, slowly covering the grey cobblestones with multi-colored, elaborate patterns.

Others design simpler carpets of pine needles, seasonal flowers and fruits, the aroma mingling with incense and saturating the air. Hours to make yet in minutes solemn processions slowly trample these works of art to obliteration.

My third Semana Santa in Antigua didn’t disappoint. Every day, my camera in hand, I pounded the uneven streets capturing moments of the passion. This post shows a tiny reflection of the most elaborate alfombras over those three years.

1. Outside La Merced church on Palm Sunday 2007

2. Early morning in front of Ermita Santa Lucía

3. Crowds checking out the alfombra-laden streets before a procession wipes them out

4. The results of a dedicated all-night team effort

5. All-night teamwork also produced this elaborate alfombra

6. And another

7. In front of La Merced church on Palm Sunday 2011

My next few posts will cover more of Semana Santa.

Mongolian Contortionists: Extreme Flexibility

The art of contortion is a path taken by many young girls in Mongolia, offering a global lifestyle and an income to help support their families back home. A tough and disciplined life, training rigorously every day from an early age to achieve extreme flexibility and balance, contortionists perform solo, duo or in group acts.

I have been very fortunate to have a close up view of the incredible world of contortion artists through my talented sister-in-law.

Anna started training as a contortionist when she was seven years old. She traveled around the world with the Mongolian State Circus then worked for Cirque du Soleil’s Las Vegas productions “O” and “Zumanity”. In the latter show, she was part of a “Water Bowl Contortion” act performing inside a water-filled giant glass bowl and on its rim.

1. Anna hanging out in Trafalgar Square, London.

Anna met my brother Mike in Cirque du Soleil’s “O” show where he was performing as a fire artist. Since becoming freelancers they’ve both toiled to create a nine-girl contortion team called “The Blue Sky Girls“, named after the revered Mongolian deity Khokh Tenger translating to ¨Blue Sky¨.

Sourcing the best young talent from Mongolia, together they coach, create fresh, original acts and negotiate international contracts for the girls to perform worldwide.

In 2010, the team won the coveted Bronze Clown trophy (there are Gold, Silver and Bronze “Clowns”) and a special prize, the Prix Du Kobsov Circus, at the annual International Monte-Carlo Circus Festival (Festival International du Cirque de Monte-Carlo) in Monaco.

The Academy Awards of the circus world and the most prestigious circus festival on the planet, it’s one of the glitziest events in Europe, attended by international celebrities and royalty. A Monte-Carlo “Clown” is the dream prize among circus performers and to them is like winning an Oscar!

The team also won a bronze cup and special prize at the 2010 Wuhan International Acrobatic Art Festival of China then landed a winter contract in the captivating “Salto Natale” show in Switzerland.

Two of the contortion artists from “The Blue Sky Girls“, Gerlee and Tsetse, performed at Anna and Mike’s wedding reception in Mongolia’s capital city Ulaanbaatar. Following are some of those moments captured.

Check out Anna’s performance photos and videos on her website.









Music From the Steppe: Horse-head Fiddle and Throat Singing

Horse-head fiddle or morin khuur

Varied local legends tell of a man’s love for his dead horse breathing life into Mongolia’s national musical instrument, the morin khuur or horse-head fiddle. Now its distinctive violin-like sounds permeate Mongolian culture and resonate throughout the country.

Historically a nomadic nation, the horse still plays a beloved and integral role in life on the steppe and many Mongolian songs and poems extol its virtues. (See Nadaam Festival – Horse Racing on the Steppe.)

The scroll of this prized, traditional instrument is carved into the shape of a horse’s head while the bow and two strings are made from horsetail hair.

1. A morin khuur alongside a yatga.

More than a musical instrument to the nomads, the morin khuur remains an intrinsic part of everyday life and rituals, accompanying songs, dances, ceremonies, folkloric tales and daily tasks including the taming of animals.

“Weeping Camel” is an insightful documentary into the nomadic world, showing Mongolian herders playing the morin khuur whilst serenading a mother camel to entice her back to her rejected foal.

