5 Top Things to Do on Day of the Dead in Guatemala
From flying giant kites to eating enormous salads, Day of the Dead in Guatemala is a colourful affair. Taking place on November 1st of each year, Los Barriletes de Sumpango or Giant Kite Festival for Dia de Muertos is one of the biggest celebrations in Guatemala. It’s one of the top festivals in Guatemala and makes it one of the best times of the year to visit Guatemala.
Here are five unforgettable experiences you don’t want to miss during Día de los Muertos in Guatemala.
1. Day of the Dead Guatemala’s Giant Kite Festival
Guatemala kite history is quite unique. As in Mexico and throughout Central America, Guatemalans believe the barrier between the realms of the living and the dead is at its most porous on Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos) and All Saints Day (Día de los Santos or Todos ) so it’s an ideal time to honour deceased friends and family by building alters, cleaning their gravestones and other means of respect.
What makes Guatemala’s Day of the Dead traditions so unique is that they believe it’s also an auspicious time to communicate with family ancestors by attaching messages to barriletes (kites) and letting the wind carry the messages up to the heavens.
The best places to see these ceremonial kites are the barriletes fiestas held on November 1st in the central highlands in Sumpango, Sacatepéquez west of Guatemala City.
Los Barriletes de Sumpango or Giant Kite Festival in Sumpango Guatemala has evolved to an elaborate and impressive spectacle. Months earlier teams of skilled local craftsmen (similar to the groups in Las Fallas festival in Valencia) create their giant kite from paper and bamboo in community workshops.
The messages and designs range from religious to artistic to political. During my most recent visit, I saw elaborate Guatemalan kites promoting an end to violence against women as well as other kites with religious and cultural themes. Once the giant kites ( 7 m in diameter) are in position they are then lifted by groups of kite fliers who will try to hoist it into the air in front of bleachers lined with spectators.
If you’re studying Spanish at one of the many language schools in Antigua, excursions to the kite festival are often available for students. It’s also relatively easy to get transportation to the Kite Festival from your hotel in Antigua or hire a local guide. If you’re looking for a hotel, check out our post on 3 Budget Hotels You’ll Love in Antigua Guatemala.
Be prepared for crowds. If you do attend Guatemala’s giant kite festival, leave valuables at home and follow other safety tips for safe travel in Guatemala.
2. Guatemala Day of the Dead Food
Day of the Dead isn’t just a spiritual tradition for barrileteros, it’s also an opportunity for Guatemalans to eat special foods. A breakfast favourite is Dulce de ayote. Made of chilacayote, a long-necked squash chopped into pieces with the skin, pulp and seeds intact, it’s steamed in rapadura, pure sugar cane juice and generously spiced with cloves and cinnamon. Lime leaves and orange peel keeps it from becoming too sweet while molasses gives it a rich mahogany colour.
Another favourite food to enjoy on Day of the Dead in Guatemala is fiambre. The time, cost and effort of preparing the more than 100 ingredients that go into fiambre elevates this cold meat and vegetable salad to an exalted position in Guatemalan culture. Just mentioning fiambre is enough to make the grown Guatemalan men in our family swoon with desire.
The history of fiambre is unknown but local legends say the recipe dates to colonial times and originated at the Convent of the Capuchinas in Antigua when a nun assigned to making a last-minute dinner for guests, raided the convent’s larder and chopped everything available into tiny pieces. The resulting platter of composed vegetables, meats, eggs and salad dressing proved to be popular and became an indispensable part of Day of the Dead in Guatemala festivities.
While fiambre is definitely a huge-sized dish best suited for a Guatemalan Fiesta with family and friends, another popular Day of the Dead dish of a more manageable size is Platanos en Mole ( plantain in a rich chocolate/spice sauce). It’s often served during Holy Week but is also enjoyed during festivities. At the Kite festival you’ll also see lots of blue corn tortillas and they’re delicious slathered with crema, salty cheese from Zacapa and avocado.
3 Join a Guatemala Day of the Dead Party
Eat street food, drink venado white rum, fly a small kite of your own to communicate with your ancestors or join a street procession on Day of the Dead. Although the graveside vigils aren’t as boisterous as they are in Oaxaca City and Lake Janitzio near Pazcuaro Mexico, there’s still lots to do on Day of the Dead in Guatemala.
It’s also worth considering taking a culinary walking tour of Antigua with Taste Antigua to sample street food.
4 Visit a Cemetery During Day of the Dead in Guatemala
A week before Day of the Dead, family tombs are scrubbed, cleaned and repainted — often a beautiful bright blue. On Day of the Dead, families make paper garlands and purchase wreaths of white and red chrysanthemums to place on the tombs of departed family members. Guatemalan Day of the Dead altars are not as elaborate as those in Oaxaca City and in Michoacan Mexico.
Families will spend the day at the graveyard and processions, prayers, special masses at church and of course food are all part of the tradition. Unlike the party atmosphere of Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca you won’t see celebrations in the cemeteries and it would not be usual to see tourists wandering around taking photos or participating in private family vigils.
5) Make a Pilgrimage to the Black Christ at the Basilica of Esquipulas
While the Basilica of Esquipulas is a popular pilgrimage site for Catholics throughout the year, it’s especially moving to visit it during the days surrounding Day of the Dead in Guatemala.