Guatemala: The Day of the Dead

The Day of the Dead Guatemala
The colourful kites, celebrating The Day of the Dead

Is the Day of the Dead a missed travel experience, simply because solo travellers don’t have Guatemala on their travel radar? Discover why travellers far and wide visit Guatemala to seek out the annual festivities of The Day of the Dead and why solo travel to Guatemala, should be on your travel radar.


DAY OF THE DEAD – NOT A MORBID LEGEND

If you’ve heard about the Day of the Dead and not sure what it is, or this is the first time,  maybe the name ‘Day of the Dead’ makes you imagine it’s something morbid, or a spooky legend when the dead return to haunt earth.  But it couldn’t be further from anything morbid or spooky.

My first experience of Guatemala’s, Day of the Dead, was when I lived there (a long time ago). At the time, I didn’t have any idea of the importance paid to the day until I experienced the actual day.  It was a unique occasion, as we’ve got nothing like it (in Australia).  I loved soaking up the atmosphere and was touched by the importance families place on the day, and also fascinated watching families hang out in the cemetery, with picnic baskets in tow and in their best threads.

AN ANNUAL FESTIVAL

‘El Dia de los Muertos’, translates to 'The Day of the Dead'. Across Latin America, tradition dictates this annual event; the day when families come together to remember loved ones that have passed. It’s a celebration, and although a legend, it’s not a spooky one. It’s the day when (supposedly) the souls of those that have passed come back to see (or see-over) their families.

And to mark the day, it’s traditional for locals to visit the graves of the dead. Bringing picnics with them, dressing up and celebrating. 

Visiting Graves, The Day of the Dead


KITES FLYING HIGH

Guatemala is a stand out for the celebrations across Latin America, given the importance placed on this legend, and is a major part of the country’s festive calendar, marked each year on November 1. Each country has its own way of celebrating and in Guatemala, it’s flying kites, very colourful kites. Not unlike their ceremonies for Semana Santa (Easter) the people of Guatemala go to great lengths for this day.

And, the most impressive of kites, are in Santiago Sacatepéquez and Sumpango. Here, they hold the largest and most well known festivals, with thousands of kites in the skies, flown by families, locals, and religious groups to honour the dead. Santiago Sacatepéquez and Sumpango are highland villages, easily reached from Antigua or Guatemala City.

Endless hours and days are spent designing their kites with the end of goal of having them dominate the skies over the graves. For some, it’s a year long effort to create their kites and it’s an incredible spectacle.

Fiambre
An example of a Fiambre for Dia de los Santos

THE DISH OF THE DAY

When I lived in Guatemala, I got to taste the dish served on ‘Dia de Todos los Santos’ . Called, Fiambre it’s like a salad. There’s also a story behind how it came about.  A Guatemalan friend told me his father would tell the story that it’s a dish that originated from a monastery;  when weary travellers passed by and they’d not eaten for a long time and the monks created a meal out of all they had, to come up with a dish (to nourish) the travellers, and it’s why Fiambre is a mix of so many ingredients.

Served cold and a mix of all sorts of vegetables and meats, I think the count is around 50 ingredients, or more.  Marinated in a vinegar style sauce it’s prepared a day or more before and every family will have their own version of the dish.  Whatever the recipe, there’s a lot of chopping and dicing of vegetables and a lot of ingredients. There’s also meats, egg and diary. It’s almost as if there’s a bit of everything and it’s easy to see how every family could have their own take on this very mixed salad.  Alas, the version I had was not so memorable. If I’d known at the time the significance of the dish, I think I would have seeked a better version of their ‘dish of the day’.

ABOUT THE NAME OF THE DAY

Day of the Dead, (El Dia de los Muertos) is the popular name for the day, 1 November in Guatemala. But also, the name’s day, All Saints Day (Dia de Todos los Santos’), is used in Guatemala. And with some Google research landing me on Wikipedia it turns up ‘All Souls Day’ is also a name for the day. From what I can gather (from Google research) is that the 3 names for 1 November; The Day of the Dead, All Souls Day and are All Saints Day have foundations around remembering the dead.

I use ‘The Day of the Dead’ because it provides a more literal translation for what the day is centered around, that is, remembering loved ones that have passed. Our local team in Guatemala call it The Day of the Dead, so I felt it was O.K to opt for the modern naming of the day.

 Antigua, Guatemala

Just one of the amazing views from Antigua, Guatemala


WHY SOLO TRAVEL GUATEMALA?

I’m often asked, by other solo travellers what is my favourite country. It’s Guatemala. I lived there, I learnt to speak Spanish, I got to know the people, and the colour of the country.  It’s sentimental and a big life memory.  I think anyone’s favourite is always going to be because of where you travelled, the people you meet, the experiences.

I know that most visitors to Guatemala won’t have the time I had in Guatemala. However, I can still  remember back to my first visit to Guatemala and how it captured me and drew me in. It was the reason I went back.  I love that she (Guatemala) surprises so many travellers. Probably because it’s less exposed and less travelled among the so many choices we have to make, as solo travellers.

And why solo travel in Guatemala?… that’s a whole other blog and my next one.  But I can wrap up with she’s colourful, it’s a country with easy travel distances between the highlights, she has the beautiful Spanish language, and tradition and culture are incredibly strong.

And best of all,  now you can join a solo travel tour to discover her wonders.


VISITING GUATEMALA FOR THE DAY OF THE DEAD

Our Vivid Guatemala tour starts in Antigua, an 8 day itinerary with the easy option to add extra time to stay in charming Antigua, before and/or after the trip.

Vivid Guatemala departs 31 October 2020. Find Out More

Have more time to travel?
Vivid Guatemala connects with Magic of Mexico solo travel tour. 

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About the author

Justine Waddington

Justine Waddington is the founder and director of Encounter Travel, a company that creates holiday groups exclusively for solo travellers. As a solo traveller with 60 countries under her belt and 14 years of leading travel groups, Justine is in the unique position of being able to offer tips and advice from the perspective of an experienced solo traveller and also that of a travel agent.

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