2. Musician playing the morin khuur during the traditional wedding ceremony. Part of the rite involves downing shots of vodka and the empty cups litter the table in front of him.

Last year my brother Mike married his bride Anna in her motherland, Mongolia and during the traditional part of the wedding ceremony, a musician played the morin khuur. (See Getting Hitched in Mongolia – Local Flavor.)

During the wedding reception, Anna’s cousin Khongor Khuurch gave an extraordinary performance of throat singing known as khoomei while playing the morin khuur. A famous musician in Mongolia, his music videos air on national TV channels. (See also here.)

3. Khongor Khuurch playing the morin khuur and throat singing during the wedding reception.

4. Close up of Khongor playing the morin khuur showing the horse head shaped scroll.

5. Khongor happy to pose for a photo.

After Khongor finished performing, his father, Anna’s uncle Toroo, presented an honored Mike and Anna with the morin khuur as a very special and prestigious wedding gift.

Sacred in every Mongolian home, the people believe a ger with a morin khuur is complete whereas one without is like a widow. A ger is a traditional Mongolian felt, tent-like dwelling that is home to a huge part of the nation’s population both in the countryside and the city.

6. Anna’s uncle Toroo, Khongor’s father, presenting Mike and Anna with the morin khuur.

Throat singing or khoomei

Mongolia is the most renowned country for khoomei (can be spelt differently), the ancient and otherworldly art of throat singing, although it is an esteemed musical tradition in neighboring areas too.

While in Kharkhorin, now a ramshackle town but once the ancient capital of the Mongol empire, an old musician called B. Baasandorj visited our ger camp bringing with him an array of traditional instruments.

7. B. Baasandorj proudly showing off his book.

He indulged us to a mellow evening of melodious playing and khoomei, a welcome treat after spending two weeks of long days on the road out on the Mongolian steppe, or more accurately on bumpy tracks and completely off-road.

8. B. Baasandorj playing the morin khuur and throat singing.

To hear the unique sounds of khoomei and learn more check out the following:

  • video of a Mongolian musician’s explanation and performance of morin khuur and khoomei.
  • short video demonstrating and explaining the origins of the different khoomei tones.
  • the documentary “Genghis Blues”.

9. A close up of the morin khuur.

10. A close up showing the carved horse head scroll of the morin khuur.

Zither or yatga

Another traditional Mongolian instrument is the yatga, a kind of zither with a wooden body and strings played by finger plucking.

11. B. Baasandorj playing the yatga and throat singing.

12. Playing the yatga.

Check out B. Baasandorj playing the yatga and singing with some khoomei here.

13. A yatga and a morin khuur.

Flute or limbe

The Mongolian flute, called the limbe, was traditionally made from bamboo and is a very popular folk musical instrument. It produces a delicate sound in stark contrast to the gruff tones of throat singing and flautists use a form of circular breathing to play it.

14. B. Baasandorj playing a limbe.

Folkloric Dancers – Bull Masks and Angel Wings

Golden winged angels and masked bulls and demons performing traditional folkloric dances, their colonial roots touched by a Guatemalan twist, is one of the various festivities that ignite the main tourist drag in the city of Antigua, Guatemala, on 31st of December.

A pruned version of the dances held in Ciudad Vieja the day after the Día de la Virgen de La Concepción, but enough to shed some light on a tiny part of local culture.

For a taster here are a few photos, but for a much wider view see my post Día de la Virgen de La Concepción – Pyrotechnics and Folkloric Dances.

1. Folkloric dancing with a hazy view of Vólcan de Agua or Water Volcano looming in the background.











Baile de Gigantes – Dancing Giants

Troupes of giant dolls or gigantes dancing in the streets to the sound of marimba during pueblo pageants, are a rare sight for the foreigner and a popular Guatemalan tradition.

Inside these towering jumbo manikins, tucked away under the folds of cloth with tiny feet poking from below, a mortal stomps and sways and twirls its skirts to the rhythm of the music.

Every so often the melody stops and the figures stand motionless allowing puppeteers to catch their breath and cool down in the harsh sunlight, and onlookers to get close and snap photos.

