Extraordinary Patterns: Guatemala’s Annual Kite Festival
When you hear Day of the Dead, what comes to mind? Maybe you think about the movie Coco or elaborate skull face paintings. While these are common ways to celebrate Día de los muertos, these are traditions unique to Mexico—not the rest of Latin America.
Each country celebrates this special day in its own way, but one nation, in particular, stands out from the rest with its impressive traditions. Forget about skulls and face painting because Guatemala steps up the celebration with a jaw-dropping kite festival.
What Is the Guatemalan Kite Festival?
In the weeks leading up to the Day of the Dead, the skies become dotted with small kites as people take advantage of the windy weather. However, this is just a taste of the spectacular festival to come.
The Guatemalan Kite Festival, or el festival de los barriletes gigantes, is a mix of ancient rituals and beliefs, modern festivities, and national pride. It attracts visitors from all over the country and the world with its beautiful colors and exquisite designs.
This is an important tradition for Guatemalans, and people spend months preparing the kites. Because some of the kites span over 50 feet, each requires the work of full teams of people.
Several groups create their own kites annually. Some of the more prominent teams include groups of underprivileged children and indigenous women working to show that they can do more than be a housewife. This festival isn’t just about making kites, but creating something that is your own and that carries a deep message.
Where and When Is It Celebrated?
There are two main locations for the kite festival, both of which are located in the small department of Sacatepéquez. Both towns have large populations of indigenous Mayan people whose culture helps carry on the kite festival tradition.
These two festivals take place in large soccer fields near the cemeteries. The kites take a long time to set up, and people arrive the day before to get started. However, the kites don’t fly until sunset on the day of the festival so that people have time to partake in other traditions.
As part (not all!) of the celebration, the kites are showcased and judged on November 1st.
Now, November 1st is actually All Saints Day, so this celebration can be considered part of el Día de Todos Santos. People consider the kites as a way to communicate with loved ones who have passed away.
What Is the Meaning Behind the Celebration?
El festival de los barriletes gigantes has been celebrated for thousands of years. It originally started in the Mayan pueblos as a way to free the area of evil spirits. As the story goes, these spirits kept coming to bother their dead family members on November 1st each year. The ancestors would become aggravated by the spirit’s torment and would wander the streets and houses looking for peace.
The Mayan leaders decided to create kites and fly them on November 1st to make the unwanted spirits go away. Essentially, the contact of the wind and the kites causes enough commotion in the spiritual world to fend off bad spirits and let the ancestors rest.
Another possible origin of the kites has a Catholic twist. Many people believed that they could communicate with the spirits of the dead through the kites, and they used them to send messages to their loved ones stuck in purgatory.
While many people still believe in the spiritual meanings of the Day of the Dead and All Saints’ Day celebrations, the kite festival has taken a more touristy turn. With thousands of people traveling to see the kites, food and souvenir vendors flock the crowds and have stations lined up all along the road to the festivals.
Nevertheless, a lot of thought and meaning goes into making the kites. Some of the most impressive kites have been made with the themes of honoring Guatemalan activists, raising awareness of climate change, and expressing pride in their indigenous roots.
The Elaborate Kites
Speaking of kites, what do they look like? How are they made? The kites that are displayed at the festivals come in all shapes and sizes. The largest barriletes can reach 60 feet, but these giants aren’t designed to fly. With a couple of huge kites displayed, most come in smaller sizes that can actually float through the air.
Each kite is made with a bamboo structure covered in layers of tissue paper. Just imagine how much tissue paper you would have to get to make a kite 60 feet across! The paper is held together with glue and string.
The colors of the kites are so vibrant and beautiful, just like the colors in the traditional Guatemalan dress, or traje. The Mayan culture is filled with color, and the kites clearly represent that.
Of course, the kites aren’t only for viewing purposes. Competition is fierce for the best design and the kite that flies the longest. Judges make the final decisions, but popular vote is expressed by rounds of vigorous applause for the audience’s favorite kites.
How Does the Rest of the Country Celebrate?
Since only two cities host kite festivals, the rest of the country has its own way of celebrating. However, the kite theme resounds throughout Guatemala. Children and adults alike make their own mini-kites to take out and fly on the hills. This is a fun activity that gets the whole family involved in a long-celebrated Mayan tradition.
What would a holiday be without food? Guatemala has dozens of delicious typical dishes, a few of which you will only see on All Saints’ Day. If you get the chance to go to Guatemala, be sure to try some of these wonderful comidas típicas.
- Fiambre (fee-ahm-bray): Many different types of fiambre exist, and each family has its own recipe. In general, it is an elaborate salad with ingredients like lettuce, shrimp, hard-boiled eggs, olives, hearts of palm, and sausage.
- Mole (moh-lay): Guatemalan mole is quite different from Mexican mole. This mixture of chocolate and seeds is often served over fried plantains.
