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The Day of the Dead in Guatemala – 6 incredible things to do


Guatemala is a rich and colorful place to visit. And that is even more true during special holidays and festivals. Of all of Guatemala’s fascinating cultural events, the Day of the Dead in Guatemala is probably the most famous and it makes an exciting event to experience.


So if you are planning your trip to Guatemala you should probably consider coming in November which is also a great time of the year to visit Guatemala as the rain season is almost over so you will see great clear ski but it’s still not so cold.

How is the day of the dead in Guatemala celebrated?

The Day of the Dead in Guatemala (Dia de Muertos in Spanish), also known as All Saints Day or “Día de Todos Los Santos” takes place on the first and second of November.

Sumpango kites - day of the dead in Guatemala

On this day, Guatemalans remember their deceased loved ones and honor their memories. If you’re visiting Guatemala during this holiday, you’re in luck!

There are many wonderful cultural activities to enjoy from visiting cemeteries to see how this festival has been celebrated for centuries to watching a gigantic kite flying in the air.

Find out about all the Guatemala celebrations and festivities

Top things to do on the day of the Dead in Guatemala

See the Giant Kites of Santiago Sacatepéquez and Sumpango

One of the most fascinating things to do on the day of the dead in Guatemala is to visit the giant kite festival in Santiago Sacatepéquez and Sumpango.

This amazing tradition is held in honor of people’s deceased loved ones. Kites have long been associated with the Día de Los Muertos.

Part of the reason is probably the climate. In November, there are often strong winds. It is a common sight to see children flying kites during this season.

Although many people do this activity for fun, launching kites into the air also has a deeper meaning. They are seen as a means of communication between the living and the dead.

Sumpango kites

Kite Festivals and Communing with the Dead

According to the Vanderbilt Center for Latin American Studies, “Kites serve as a symbolic connection to the dead and help guide the returning spirits to their families.

Once the celebrations have ended, the kites are burned so that the dead may return peacefully until the next year. An article in the Prensa Libre, Guatemala’s national newspaper, states that Jorge Ubico, one of Guatemala’s presidents, came up with the idea of making and flying giant kites.

He suggested the idea to the leaders of Santiago Sacatepéquez.

Sumpango baby

Kite Creation and Flying

The people of Santiago and Sumpango dove wholeheartedly into the challenge. Each year, they spend months creating elaborate kites out of tissue paper and bamboo. Some of the kites are solely for exhibition purposes and can be up to thirteen meters across, others are for competition.

The competition kites are usually between six and nine meters and are supposed to be able to fly during the kite festival. The town of Santiago is an hour or less from Guatemala City or Antigua, so it’s worth making the trip, even if only once in your life.

This giant kite festival is a unique and beautiful way to celebrate souls day.


Visit a cemetery during Dia de Todos Los Santos in Guatemala

The most traditional and country-wide way to celebrate Día de Los Muertos in Guatemala is to go to a cemetery. Here you can observe living relatives celebrating the dead. People often wear their best clothing and spend the whole day enjoying the festivities. Cemeteries turn into places of color, music, and picnics.

Cemetery during the Day of the dead with people bringing flowers
Cemetery in San Andres during the Day of the dead in Guatemala

Family Preparations

To prepare for the Day of the Dead, many people visit their family tombs at the end of October. They clean them, repaint them, and decorate them. In the highland villages of Guatemala, this can be a particularly beautiful sight. Women also prepare fiambre to share with their family and friends.

Ancient Latin America Traditions

On the first and second day of November, the real festivities begin. Guatemalans remember their dead loved by putting flowers on the gravesites. They also put out the deceased person’s favorite foods and drinks. They burn candles so the spirits have a place to hang out near their families.

Some people also play marimba or mariachi music in honor of their dead loved ones. Another reason the living relatives celebrate this day is to avoid angering the dead.

The festival prevents bad spirits from coming to cause trouble and sickness later on.


Eat Guatemala Dia de los Muertos Food

If you’re in Guatemala in November, be sure to try the traditional foods of the Dia de Los Muertos. Food is a big part of the celebration. Here are some of the foods you can eat to join in Day of the Dead traditions.

Fiambre

Fiambre typical Guatemalan dish
Fiambre – typical Guatemalan dish

Fiambre is the most famous of Guatemala’s day of the dead culinary traditions. It is mentioned in chronicles dating back to the 17th century.

Even then, it was considered a food for offerings and sacrifice. It is essentially a cold salad consisting of pickled Guatemalan vegetables (such as pacaya) and cold cuts that are Spanish in origin.

There are different kinds of fiambre, including white and red varieties. Red fiambre contains beets.

Ayote en Dulce

This super sweet treat is a common traditional food on saints days and the day of the dead. To make it, Guatemalan’s cut winter squash (ayote) into chunks and boil it with allspice, cinnamon, and lots of panela (blocks of unrefined cane sugar).

Street food sold in sumpango

Iguana

Although it isn’t so easy to get now as it used to be, iguana meat is still a traditional day of the dead food in Guatemala, especially in the region of Retalhuleu. It is usually served with cabbage salad. I wouldn’t dare if you want me to be honest, but I wanted to include it just to offer you the option, in case you are “foody-adventurous”.

Pacaya in Egg

Pacaya is a common vegetable in Guatemala, and also features in fiambre. Pacaya comes from the Tepijilote palm and refers to the stringy palm-flower clusters.