On the 31st of December in the 5a Avenida Norte, the street with the landmark arch in Antigua, against the colonial backdrop of crumbling ruins and color splashed walls of soft hued reds, blues and yellows, gigantes welcome in the New Year festivities.

1. The famous arch in the 5a Avenida Norte ready to say adios to 2010 and welcome in 2011.

2. Schedule of festivities for New Year's Eve.

3. Dancing gigantes with marimba band playing in the background.


5. Under the arch.

6. Taking a breather.




10. Indigenous women selling locally made scarves to tourists watching the gigantes.

11. One of the taller gigantes.

12. Agua (Water) Volcano, wreathed in clouds, peering through Antigua's landmark arch.

13. A tourist posing for a photo with one of the smaller gigantes.




17. Clambering back under a gigante after a brief break.





22. Indigenous children sellers walking past a gigante.




26. Gigantes taking a break.



29. Dancing feet under a gigante.




33. Photo time. Showing the scale of some of the taller gigantes.


35. Sombrero wearing gentleman, typical of Guatemalan pueblos, watching the spectacle.

36. Close up of a gigante's colorful dress.


Guatemala’s Musical Darling – Marimba

Following is an article, with added photos, that I wrote for V!VA Travel Guides, published on their website and in their print guidebook, about Guatemala’s musical darling; the marimba.

The origin of the marimba, Guatemala’s national instrument, is unknown. Some maintain it came from Indonesia, others from the Amazon, yet it’s more widely believed that slaves brought it over from Africa in the 16th century; after all, a Zulu myth tells of a goddess named Marimba creating a musical instrument of wooden palings and hanging gourds.

The background sound track of many a festival, both in rural areas and in the city, the marimba is an integral, beloved and authentic part of Guatemalan culture with no ethnic boundaries. A fiesta without marimba would be considered no fiesta at all, and the sound of its lively melodies echoing through the streets is a sure sign that something is being celebrated.

A poem about the marimba is recited during the commemoration of independence and gigantes, the giant figures that are such an important part of pueblo pageants, are accompanied only by the sound of its music. There are also a number of traditional dances that go along with various marimba rhythms.

Similar to a wooden xylophone, this beautiful percussion instrument is played by differing numbers of musicians depending on its size. The keys, usually made of rosewood, are arranged like a piano and are tapped with mallets, creating its distinctive musical tones. There is a Guatemalan saying about large families having una marimba de hijos, likening the horde of children to the abundance of keys on the instrument.

It’s said that the marimba evolved from simple wooden bars placed over a hole in the ground, which the indigenous people of Guatemala copied and refined to create their own style. The first documented account of the existence of marimba is from a performance in front of the cathedral in Antigua in 1680, and it can still be heard every year on July 25th, Antigua’s patron saint day. Modern marimba bands dress formally and consist of a smaller marimba for three players, a larger one for four, a drum kit or other percussion, and a string bass.

JADES, S.A. recently made the first marimbas with jade keys. They were inspired by the Chinese who have used the semi-precious stone for thousands of years to make musical instruments, due to its special acoustic properties. Now three various sized marimbas of jade, each producing a different sound, are on display in their museum in Antigua.

To get a taste of this diverse culture, head for the 5a. Avenida Norte on a Sunday. A father and his family including young children, all dressed in typical indigenous attire, perform together in the street. It’s also played in La Fonda de la Calle Real and sometimes in Parque Central at weekends and festivals.

To feel the heartbeat of Guatemala keep your ears pricked for the pulse of marimba wherever you go. No visit here is complete without hearing the harmonies of the instrument that identifies completely with Guatemala.

New Year’s Eve – Indigenous Street Jam

All day on 31st of December the main tourist drag in the city of Antigua, Guatemala, the street with the landmark arch, buzzes with festivities to welcome in the New Year.

Amongst them, an indigenous family band of father and children, called Grupo Maya Kaqchikel, jams on marimba, drums and a combo of instruments made from seashells, vegetable gourds and turtle shells while the youngest son dances. They are also part of the regular Sunday scene in the same street.

