{travelogue} Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) Kite Festival in Santiago de Sacatepequez, Guatemala

Last year around this time, I was heading to Guatemala to check an amazing event off my bucket list: the graveyard kite festival in Santiago de Sacatepequez that occurs every year on November 1st to celebrate Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead.)

I had seen a few pictures of this unique event and really wanted to experience it in person.

We hired a guide who happened to have relatives in Santiago de Sacatepequez, so he was very well-versed on what was happening. The town is about an hour’s drive from the tourist center of Antigua. Lots of people were heading in for the festival, by foot, by car, and by truck!

We arrived early, around 9:30 in the morning, and parked a couple miles from the graveyard. We meandered through town and stopped to explore all of the special foods and flowers on sale for this special day, like half chickens cooked with eggs inside…

freshly roasted corn cobs…

And syrupy sweet yams, plums, and ground cherries. Delicioso! (To see a more detailed explanation of the food with lots more pictures, check out this article I wrote for Summer Tomato.)

As we got closer to the cemetery, things got more and more crowded. We spotted groups of kids and teenagers hauling their homemade tissue paper kites up to the graveyard to prepare for the festivities.

At one edge of the graveyard there were five huge kites, sponsored by the Church, the town government, and the wealthy families. All but one were lying on the ground – and each was slowly being raised one by one, by teams of townspeople.

These kites are just for looks – they don’t fly. They were each about eight stories tall!

The huge kites are made of finely cut pieces of tissue paper. They’re supported with a structure of wood built on the back. Our guide said the delicate kites took months to complete even with many people working on them.

As to the hundreds of smaller kites, that was a little more hit and miss. Determined kids of all ages teamed up atop the mausoleums and attempted to launch their homemade tissue paper kites into the air.

Some succeeded on the first try, and got them flying high in the air, while others tried many times to launch the kites without much success, over and over. It seemed that the more times the kite crashed into the crowd, the more frenzied the spectators got – cheering on the kids, getting more and more invested with each failed launch.

Between attempts, they would have to wend their way through the crowd to gather up the crashed kite, bring it back to the launch site, and perform small repairs before making another attempt.

With patience and repairs in strong supply, eventually all of the kites got airborne.

At the height of the spectacle, there were so many kites in the sky, they started to get tangled up with one another’s lines!

As the day wore on, more and more people came to see the kites, large and small. The huge kites were all carefully, gingerly, and slowly raised to full height, using a system of giant wooden poles (essentially, stripped tree trunks) and wires.

All of the paper kites were incredibly detailed up close. It was incredible to think that every little detail was made by creating a mosaic of cut tissue paper!

At the graveyard, we found that families come in the morning to repaint the graves of their loved ones in bright, bold colors. Then they decorate them with marigold blossoms and pine needles. Families were picknicking on the gravestones and mounds of their loved ones, as is the custom. Our guide assured us that stepping and sitting on the gravestones was OK and not disrespectful in Guatemalan culture.

Some people didn’t have concrete graves or mausoleums, just mounds of dirt to mark the burial site- but those were also lovingly adorned with wreaths and petals.

As we left, the town was packed with people clamoring to get to the cemetery. We were glad we had arrived early so we could enjoy the street scene and the kite raising before it got too crowded.

On the way back we stopped to try some spicy pork soup with freshly made blue corn tortillas.

It was an incredible day, and by far the most memorable November 1st I have ever experienced.


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1 Response

  1. March 18, 2013

    […] Lake Atitlan is a beautiful volcanic lake in Guatemala. No matter which of the many towns you visit there, you are sure to find friendly people, breathtaking vistas, and relaxing spots to sit and have a beer. You might even get to see a glass wing butterfly or a soccer match! To see more about Guatemala, you can also check my post about the impressive Day of the Dead kite festival. […]