It is very bitter, so the flower strands are usually boiled and strained multiple times. They are then covered in foamy beaten egg and fried.

Pan de Muertos

Just like on the day of the dead in Mexico, you can get sweet bread all year round in Guatemala, but in the days leading up to the Día de Los Muertos, you can get a special “Pan de Muertos.”

These sweetbreads are usually dry, family-sized, and large enough to slice. Dip pieces in coffee and enjoy!

Pan de muertos

Pulique

In the department of Sololá, one of the traditional foods is called pulique. It is a thick creamy dish that’s a cross between chicken soup and maize porridge, the Latin American version of congee.

Sweet Potato in Syrup

Another food you can eat to join in the Day of the Dead celebrations is “camote en conserva.” This yummy dessert is common in the department of Escuintla. To make it properly, the local sweet potatoes should be boiled in an earthenware pot over a wood fire.


Join or Host a Guatemala Day of the Dead Party

One fun way to enjoy the Day of the Dead is by hosting or joining some big parties. If you have children, this could mean having a kite-making and flying competition.

Or maybe talking about your ancestors or sharing stories about your grandparents and great-grandparents.

Maybe you prefer to go dancing or host a party featuring traditional Day of the Dead foods. Whatever you decide to do, all of Central America will be keeping you company in the fun!

Sumpango people walking among kites

Celebrate the day of the dead in Antigua Guatemala

Another way to join in the Día de Todos Los Santos celebration is to visit the cemetery in La Antigua, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. According to Qué Pasa Magazine, it’s a great idea to go to the Municipal Cemetery of San Lázaro.

Many people get together with their families to enjoy the festival there. They put flowers on the grave sites, then enjoy eating traditional food outside the cemetery gates.

Sant Andres Xecul cemetery

Celebrate the day of the dead in Todos Santos in Huehuetenango

One of the most unusual activities on the day of the dead in Guatemala occurs in Todos Santos Cuchumatán. This small Mam Mayan town is located in the Sierra de Cuchumatán mountain range, 2500 meters above sea level. On this day, the locals hold a festival culminating in a horse race called Skach Koyl, which could mean the “Race of Souls” or “Game of Roosters.”

Rooted in History

The tradition is ancient and may go back all the way to the 1500s. According to Reuters, “Local lore says the tradition began when 13 Mayan riders galloped for more than 60 miles to a nearby town arriving November 1, for the funeral of a local holy man.

After colonization, the race survived as a show of indigenous strength to the Spanish conquerors.”

Sacrificial Chickens and All-night Drinking Party

To prepare for the race, the men sacrifice a chicken on the horse track on October 31st. Then they spend the night drinking Gallo beer and Quetzalteca liquor.

Checken Bus in Guatemala

Race of Souls

The next morning, thoroughly soused, they stagger to their horses, don fancy hats to complement their colorful traditional outfits, and compete in a horse race.

The race goes from one end of the village to the other. After several hours, sometimes up to seven (!), whoever is still in the saddle wins. Sounds like quite the spectacle, right?

Head to the mountains, enjoy some marimba music and colorful decorations and have your camera ready for action.

Día de los Muertos in Guatemala – my experience

I was lucky enough to be in Guatemala during dia de los Muertos twice. The first time was pre-pandemic and I went to Sumpango with a friend. Although I don’t usually like big crowds, Sumpango’s vibes were exhilarating. In the early afternoon, we just walked around the cemetery among colorful flowery graves Mariachi playing, and people eating by their beloved deceased.

sumpango giant kite
Sumpango Giant Kite ready to be launched during the day of the dead in Guatemala

We enjoyed trying the delicious Guatemalan street food before heading to the parking lot where the Kite competition was taking place. It was incredible to see locals dressed in their own traditional clothing and all looking up in the sky to spot their favorite giant kite.

From Antigua, it’s a 40-minute drive and you can take an Uber and then ask them to go back for you at a certain time. It’s better if you have a local sim card so that you can call him when you want to be picked up.

The second time I was in Guatemala during the Day of the Dead it was in Quetzaltenango exploring all the incredible surroundings. Despite the restrictions I manage to visit a cemetery in the old town of San Ander and although it was not as grand as the year before it was a great experience too, very local and real.

If you can I really suggest you visit Guatemala during the day of the dead to learn about the local culture and tradition.

Scroll down to see more pictures I took on that day.

sumpango kites
Cemetery in Quetzaltenango (Xela)

Read more about Guatemala


More picture on the day of the dead in Sumpango Guatemala

Sumpango cemetery  tombs with flowers
Sumpango cemetery
Sumpango girl in traditional dress with painted face
Sumpango singers singing in the cemetery
Sumpango singers singing in the cemetery
Sumpango cemetery overview
Sumpango cemetery
Sumpango ladies and kids by a tomb
Sumpango cemetery
Sumpango cemetery
Sumpango cemetery
Sumpango mariachi
Sumpango cemetery
Sumpango people heading to see the  giant kites
Sumpango people heading to see the giant kites
Sumpango mum with her kid in traditional dress
Sumpango people heading to see the giant kites
Sumpango giant kites and people
Sumpango people heading to see the giant kites
Sumpango boy selling home madesnacks
Sumpango people heading to see the giant kites
Sumpango cemetery
Sumpango people heading to see the giant kites
Sumpango cemetery colorful tombs and flowers
Sumpango cemetery flowers
Sumpango giant kite
Sumpango kids
Sumpango smiling kids
Sumpango kite flying
Sumpango kites flying

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