1. Father and son playing marimba.


2. Youngest son dances in front of them.


3. And he doesn't look too happy about it.


4. Tourists and locals watch.


5. Instruments from turtle shells and seashells.

Pastores Convite – Clowns, Cowboys and Cross-Dressers

At a typical convite police divert traffic while costumed participants – mainly men and some heavily made up and dressed as women – dance in a tight cluster in the street to the sound of merengue and Mexican banda music booming from the back of a truck and encircled by a mass of onlookers.

After about three songs (from ten to fifteen minutes) the music stops, the truck moves on a bit further, everyone follows on foot then waits while a guy shins up a ladder to hook up the speakers to an electricity pylon along the roadside. Once connected, the music blares out and the dancing resumes. This continues all afternoon until early evening.

In the province of Sacatepequez in Guatemala, the season for convites starts with an impressive show on the 7th of December in Ciudad Vieja, the day before the Día de la Virgen de La Concepción. It then continues through until the end of January or beginning of February, each Saturday in a different town.

Participants pay a small fee to enter and at the end judges award the best costumes with cash prizes for first, second and third places. It is a colorful and noisy family outing where the whole town turns up to watch or take part in the spectacle.

I took the following photos on the 8th of January in the small town of Pastores a few kilometers outside Antigua.





















Miguel, a willing model, borrowed a belly dancing outfit for the day and a friend applied his makeup for him. His partner was Rafa his nephew.








Christmas Traditions – Nacimientos

A tradition brought over to Guatemala by the Spanish Hermano Pedro is the nacimiento or nativity scene. El Día de la Virgen de La Concepción, on the 8th of December, is officially the beginning of the Christmas season and nacimientos start appearing in churches, homes, offices, restaurants, hotels and even in the streets.

Guatemalans take great pride in their nacimientos and many of them are brilliant works of art using vividly tinted sawdust (aserrín), pine needles, chamomile fruits (manzanillas) and incense to create color and aroma.

The following photos of nacimientos were all taken in the town of Antigua.

La Merced church

Baby Jesus is missing until midnight on 24th December.

It is customary for the manger to remain empty until the figure of baby Jesus appears at midnight on the 24th accompanied by prayers and carols.

Close up of empty-handed Mary.


Angels at the altar.


Poinsettia (pascua) is the typical festive flower found everywhere here at Christmas.


The Cathedral

Crowned Jesus, Mary and Joseph.


Private homes

A simple nacimiento next to the Christmas tree.


Hermano Pedro looks down on a nacimiento.


Close up of the animals.


An elaborate private nacimiento.


One of the three wise men.


Close up inexplicably showing two figures of baby Jesus.


Another simple nacimiento lit up at night. The hats are a Guatemalan touch.

Nativity scenes are a worldwide custom but here it is not uncommon to see a touch of local flavor in the form of traditionally dressed Mayan figures and typical Guatemalan volcanic landscapes.

Christmas Spirit – Tamales and Ponche

At midnight on the 24th of December Guatemalans typically munch on tamales washed down with steaming homemade fruit punch or ponche.

Cooking tamales the traditional way on an open fire.


Serving ponche at a street stall.


Tamal colorado

The tamal colorado is one of the most common tamales in Guatemala and although usually sold only on Saturdays it is also the traditional dish for Christmas Eve.

Made from a cooked maize dough or masa with a tomato-based sauce and a piece of pork, chicken or turkey inside, it is served wrapped up in banana leaves.

Throughout the year they are eaten with pan francés (French bread rolls) and a cup of coffee or hot chocolate. However on this day it is more common to accompany them with festive ponche.

The first few times I tried tamales colorados they didn´t grab my attention. It wasn’t until I sampled a number of them that I found some I liked, so it is worth trying a few from different places as the quality can vary greatly.



A variation of the tamal is the pache which is made with a potato dough instead of maize. This year on Christmas Eve I ate tamales colorados in two homes and a pache in a third.



Ponche is a traditional hot fruit punch drunk at home and sold at food stalls and in restaurants all through the Christmas season and at New Year in Guatemala.

