Todos Santos Cuchumatán (commonly called just Todos Santos) is a stronghold of some of the most spectacular traditional dress in Guatemala as well as living Mayan customs like using a small sweat lodge called a chuj. that’s why travelers come here. It’s also a party town. Their annual free-for-all drunken horse race, held on November 1, typically involves dozens of riders all of whom are too drunk to walk let alone ride a horse down a muddy road at break neck speed. A picture from this insanity is on the cover of the 2007 Lonely Planet guide to Guatemala.
Getting to Todos Santos
We are happy to report that getting to the mountain town of Todos Santos from Huehuetenango no longer involves roads so rough that they re-arrange your organs. The entire route was paved except for a 30 minute section into town and even that stretch of dirt was in good shape.
Once we reached Todos Santos two things surprised us. First, Todos Santos is much bigger and much more cosmopolitan than we expected.
Which leads us to the second surprise: US flags everywhere. So many people from Todos Santos have spent time working in the United States and sending money back to their families that town is adorned with US flags.
Most commonly they’re painted on homes which were built using money sent back from the US and on the concrete above-ground graves in the local cemetery.
Life at 8,000 feet
What shouldn’t come as a surprise was the cold. Todos Santos is at more than 8,000′ (2,450 meters). This translated into extremely cold nights in an unheated room under very heavy blankets in Hotel Casa Familiar.
Our Lonely Planet description of this hotel had us expecting very, very basic rooms at a budget price. The reality, however, is that this hotel has two very nice rooms with more on the way. One room has a fireplace, the other has a kitchen. At 100Q (about US$12) per person neither room has a budget price tag, but they’re big and spotless and have each has a lovely furnished patio. We went for the room with the kitchen since dining options in Todos Santos are, shall we say, limited.
Hotel Casa Familiar is run by a local woman named Christina who also runs the women’s co-operative shop downstairs. The shop is stocked with items made by local women and each piece has a tag on it with the name of the woman who made it. You can buy the traditional Todos Santos style pants and shirts here (more on that later) as well as more tourist-ready items like a beautiful yoga mat carrying bag made out of hand-loomed fabric in a traditional pattern.
Todos Santos style
With so much living Mayan culture in Guatemala, almost every region has its own distinct and colorful way of dressing. All of it is elaborate and and almost universally worn, even among the men who, in most cultures, are the first ones to make the switch to boring old jeans and a t-shirt.
We’ve loved all of the traditional clothing that we’ve seen in Guatemala, but it’s hard to beat Todos Santos style, particularly among the men and boys who all wear red pants with white stripes, a blue and purple shirt with an extra-wide hand-embroidered collar and a jaunty straw hat with an embroidered band.
The younger generation is starting to customize their outfits with touches like an extra droopy homeboy fit to the pants and international brand names embroidered on. It was fun to see this creativity and even more fun to imagine a 15-year-old in Todos Santos explaining to his mother why he wants her to stitch a Nike logo onto the
back of the traditional shirt she just made for him…
By the way, we recently read an interesting theory that “indigenous regional clothing” was actually imposed by the Spanish when they ruled the region as a way of knowing, at a glance, where a person came from based solely on what they were wearing. If you can support or debunk this theory let us know!
New Year, new hangover
We timed our visit to Todos Santos to coincide with New Year’s celebrations and so did lots of others. There weren’t any other travelers in town for the event, but lots of family members had returned home to celebrate.
We met a man named Pedro who had been working in the United States for 23 years. He’d just gotten his green card which allowed him to return home to Todos Santos for the first time since he left for the US. His elation at being home and his pride in Todos Santos were palpable. Though he loves his life in the US and would be returning to Nebraska after the holiday, he could hardly wait for his aunt to put the finishing touches on his traditional outfit.
Over the New Year normally tranquil Todos Santos transforms into a town full of men sharing some kind of sinister liquid which is consumed in quantity resulting in epic stumbling, mumbling and falling down. It’s mostly messy but harmless. However, we did encounter a young local who practically fell under an oncoming truck, then collapsed on the curb in tears. In the drunken madness he’d lost his friends and now he was (far) too drunk to find them.
Though there were many drunk men staggering through town most were harmless–even amusing. The few that got out of hand were rounded up by the police and tossed into a jail straight out of Gunsmoke. Two 10′ X 10′ concrete rooms with gated doors, located right out in the open across the street from the square, were quickly full of men in various stages of drunkenness or epic-looking hangovers.
The lucky ones were visited by family members bearing food. The unlucky ones were visited by family members screaming at them through the bars on the door.
You really need video to get the full staggering, slurring, sloppy effect of the (mostly harmless) borrachos in Todos Santos. Luckily, we shot some.
Todos Santos travel tip
We noticed substantially more children asking for “un quetzal” or “un dulce” in and around Todos Santos. Instead of handing out money or candy we hoard bars of soap and packets of shampoo when they’re supplied in the guesthouses where we spend the night and hand those out instead.