- Torrejas (tohr-ray-has): This dessert is basically a sweet bread made from egg yolk soaked in a sweet sauce. The bread is actually served in a puddle of sauce, and you can enjoy it with a fresh cup of coffee.
- Buñuelos (boon-way-lohs): A necessity during any holiday, this delicious fried dessert is made with milk, egg, and flour and topped with a sweet sauce.
- Jocotes en miel (hoh-koh-tays ayn myail): Jocotes are a small tree fruit that come in red, green, and yellow varieties. They have a large seed inside and have only a little bit of fruit around it, but it is delicious. Jocotes en miel are just jocotes cooked in boiling water with sugar and served with a sweet honey sauce.
- Ayote en dulce (ah-yoh-tay ayn dool-say): This dish can be a little bit strange to look at with its almost black color. However, it is another sweet dessert. This one is made with ayote, a type of gourd, and cooked with cinnamon, sugar, and sweet pepper.
- Conserva de coco (kohn-sair-bah day koh-koh): This classic dessert looks like bars of solid coconut, but it is mixed with sugar, lime, and coconut milk.
The most prominent All Saints’ Day tradition in Guatemala is visiting the family graves. Cemeteries in Guatemala are nothing like those in the United States. If you drive past a cemetery, you probably won’t immediately recognize it as such. Many graves have houses on top of them, some of them of an impressive size, and they are often painted bright colors. It looks much too cheerful to be a place of the dead, but then again, spiritual celebrations in Guatemala are vibrant.
On November 1st, most families visit the cemetery and make sure the grave looks nice. They may take flowers, food, or even paint to give it a fresh coat. This tradition occurs all throughout the country, as honoring the dead is an important idea for most of the population.
In some areas of the country, you will see some traditions similar to those in Mexico. In some regions, areas and families may create a sort of altar to the dead and decorate it with candles and skulls, which are both common themes in Mexico’s Day of the Dead.
Just like Sumpango and Santiago have the kite festival, other parts of the country celebrate with their own festivals. For example, in Huehuetenango, the north of the country, they have a thrilling horse race on All Saints’ Day. This event is preceded by traditional Mayan rituals and heavy drinking, so the event itself is not the safest. However, it is supposed to honor their ancestors, and the participants actually ask permission to race.
In Baja Verapaz, the Mayan communities participate in more traditional rituals from October 31 to November 1. The Mayan elders prepare a proper welcoming ceremony for the spirits, which includes praying to their ancestors and preparing for the spirits’ arrival.
How to Celebrate at Home
If you can’t make it to Guatemala to see the kite festival yourself, you can still create a bit of the magic at home. Get some tissue paper, popsicle sticks, and glue, and design your own kite. Check out a basic tutorial and let your creativity fly. If you’d like to eat some of the Guatemalan delicacies, make some fiambre!
Another fantastic way to celebrate Guatemalan Day of the Dead is to practice the vocabulary and phrases in Spanish. Check out some of the keywords below, then practice with the sentences. Try these out with your Spanish-speaking friends, or practice them to use when you travel to Guatemala.
Key Vocabulary Words and Phrases
|Tissue paper||El papel china||pah-pail chee-nah|
|Competition||La competencia, el concurso||kohm-pay-tain-syah, kohn-koor-soh|
|Day of the Dead||El Día de los Muertos||dee-ah day lohs mwair-tohs|
|All Saints’ Day||El Día de Todos los Santos||dee-ah day toh-dohs los sahn-tohs|
|Graves||La sepultura, la tumba||say-pool-toor-ah, toom-bah|
Vine a Guatemala para ver el festival de los barriletes gigantes.
I came to Guatemala to see the kite festival.
¿Cómo viajo a Sumpango, Sacatepéquez?
How do I get to Sumpango, Sacatepéquez?
¿Cuáles tradiciones tiene tu familia para el Día de los Muertos / Día de Todos los Santos?
What traditions does your family have for the Day of the Dead / All Saints’ Day?
¿Te gustaría probar fiambre?
Would you like to try fiambre?
Me encanta la conserva de coco.
I love coconut candy preserves.
¿Dónde podemos volar barriletes?
Where can we fly kites?
Quiero hacer mi propro barrilete.
I want to make my own kite.
¿Cuánto tiempo te tardó hacer el barrilete?
How long did it take you to make the kite?
¿Te puedo acompañar al cementerio?
Can I go with you to the cemetery?
¿Qué es es significado de ese barrilete?
What is the meaning of that kite?
Me encantan los colores y el diseño de ese barrilete.
I love the colors and the design of that kite.
¿Cómo honran a los muertos?
How do you honor the dead?
What do you think about the kite festival?
Let us know if you have been before. If not, which of the traditions you would like to experience the most? Comment below with your thoughts and questions about this unique celebration. We’d love to hear from you!
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