Fresh and dried fruits, usually with a variant of pineapple, oranges, apples, plums, papaya, plantain, raisins and prunes, are placed in boiling water with sugar and cinnamon then simmered.

On Christmas Eve, friends offered me ponche in the four different homes I visited and each one was delicious but very different in flavor. One had coconut added and another had chamomile fruit (manzanillas).



Peeling chamomile fruit (manzanillas) for ponche.

Christmas Market – Pine Needles, Sawdust and Tinsel

During the festive season in Antigua, Guatemala, tucked away behind the Mercado de Artesanías is a daily Christmas market, brimming with traditional decorations both natural and man-made.

On entering, a flood of color assaults the eyes from garishly stained sawdust, glistening tinsel, sparkling baubles and flashing decorative lights. Hawkers call out and seasonal music tickles the ears as the scent of flowers, chamomile and pine needles saturate the air.

It’s definitely worth an idle browse for an insight into some of Guatemala’s Christmas traditions and to feel the season’s spirit far away from home.


Pine needles and palm fronds

Locals strew pine needles, palm fronds, mosses and other foliage on the floor, string it up as decorations or use it to adorn the customary nativity scenes or nacimientos exhibited in churches and many homes, restaurants and hotels at this time of year.

Wicker baskets and plastic sheets overflow in the market with freshly cut green, yellowish-green and grey growth that stall-holders sell by the bag or in bundles already strung for hanging.







Chamomile strings

Chamomile or manzanillas are small, round, yellow (ripening to red) fruits that hawkers sell strung on long threads to create naturally scented Christmas adornments for the house. They are also tasty and are one of the ingredients in the hot seasonal fruit punch or ponche.






Tinsel, lights and baubles




Lambs, reindeer and nativity figures

Stalls display a riot of different sized human, animal and celestial figures made from an array of materials, including twigs (the reindeer), dried corn husks (the lambs) and plastic, for the popular nativity scenes or nacimientos and for general decoration.









Seasonal flowers abound in varying shades of red adding a festive hue to markets at Christmas time.




Stained sawdust and pebbles

Gaudy color splashes the market from brightly stained sawdust (aserrín) and little white pebbles sold by the bag to decorate nativity scenes. Guatemalans take the creation of nacimientos very seriously and are very imaginative in their personal depiction of them.








Selling desserts outside the market



Leaving the market

Colorful camionetas or chicken buses noisily roar past carrying passengers to and from the market.

Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe – Virgins, Kids and Indigenous Costumes

Every 12th of December in Guatemala on the Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe children throughout the country dress up in colorful, traditional indigenous costumes and carry an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe in local processions. Usually marimba and hordes of traditional food stalls go with the festivities.

Originating in Mexico after the Spanish conquest, when the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to an indigenous peasant, the custom continues throughout the Americas.

In Antigua the celebrations take place in front of the beautiful baroque church of La Merced. Rustic mini-scenes backed by painted images of the Virgin are set up in front of the church and parents pose their children for photographers. Tiny replicas of adults, the boys have mustaches painted on their faces and the girls little baskets tied to their heads. Each scene has a variety of typical Guatemalan everyday items for the children to use as props including miniature marimba, tortillas on a comal, model horses and a strange collection of live chickens and toy tigers.


La Merced church on the Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe.




Colorful images of the Virgin.















Chickens, tigers and children live together in harmony.



The decorated façade of La Merced church.



The Virgin of Guadalupe inside the church.



Close up of the Virgin of Guadalupe.



Another image of the Virgin inside the church.



Musicians playing outside the church entrance.



Marimba musicians outside the church shrouded in smoke from cooking food.


Children dressed up in traditional indigenous costumes.











A painted mustache smile.



Little girl with a tiny basket on her head.





Playing a miniature marimba.




Not everyone posed happily.




