The giant kites of Sumpango
According to traditional Mayan belief, kites are a way to communicate with the dead. This is why you’ll see kites flying above cemeteries all over Guatemala on El Día de los Difuntos – the Day of the Dead. In Sumpango, they take this tradition to new heights, literally, with their festival of the giant kites, or barilletes gigantes.
Sumpango is a town in the Sacatepéquez department and is located about half an hour’s drive from Antigua. Here, on November 1 every year, the townspeople and those from the surrounding area communicate with their departed beloved and the saints in the grandest of fashions. They create kites that can be several stories high when they’re standing upright.
Traditionally, young men from the town travel to the coast 40 days before to go collect bamboo.
This is the material that will form the frame of each kite. Over the next month-and-a-bit, families or community groups come together to painstakingly build their kites, often working day and night. For the body, the main material used is Chinese paper, which is very thin and weighs next to nothing. The tail part of the kite usually consists of pieces of woven cloth, which will give the kite balance. The glue that binds things together is all natural, made with yucca flour, lemon peel and water. The rope is made of maguey, the plant that also gives us tequila.
The design of the kite is very important too. In fact, people usually plan the design long before they even start gathering the materials for building the kite. Themes vary from folkloric to religious and usually include messages about important issues, for instance women’s rights, justice or protecting the environment. The kite builders glue pieces of paper in different colors together to create these works of art.
Most kites have an octagonal shape representing the four directions and the crown of the sun. The kite builders fix fringed paper to four of the sides and when the wind rustles this paper, the sound supposedly wards off evil spirits.
Early on the morning of November 1 – All Saints’ Day or El Día de Todos los Santos – the different groups transport their giant kites to the festival site on a large open field near the cemetery. Spectators come from all over too, easily numbering around 100,000 people. Of course where you have a large gathering you’ll also find music and lots of food stalls selling an array of typical Guatemalan foods. You may even find fiambre, a salad that consists of a huge variety of cold meats and sausages, vegetables, cheese, eggs, and so on. Fiambre is a dish reserved for the Day of the Dead and you won’t find it at any other time of year. In the afternoon, it’s time for the kites to fly. November usually sees trade winds across
Guatemala, so it’s the perfect season for flying kites. However, the giant kites are very heavy. Several strong men – sometimes as many as twenty, depending on the size of the kite – work together to lift the kite upright. This is quite an undertaking that occurs amid lots of cheering from the spectators. Once the kite is upright, the wind may or may not lift it a little bit off the ground. Whether the kite flies or not, however, you’ll be able to admire its design once it’s upright. More importantly, the spirits of the departed will be able to read the messages on the kite.
Many travel agencies in Guatemala present tours to Sumpango’s kite festival. You may even be able to join an excursion with your Spanish school. Alternatively, you can make your way there under your own steam.
If you find the festival too crowded for your liking, there’s a similar festival in nearby Santiago Sacatepéquez. Both Sumpango’s and Santiago’s giant kite festivals are recognized as significant cultural events in Guatemala but the one in Sumpango is more famous and therefore bigger.
Another option to get far from the madding crowd and give your senses some reprieve is to go wander around the nearby cemetery. Here you’ll find families cleaning and repairing the graves of their loved ones and having picnics or praying right next to the graves. Visiting with and honoring your dead is what the Day of the Dead really is about, after all. The newly painted graves adorned with fresh flowers, candles and incense make for stunning pictures too. Remember, however, that for the families, visiting with their dead loved ones is a deeply personal experience. Ask permission before taking photographs of people and try to remain as unobtrusive as you can.