Chichicastenango, a mountain town about 90 miles northeast of Guatemala City and a popular day trip from Lake Atitlan, is famous for its weekly market. Vendors come from miles around to hawk everything from potatoes to ponchos to a huge array of local crafts from around the region. A substantial number of tourists come from even further afield to snap pictures and sometimes buy. We showed up in Chichicastenango (which everyone shortens to just Chichi) in time to experience the massive market and witness the culmination of the town’s annual Festival of Santo Tomás.
As we found out, the week-long Festival of Santo Tomás should come with a few warnings–or at least ear plugs.
Most towns in Latin America have a patron saint which they honor annually with a festival as large and grand as the town can afford to put on. The full name of Chichi is actually Chichcastenango de Santo Tomás since, you guessed it, Santo Tomás is their patron saint. Every December Chichi pulls out all the stops and throws one of the biggest, loudest and most colorful saint festivals in Guatemala.
Though the festival honors a saint, the Festival of Santo Tomás is really a melding of K’iche’ (or Quiché) Mayan customs and Christian traditions which explains the party atmosphere and elaborate, vivid costumes and lack of grindingly long church services.
Most of the festival events took place in front of the Iglesia de Santo Tomás which was built by the Spanish in 1545 on top of a pre-Columbian temple mound. It now anchors town’s main square (where most of the festival action took place) with a smaller church facing it on the other side of a large open area.
Guatemala is already a colorful country with a vibrant textile tradition and day-glow clothing that’s still part of daily dress in many areas. During the festival, hundreds of participants put on even more elaborate outfits involving intricately decorated clothes and fancy masks which transform them into representations of Spanish conquistadors. Called the Dance of the Conquest, it traditionally re-enacts the subjugation of the local people by the Spanish. All we saw during the festival in Chichi were conquistadors dancing around minus any subjugation or historical story telling.
Stranger still was another group of dancers wearing huge sombreros and masks and toting live snakes. The Dance of the Mexicans started off as the Dance of the Snakes, a serpent-based fertility rite that was banned by the church. In order to keep their ritual alive, indigenous groups kept the snakes, dropped the more sexually explicit elements and added the Mexican costumes. Why Mexican? Because there’s a giant snake on the Mexican flag.
Though we kept asking locals (and even the tourism representatives who occasionally wandered through the crowd) we could never get a clear answer about when the valadores were scheduled to perform.Therefore, we completely missed this impressive spectacle which involves costumed dancers climbing to the top of a 100′ pole then tying a rope to their ankles before rolling off a platform at the top and slowly spiraling down to the ground head first.
No matter which costume they were wearing, the dancers were expected to perform all day long. In heavy, stifling costumes they shuffled and jumped under a blazing sun.
Our video, below, captured a lot of the dancing action.
Parades and processions
When folks weren’t dancing or spiraling off the top of very tall poles members of the cofradia (a kind of honorary committee of community leaders) were parading slowly through the streets carrying three enormous elaborately decorated floats with representations of Santo Jose, Santo Sebastian and, of course, Santo Tomás inside. As the heavily decorated floats were carried out of the Iglesia de Santo Tomás, the technicolor feathers, inlaid mirrors, satin and sequins reminded us of Mardi Gras costumes.
Check out one of the processions in our video, below.
As we’ve mentioned before, Latin Americans are obsessed with fireworks. It’s just not a party without an enormous cache of things that make loud noises and/or explosions and/or sparkly colors in the sky. The Festival of Santo Tomás was certainly no exception.
From morning ’til night gangs of men worked diligently to make sure that something was exploding somewhere at all times–usually within 20 feet of where you were standing.
During the day they focused their efforts on laying down miles of mats studded with firecrackers, then lighting one end creating a startling machine gun effect of noise and smoke. Another day time favorite involved an ominous metal tube which was placed on the ground (in as densely populated an area as possible). Then a croquet-ball-sized bomba was placed inside before its long fuse was lit.
Even the fireworks boys ran from this one before the ball was thrust up into the air where it (hopefully) exploded before falling back down into the crowd.
At night they turned their attention to huge castillos–elaborate wood structures with spinning wheels and other moving parts all loaded with sparkling, hissing fireworks that ignite in successions until the entire display goes off, revealing the overall design of the castillo. The well-funded Festival of Santo Tomás also featured full-on fireworks displays in the sky that were as solid as many July 4 displays.
Ear plugs in? Check out the fireworks in our video, below.
Of course, there were drunks…
The Spanish word for drunk is borracho and it’s not a festival without a few around. The borrachos in Chichi were world class: lurching, lunging, falling, sleeping and not even flinching when they ended up passed out in the midst of a pile of exploding firecrackers which locals seemed to intentially ignite almost on top of them. Not even the pounding bass lines and thumping speakers from the live band stage could rouse them. Impressive.
World’s best fried chicken?
All this festivaling worked up a pretty serious appetite, which was amply satisfied by equally serious fried chicken. Guatemalans love fried chicken and the golden, crispy, juicy, fresh stuff served up out of roiling caldrons of hot oil by overworked and slightly cranky hordes of women in Chichi took the dish to new heights of deliciousness (25Q, or about US$3, with tortillas and a soda). The Colonel’s got nothin’ on these ladies.
Our hotel haven
Luckily we were being hosted at Hotel Santo Tomás, a regal two story whitewashed adobe and wood building with a landscaped inner courtyard featuring gurlging fountains and a mildly disturbing collection of caged birds.
All of the 30 rooms are slightly different, but they all have fireplaces (it’s 10Q, or about US$1.25, for a bundle of wood) and the WiFi signal even reaches the rooms closest to the front desk.
Run by Doña Inés, the place is full of antique furniture, religious sculptures and pottery. Even though the hotel was just a few blocks away from the festival madness, it managed to maintain a relatively serene environment..
As if there wasn’t enough going on, a total lunar eclipse took place in the middle of the final days of the Festival of Santo Tomás. Eric shot it and made this cool montage of eclipse images.
Read more about travel in Guatemala