Selling zebra and butterfly shaped balloons.











































Día de la Virgen de La Concepción – Pyrotechnics and Folkloric Dances

Smoke and deafening explosions filled the air for maybe an hour as men ran through a minefield of granadas (translated to grenades) lighting the fireworks and firecrackers tied to them and bombas blasted noisily into the air from inside a heavy, metal tube placed vertically on the ground. Spectators clamped their hands to their ears, flinched, cowered and emitted screams and cheers as rogue fireworks shot off in random directions.

Every 7th of December a parade or convite slowly makes its way through the streets of the former capital Ciudad Vieja just outside Antigua in Guatemala. The following day they celebrate the town’s virgin patron’s day, Día de la Virgen de La Concepción, and after mass in the cathedral everyone crowds into the plaza outside for the noisy display of granadas.

Nowadays, Guatemalans celebrate all Catholic festivals with fireworks, firecrackers and bombas and due to a myriad of religious festivals throughout the year, it’s a rare day when there’s silence in the streets.

On this day, when the sounds subside and the smoke clears but with ringing ears and the sharp scent of gunpowder still in the nostrils, colorful folkloric dances begin. These mainly originated in the Iberian Peninsula and were probably brought over to Guatemala during colonial times picking up their own flavor in local towns and are a mix of theatrical dances and presentations.

The Dance of the 24 Devils, the Dance of the Seven Vices and Seven Virtues and the Dance of the Moors and Christians are three of the most popular.

A firework and firecracker laden granada.



Close up of a granada showing attached fireworks and firecrackers wrapped in paper.



Another close up of a granada and attached fireworks.



Field of granadas.



A colorful granada.



More granadas ready for lighting.



Exploding granadas.





Fireworks shooting through the air from the granadas.



Hiding from the fireworks behind an ice cream cart.



Decorated cathedral façade and bags of cotton candy.



Carrying a heavily laden granada.



Ice cream carts lined up outside the cathedral waiting for customers.



An indigenous woman's colorful headdress called a tzute.



Sheltering behind an ice cream cart and plugging ears against the deafening explosions.



A rogue firework shooting off from a granada.





A smoke-filled plaza.





More smoke and more rogue fireworks.



Running away after lighting the granadas.





An indian's beautiful feathered headdress.



Rear view of the same headdress showing feathers and animal tail.



Front view of the same headdress with animal skull and a mask.



Full view of feathered headdresses from behind.



The Spaniards.





The indians.















Indians dancing.

















The quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala, adorns his headdress.



The Spaniards dancing.






Female figures in the Dance of the Seven Vices and Seven Virtues.



Dance of the Seven Vices and Seven Virtues.






Rear view of the devil's hair.



The monkey and a devil in the Dance of the 24 Devils.







The monkey dancing.



More musicians.



Playing the marimba, a traditional instrument in Guatemala.






Death in the Dance of the 24 Devils.









Close up of Death.

Ciudad Vieja – Convite

Every year on the 7th of December a parade of floats makes its way through the streets of the former capital of Guatemala, Ciudad Vieja just outside Antigua. It’s customary to hold a convite the day before a procession and this one ushers in el Día de la Virgen de La Concepción.

There was a strange and colorful mix of religious and cultural themes including angels, indians, Spaniards, cowboys, devils, men dressed up as women and cartoon characters. It was a truly Guatemalan experience.

No festival in Guatemala is complete without the sound of marimba.


Another band member.


A float waiting for the parade to begin.


A hungry dwarf.




An angel.


Another angel.


Little angels sitting on the float.


And another angel.


The pirates are coming.


And here they are.


A bull.




A cowboy handing out flyers for the next days folk dance schedule.


A Spaniard’s horse.


A Spaniard and his horse.


A cowboy on horseback.




An indian wearing a feathered headdress.




A friendly indian going the right way.


A bunch of cowboys.


The bull in action.


Mary and some angels.


A peasant with his bottle of Guatemalan rum.


Who is this?


Reindeer and a Christmas theme.


Not sure who this is.


Nor him.


A cowboy.


All together handing out flyers.


The musician.


More flyers.


The devil.


Looking good.


And another beauty with her drunken beau and his bottle of Gallo beer.


Colorful dancers.




Lovely couple.




Still dancing.


What a happy face.


Really going for it.


