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Guatemalan Culture: The Day of the Dead

by Martha Hales

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From early morning on November 1st, the cemeteries of Santiago Sacatepéquez and Sumpango in Guatemala are hives of activity. Families are busy cleaning and tidying the graves of their departed loved ones and setting up areas for the annual ‘Day of the Dead’ grave-side picnic. A testament to the sheer variety and vibrancy of Guatemalan culture, it’s an unforgettable experience. While it may sound a bit macabre, the atmosphere is buoyant yet respectful. Everybody takes advantage of this opportunity to remember those that have passed away in a positive, uplifting way.

Decorated Graves for the Day of the Dead festival

Meanwhile, the young men of the community have been working hard to finish off the festival’s centrepiece: intricate, handmade kites. The fruit of forty days’ labour, the Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) marks their first flight.

Flying kites on the first day of Dia de los Muertos

El Día de los Muertos is celebrated throughout Latin America and indeed the Catholic world. The celebrations are as exciting and diverse as the various countries that host them, and one of the most spectacular is held annually in Guatemala. If you are in the country at that time it is a fantastic opportunity to witness ancient Mayan rituals blended with Catholic traditions. Festivities culminate in a colourful and unforgettable spectacle: the Festival de Barriletes Gigantes or Giant Kite Festival.

Giant kite in the Festival de Barriletes

Kites of all shapes and sizes are launched into the air as a signpost to guide the spirits of the dead back to their loved ones. The Día de los Muertos is an occasion when Mayan beliefs dictate that the worlds of the living and the dead merge. Therefore, it is an auspicious time to send messages to dearly departed family and friends, tied to the tails of the kites.

Messages tied to the tails of kites for loved ones

The most spectacular kites are those that are least likely to fly. Created with care over the preceding weeks, these giant kites are circular works of art. Intricately decorated with patterns, messages, religious designs (and sometimes political statements) they are a sight to behold. They are so large and cumbersome it is a wonder that they are able to stand upright, let alone fly. This aside, when they are all aligned with colours blazing, it is a memorable sight.

Giant kites in Festival de Barriletes Guatemala

First the design is sketched out on a huge circular cloth, which is then collaged with tissue paper to create the desired image. On the day of the festival the cloth is attached to a framework of bamboo and finally raised into position to the cheers and applause of the crowd. Kites flutter in the breeze and families share fiambre - a traditional dish of up to fifty ingredients - with the spirits of their loved ones in the cemetery. Around 4pm everybody packs up their colourful kites, and remaining picnic food, to head home and await the arrival of their dearly departed.

Dia de los Muertos decorations in Guatemala

The atmosphere is brimming with vitality and excitement, which goes hand in hand with the spirituality and respect for the dead that these traditions encourage. The event offers a wonderful and unique experience for all the family.

Day of the dead decorations in Guatemala

Our local expert in Guatemala had this to say about the Día de los Muertos kite festival:

"The kite festival in Sumpango, Guatemala on Dia de los Muertos is a must see if you are in the country on November 1st. This annual festival brings together local families to honor their past loved ones. Local folklore says this cultural tradition originated a few thousand years ago and is believed to be a way to communicate with the deceased. Families and friends spend months leading up to the day to build the ornate and beautiful kites that you get to see up close in person. As large as 20 metres across, the kites are decorated to display figures, landscapes and messages, resembling enormous murals."

Kites lining the walls in Guatemala

Make it happen

Guatemala is an amazing destination, home to Mayan ruins, spectacular markets, wonderful landscapes and a rich and intriguing culture. Find out what other delights our local experts suggest for you by popping a few details into our enquiry form. If you would like to find out more about what Guatemala has to offer, why not take a look at our destination page.

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