We’d left San Pedro la Laguna at an obviously early 5am (well that was the intent, but we ultimately waited until an extra 25 minutes for four people who never showed), but when the morning light presented such a stunning vista as our small van rose away from the lake, it made the early wake up rather worth it.
Several hours still lay ahead of us this Saturday, for it was November 1st, a date of much significance around the Central Americas and even more so in Mexico.
This was Dia de Muertos (The Day of the Dead) or Dia de Todos los Santos (All Saints Day) depending where you are, most famously celebrated in Mexico, however revered and celebrated in many differing ways across Latin America.
We were headed for the Festival de Sumpango, home of the Barriletes Gigantes (Giant Kites) which from the images we’d taken a peek at online, had me thinking we were about to descend into something from India rather than in the heart of Central America.
There was a quick breakfast break just before we reached our first town, as our guide for the day Samuel (he’s the brother of Vicente who runs the language school we attended) was adamant that it was unlikely there’d be food we could have when at the festival itself.
Where we stopped was obviously geared purely for locals (which is fine), so our options were beans, tortillas and eggs (at least we could spice the eggs up a little with the addition of some tomato, onion and ham) washed down by many by some horribly burnt coffee.
Okay for most, however one couple on the bus were vegan and were forced to settle for some beans, tortillas and fried banana.
Still, it was better than nothing, and was certainly better for me at least (Sarah opted out) than the stale cinnamon sweet cake we’d brought along with us for the bus ride. We did attempt to eat some of it, but most of the dry crumbly roll ended up on our laps, in my beard, and ultimately on the floor…
Now after a few unscheduled stops to ask for directions, we made our way first to the village of Santiago Sacatepéquez where the festivities sounded rather interesting, perhaps fittingly for the day at least, as they take place in the towns cemetery.
I should also point out that yes, the skies were very grey at this point, the wind was up (great for potential kite flyers) and it was rather cold.
The crowds were large and the colour was in abundance, such that we had to constantly remind ourselves that we were indeed in a cemetery, at least back home, usually such a somber place. Here in contrast, at least for a today, there was no mourning, no wailing. All that had made way for laughter and cheering.
I’d initially expected the sky to be a sea of kites jostling for position however at first there were only a handful up in the air, and a few victims ensnared in the upper branches of a couple of the large trees that also stood within this city for the dead.
Whilst we left the path and gingerly attempted to step over or walk around the many, mostly mud or concrete burial plots, we quickly realised that the locals (and the tourists who had already been hanging around a bit longer than us) weren’t so respectful, in fact using the largest ones as platforms from which to view proceedings around them, or as great locations from which to catch the wind and fly a kite!
Strewn across much of the graveyard before us lay huge bamboo poles, the purpose of which we assumed was to serve as the framework of a huge tent.
It turns out we’d assumed rather incorrectly, for this was in fact the framework for a huge number of incredibly sized kites.
After a few moments of horror at the thought of these things lurching slowly into the sky only to seconds later plummet and crush the many adoring and cheering people on the ground below, it became apparent that these ones were in fact essentially for show.
That’s not to say these constructions were second fiddle, for whilst there were many kites of varying size in the air (from a size fit for a child through to some huge monsters that needed several people to get them into the air), the teams involved in the work on these gargantuan display pieces were very serious, and quite large.
It also meant that whilst one flyer we’d read (from San Pedro’s ‘The Language Hub’) suggested that all of the kite making was completed using traditional woods, glues and other materials the immense rolls of tape and sheets of plastic used to cover the kites themselves, quickly disproved these statements.
We’d wandered for a bit to check out a fairly decent sized kite that was preparing to launch into the skies, when a few chants and cheers took us all running back to one of the large kites we’d inspected earlier.
It was time for the first team to get theirs raised (I’m sure there is some local prestige in being the first team to get theirs up).
It was incredible to see the actual size of this thing when it was finally raised, the large flags that adorned its crown grabbed by and now clipping in the wind (which we couldn’t help but notice as it had by now chilled us all to the bone).
What else it revealed to us was a little bit sadder, as although this is a celebration of the past and the dead, there didn’t seem to be too much concern for them at this particular time, something that was revealed to us as the first kite was raised.
There wasn’t too much time to dwell on it however, as in short time, a second kite (there were probably 8-10 teams in total working on these huge kites) was starting to raise and the crowds began to flock towards it.
It was incredible as a huge amount of noise rose towards some sort of a crescendo, however the bell ringing you just heard (assuming you’ve just viewed the preceding video) had no ceremonial significance.
That was simply the many Ice-cream vendors, I assume cheering, in unison!
By now it was time to move on and get to the famous Sumpango itself, yet again on approach, the expected kites littering the sky were not to be seen.
The set-up here was a little different.
No cemetery, instead what we discovered (after worming our way through a long, muddied path) was a large open area, with an array of impressive kites at one end facing off against a grandstand, an elevated, hilly area and an array of food stalls (so much for our guides earlier predictions, there was food at both locations).
There were far more people here, especially of the tourist variety and incredibly it was warm!
So warm in fact that we shed not only our coats, but also a second layer as well!
An hour of wandering here was certainly enough, as although there were some impressive kites to be seen and even a small adjacent hillside meadow where children (and many adults )were flying their own kites, it didn’t have the same buzz that the throngs in the frigid cemetery had.
Still it proved an incredibly colourful day, the sum of its two parts making for a brilliant whole…
* Our bus was arranged at the much cheaper rate of $70.00 Quetzales per person through our language school, however another school (The Language Hub, more prominent with its position on one of the main streets) was another, albeit more expensive option at $150.00 Quetzales per person (or $120.00 Quetzales if it had been booked the week before the event).
* Tours/transportation can also be arranged from Antigua, however I have no additional information on travel from that direction.