The first of the Abuelitas Parranderas or Partying Grandmothers.


Looking good.


So cool.


Two more beauties.


Lovely dresses.


Looking mean.


Lost someone?


Waiting in line.


They go in two by two.


Gorgeous hat.


The partying begins.


Really going for it. These women were awesome dancers.


Showing the footwork.


That was hard work. So elegant.


And who are these?

Quema del Diablo – Burning of the Devil

Perched on his bicycle with rum bottle for fuel, the devil glared down on those leaving Antigua for Guatemala City, several weeks before being set ablaze.

La Quema del Diablo, or the Burning of the Devil, is an annual tradition on the 7th of December in many Guatemalan towns, its origins dating back to colonial times.

A “will”, full of wit and innuendo at local politicians, is read out to hundreds of spectators followed by the torching of the devil at 6 p.m. He goes up in flames and smoke along with all the negativity of the year, lighting the way for the Christmas celebrations and a positive start to the New Year.

A crescendo of firecrackers deafen and threaten the crowds before the bomberos put out the glowing embers around the bicycle skeleton and everyone wanders away in festive spirit.







Devil with empty rum bottle.


Preparing for the torching.


Going up in Flames






Los Bomberos







Nadaam Festival – Horse Racing on the Steppe

Horse racing was the Three Manly Games event of the Nadaam competition that I had most looked forward to since arriving in Mongolia and it proved to be the most raw and authentic.

It took place on the steppe a few kilometers out of the capital Ulaanbaatar and to get there two uncles of my newly wed sister-in-law Anna drove us in 4WDs. The roads were so congested, as this was a national holiday and such a popular event, that we cut across country which was an adventure in itself.

A muddle of unmarked dirt tracks crisscross this barren, open landscape, splitting off in various directions and enough to confuse the most skilled orienteer. We weren’t the only ones out there. Lines of cars streamed along behind each other but everyone seemed to know where they were headed.

We were tossed around in the back seat over ruts and potholes until we almost reached a traffic choked, paved road where police forced us to turn back. Then it was mayhem for a while as all the cars tried to maneuver out of a tight dead-end while still more arrived.

We cut back across the steppe partly on dirt tracks and the rest of the time off-road. Finally we reached our journey’s end, the race finish line, which was a flurry of activity with droves of people walking or riding around on horseback, many in traditional Mongolian costumes. There was an excited buzz in the air as they waited for the race finale.

In Mongolia, horses far outnumber the human population and, despite their small size, are horses not ponies. Mongolians are so deeply proud of them that a traditional gift to a three-year old male child is a horse. They are extremely tough, surviving out on the steppe during the harsh winters and are an essential part of daily life. Nomads use them to herd their huge flocks, sometimes they eat the meat and they use the mare’s milk to drink or ferment it to make airag, the national alcoholic beverage. The best they train to race and winners are highly prized.

Everyone lounging around on horseback waiting for the race to come in.

This kind man let me sit on his Russian horse which is bigger than the Mongolian. It was the first time I sat on a horse in Mongolia but not the last.

Exquisite saddle on the Russian horse.

Nadaam horse races are long distance, cross-country events held on the open steppe with no set track or course, ranging usually from an exhausting 15-30 kilometers long depending on the age class of the horse. Up to 1000 horses compete from all over Mongolia.

Jockeys are from 5-13 years old as the main purpose of the race is to test the speed and endurance of the horse and not the rider’s skill.

Before the race starts spectators sing traditional songs and jockeys sing a special song called a gingo. As the winning horse crosses the finish line, everyone dashes to touch its lucky sweat and they sing to the last horse in the two-year old class wishing him luck. Prizes are awarded to both horses and jockeys.

The race coming in fast across the steppe.

Everyone cheering and standing up on their horses to get a good view.

Standing up on their horses to get a view of the race.

Unusual attire for riding but here there was a mix of everything.

Closing in fast almost at the end of the race.

A view of the race trailing across the vast steppe.

Horseman wearing a brightly colored deel, the national costume. This robe-like garment is daily wear for many Mongolians. Here there was a real mix of traditional Mongolian and western style clothing.

