A Day for the Dead

On November 1st, Guatemala experiences one of its biggest celebrations: All Saints’ Day. This celebration of the dead is – ironically – full of life and color.


In many parts of the country it’s believed that on this day, those souls who live in the underworld are free to leave, and that for 24 hours, the spirits of the departed are able to visit the places where they lived and the people whom they loved.

In the days leading up to All Saints’ Day, various dishes are prepared to share with family and friends after visiting the cemetery. One of these dishes – the most famous – is Fiambre, which has a base of pickled vegetables along with various cold cuts and sausages. In some villages, the different dishes are taken to the cemetery to be enjoyed there among the graves of loved ones.

The graves are usually decorated with seasonal flowers and with wreaths made of silk flowers coated with wax (so that they’ll last longer). Some people also take candles and rosaries with them to pray and to illuminate the graves after nightfall, even after they have to leave the cemetery.

In Sumpango and Santiago Sacatepéquez, in the department of Sacatepéquez, for over 100 years giant kites have been lifted to the skies as a direct line of communication between the mortal and the divine. Religious fraternities (called cofradías) and other members of these communities keep alive the tradition of using this way of communicating with ancestors and with others who were part of their lives.

In Todos Santos Cuchumatán, a town in the departamento of Huehuetenango, the famous Carrera de las Cintas takes place on All Saints’ Day. It’s a horse race involving several riders – all wearing special outfits – who race their horses along a track, over and over again throughout the day. Tradition says that riders have to participate in the race for at least four consecutive years. One interesting fact is that, during the race and as part of the celebration, the townspeople offer drinks to the riders; it’s quite common for the riders to continue racing their horses while completely drunk (the riders, that is, not the horses).

In La Antigua, it’s common for relatives to clean their family graves and vaults before decorating them, and then to get together with friends to eat outside the gates of the San Lázaro Municipal Cemetery, where there are stalls selling food, traditional sweets, and flowers.

For a different experience, about 20 minutes’ drive from La Antigua is Santa María de Jesús. This town on the slopes of Volcán de Agua celebrates the Day of the Dead on November 2nd. Although All Saints’ Day is celebrated on November 1st  by decorating graves – painted different colors – it’s the following day when the big celebration of the Day of the Dead takes place. Many spend the night awake in vigil, with enough food and drink to tide them over so that they can spend two days with their deceased loved ones. With the breathtaking views of the Panchoy Valley and the surrounding area (and with the season’s incredible cloudscapes), to the rhythm of mariachis and other townspeople joining in with their own guitars – this is how those who have passed on are remembered and celebrated.

No matter what your destination is at the beginning of November, you’ll be fascinated to see how Guatemalans celebrate life… and death.


Written by: Erick Velásquez

Photo by: Erick Velásquez

Translation by: Kevin Cole

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