Horseracing in the Highlands

Photo by Claire Bourgin

Horseracing in the Highlands – Immerse yourself in tradition for the Día de Todos los Santos
In Guatemala, there are many festivities on November 1st in celebration of All Saints’ Day (Día de Todos los Santos), and the town of Todos Santos Cuchumatán is one of the places to be for the occasion. It’s a small village in the Cuchumatanes Mountains in the northwest of the department of Huehuetenango. Over the centuries, they have kept their traditions alive and the horserace on the 1st of November is one of them.

At 2,500 meters above sea level (8,200 ft.), Todos Santos Cuchumatán is surrounded by mountains. Located three hours north of the city of Huehuetenango, Todos Santos is one of the places in Guatemala, along with Lake Atitlán, where men, women and children alike wear the fashions of their ancestors. The majority of men are farmers and most of the women are weavers. The language of the area is Mam, one of the 23 indigenous languages of Guatemala, and most residents also speak Spanish as a second language.

The origin of the November 1st horse race is vague. It could be the celebration of the triumph of a group of Mam who took horses and escaped from the Spaniards. Or it could be linked to the ritual purification of the soil, as participants sacrifice chickens and spill their blood. It is not a competition; people just ride for fun and out of tradition, which sometimes confuses foreigners: there’s no “winner.” But it’s certainly fun to watch.

Photo by Claire Bourgin

Most of the riders have stayed up the night before drinking in celebration with their friends and family. Many are so intoxicated during the race that it’s a wonder they can stay on their horses! But sometimes they don’t, and they fall off. If someone dies, supposedly it means that it’s going to be a good year for the town. The riders dress with plumes and a special belt and jacket, and they race the length of a hundred-meter track – back and forth, back and forth. And so it goes, all day long. According to local superstition, the horsemen have to participate in the race for four consecutive years. No more, no less, or else it brings bad luck. For their last year, they have to eat an entire chicken the night before the race. During the race, each rider carries another chicken with him on his horse, and at the end of the day, the chicken’s head is cut off as a sacrifice. Some people can spend up to Q20,000 (around $2,600) during the three days of the celebrations in Todos Santos Cuchumatán; this represents a huge outlay of money in this impoverished community, but it’s all in the name of tradition and celebration.

The sale and consumption of alcohol was banned by the mayor of Todos Santos about four years ago. Now it’s only allowed during the week of the festival. With alcohol prohibited during the rest of the year, many make the most of this limited period of availability, and those who have imbibed too much can be seen trying to stay on their feet or sleeping in the streets.

On November 2nd, the entire population of Todos Santos Cuchumatán goes to the cemetery to celebrate their dead; they decorate the tombs with garlands, flowers and candles, and they improvise small ceremonies accompanied by the sound of firecrackers and marimba.

Todos Santos Cuchumatán does not have many hotels and they tend to fill up quickly for the celebration.
So it’s best to make a reservation.

Cost: 1 person – $20 (Q150); 2 people $26(Q200) Telephone:  4791-1412
It’s the most luxurious hotel in Todos Santos. There are 10 rooms with both double and single beds. Each room has a private bathroom with hot water, and some of the rooms have TVs. They offer shared meals and they show movies about Todos Santos. There is a shop where coffee is served and chocolate, and products from the weaving cooperative are available. The hotel is located on the left-hand side of the street that climbs the hill to the left of the park.

Cost: 1 person, shared bathroom – $12 (Q90);
2 people, private bathroom – $16 (Q125).
Telephone: 7783-0603 or 5327-9313
This hotel has 15 rooms, 6 of them with private bathrooms. The single, double and triple rooms are comfortable, and extra blankets are available upon request. The private bathrooms have hot water and towels. There is a cozy communal living room, as well as a dining room where breakfast is served (not included in the room price). The outside door is locked at 10:30 PM, but there is a bell for late entries.Take the street to the left of the park. Take a left at the first street. The hotel is located on the right-hand side about 30 meters down.

Cost: 1 person – $5.00 (Q40);
2-3 people – $4.50 (Q35) per person.
Telephone: 5192-1794
Hotel Mam has five rooms with double beds which all have shared bathrooms. All bathrooms have hot water. There is also a traditional Mayan sauna (chuj) available for use for an additional charge. Take the street to the left of the park. Take a left at the first street. Hotel Mam is located on the right-hand side about 20 meters down.

Cost: Per person, shared bathroom;
$4.00 (Q30).
Telephone Number: 5789-3175
This hotel has 5 rooms, only one of which has a private bathroom. All are equipped with queen-sized beds. The bathrooms have hot water. You can use the kitchen for Q5/day. You can also climb up to the roof to eat or just enjoy the view.

To get to this hotel, take the street to the left of the park. Take a left at the first street. You’ll pass Hotel Mam and Hotelito Todos Santos. Continue until the next street. Take a right up the hill. The hotel is located on the right-hand side about 10 meters up the hill.

For more information about other festivities taking place on the
Día de Todos Santos (November 1st),
see page 20.
For more information on transportation and guides, contact Adrenalina Tours at 7932-5858 or, or visit

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