Selling Mongolian flags.

Climbing for a better view.

Everyone gets around on horseback.

Selling drinks out of a shopping cart.

Taking a break.

Watching the screen on horseback.

Gers in the background.

Hanging out.

The two uncles waiting for lunch.

Mongolian flag. The yellow symbol on the left is the national emblem or the Soyombo seen everywhere. It has representations of fire, sun, moon, earth, water and the Taijitu or Yin-Yang symbol.

Nadaam poster showing the Three Manly Games of archery, wrestling and horse racing.

Food stalls.

Stopping by at the store.

Billiards on the steppe.

Also check out my blog post Nadaam Festival: Mongolian Wrestling.

Nadaam Festival – Mongolian Wrestling

When in Mongolia someone told me an old tale about a woman who disguised as a man, competed in the wrestling competitions, thrashed all the male competitors and became the champion, disgracing them all. Since then the tight vest or Zodog purposefully exposes the chest avoiding another impostor repeating this shameful event.

Traditional Mongolian wrestling competitions are all male and are full of ancient rituals. There are no separate weight classes and no time limits and the wrestler whose knee or elbow touches the ground loses the match.

After the opening ceremony for Nadaam the wrestling contests began.

National Sports Stadium, Ulaanbaatar

Wrestlers psyching themselves up while waiting to compete.

Before and after each match the wrestlers perform the Eagle Dance or Devekh, a ritual symbolizing power and invincibility.

Several fights occur at the same time.

Judges and assistants watch the competitors.

Also check out my blog post on Nadaam horse racing on the steppe.

Nadaam Festival – Opening Ceremony

Nadaam or the “Three Manly Games” is the most important festival of the year in Mongolia and is held throughout the country during the national holiday from 11-13 July. Its roots lie in Mongolian warrior traditions and includes competitions in wrestling, horse racing and archery.

The National Sports Stadium in the capital Ulaanbaatar holds the biggest celebrations and opens with an extravagant ceremony of horsemen, athletes, musicians, dancers and the military. Then the contests begin.

My brother Mike planned his wedding in Mongolia to coincide with Nadaam, giving guests visiting from other countries the chance to see this unique festival too.

National Sports Stadium, Ulaanbaatar

Officials in the stadium dressed in the national costume. This robe-like garment called a deel is daily wear for many people in the city and out on the steppe.

Old woman in national costume arrived before the crowds.

Waiting archers.

Beautiful costumes everywhere.

Horsemen displays.

Colorful deels.

The President of Mongolia, Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, gave a speech during the ceremony which broadcasted to everyone on the big screen.

Spectators sheltering from the harsh sun under umbrellas.

Archers gallop on horseback.

Archery display. Both men and women compete in Mongolian archery and wear traditional costumes.


A multitude of film crew and photographers record the event.

Horsemen show their skill galloping into the stadium in a cloud of dust.

Military display.

Synchronized military display.

Parachutists landed in the stadium closely missing dancers. It was mayhem.

Colorful parade.

More parades.

A full stadium.

More horsemen.

Horseman carrying the Mongolian flag. The yellow symbol on the left is the national emblem or the Soyombo seen everywhere. It has representations of fire, sun, moon, earth, water and the Taijitu or Yin-Yang symbol.

Horses galore.

Check out my article Mongolia’s Three Manly Games in International Living Magazine and my other Nadaam festival blog posts Horse Racing on the Steppe and Mongolian Wrestling.

Giant Kite Festival – Labor, Love and Elbow Grease

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.

Also, check out my posts Giant Kite Festival – Soaring with the Spirits and Giant Kite Festival – Life Amidst the Graves.

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.

Check out my article Guatemala’s Giant Kite Festival in International Living Magazine and my other kite festival blog posts Soaring with the Spirits and Life Amidst the Graves.

Giant Kite Festival – Life Amidst the Graves

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.

Also, check out my posts Giant Kite Festival – Soaring with the Spirits and Giant Kite Festival – Labor, Love and Elbow Grease.

Santiago Sacatepequez Cemetery