November 1st, All-Saints Day in Guatemala, holds a very special meaning to its people. It seems almost everyone pours out to the cemeteries to pay a visit to the dearly departed.
There are two important events on November 1st: The Giant Kite Festivals (held simultaneously in Santiago Sacatepequez and Sumpango) and the Todos Santos Drunken Horse Race. Since it’s physically impossible to visit both places in one day (unless one gets a hold of a helicopter, and even then it’s quite a trek), we chose to attend Sumpango’s much nearer Giant Kite Festival (Festival de Barriletes Gigantes).
Getting to the Sumpango Festival of Giant Kites
Getting to Sumpango is not hard since the town is located on CA-1 (Pan-American Highway), about a 35-minute ride from Antigua Guatemala. Since we had heard there would be massive traffic jams later in the day, we chose to arrive by 9:00 AM. and ahead of the crowds.
Apparently, we weren’t the only ones thinking about the same plan. After we parked in a private lot, we spotted crowds already heading towards the soccer field on the outskirts of Sumpango. Later that night, we heard on TV that close to 125,000 people had attended the event.
Sumpango´s main road
The soccer field is located on a hill, right next to Sumpango’s cemetery. While not a particularly hard climb, it made up for it in length.
Not a big crowd if you go early
Food stalls were being set-up on both sides of the road, and not-quite-ready yet. It was early in the morning, but the smell of grilled churrasco meat and sausage was making me hungry again.
We packed a lunch and bought some fresh-baked bread to avoid the temptation to eat at the street stalls. I’m okay with never have indigestion ever again in my life. Skipping on delicious-looking food is a small price to pay.
Typical food everywhere
Kite sellers were everywhere. Was almost tempted to buy one, but held off and decided that taking photographs would keep me plenty busy.
Plastic kites also – probably from China
I was somewhat surprised by the significant number of foreign tourists. While there were all sorts of vendors and a happy atmosphere throughout, I still felt slightly uneasy watching tourists laughing it up and happily snapping pics of the colorfully decorated graves. Sometimes as somber family members were standing right next to them.
I took a few discreet pics from a distance and quickly hurried out of there.
Relatives decorate burial grounds
As we approached the soccer field, we spotted the giant kites.
Kite construction is not only labor-intensive but cost-intensive as well. For the bigger kites, it can take as long as 3-4 months to build and when materials’ costs are added, the price can climb to well over Q40,000 ($5,000).
Families take on kite-building as a project, others do it as a group effort.
Building kite frame
The story of how this festival got started is similar to that of Halloween. According to residents, spirits came out on November 1st to annoy and bother Sumpango’s residents. Exasperated, they asked a witch doctor what they should to do to scare away these spirits.
The witch doctor suggested they take big pieces of paper, let them fly in the wind and make lots of noise. Eventually, somebody figured out that kites were a more efficient spirit-scaring device. And thus, a tradition was born, one which has been recorded as occurring as far back as the 1940’s.
Even Police get in on the pic-taking action
The real event is a competition. Kites are slotted into categories, according to their size. The biggest kites, while flight-ready, rarely get off the ground due to the lack of a strong enough wind.
These guys prepared to lift up their kite off the ground…
“Small” giant kite
We found a great place to check out the scene, high up on a hill facing the soccer field. Watching huge kites take off and smack people in the crowd as they came down brought a lot of amusement to the crowd.
The crowds were massive, and even Optimus Prime and BumbleBee made time to check out the kites (see if you can spot the Transformers below):
Giant kite field
After checking out the show for a good three hours, it was time to head back home. We also took the opportunity to take some pics of the kites up close, now that they were all in place.
Messages asking spirits to leave residents alone have been replaced by messages preaching love, peace, and understanding.
Giant kites up close
The “butterfly kite” below was one of the more creative ones.
Gotta do the ol’ perspective shot ;) …
Took one last pic of the cemetery on my way out.
This guy below was drawing a crowd with his busking act.
Found the “Internet” sign amusing, as this town is not a hub of commerce or tourist activity. The Internet has reached far and wide.
I have to say Sumpango is one of the least picturesque towns I’ve visited in Guatemala…
Sumpango’s main plaza
… but I have to say they certainly work hard to put on a good show every year.
Had a great time at the Sumpango Kite Festival and would at least think about coming back in the future.