Giant Kites: Santiago Sacatepequez Visitors Guide

Sometimes, it’s worth it to ignore people’s advice and get your own take on things. Especially when it comes to travel. What some people rate as a “must” turns out to be a kitschy tourist trap. The restaurant everyone raves about may do nothing for you. Which is why I take TripAdvisor reviews with a spoonful of salt, as not everyone may be looking to have the same experience or interpret it the same way I do.

Santiago’s Giant Kites vs. Sumpango’s Giant Kites

We were very close to skipping our trip to Santiago Sacatepequez and heading out to Sumpango instead to enjoy their version of the Giant Kite Festival. This event happens every November 1st (All-Saints Day) and it’s a Guatemalan tradition going a little over 100 years. Our family had previously attended the giant kite festival in Sumpango.

Santiago Sacatepequez is the town that originally started the kite-flying tradition. It was on my to-do list even though people I talked to told me it was smaller (true), had fewer kites (true), there was more walking to be done to get to the site (true), and a lot less ready to accommodate the throngs of visitors that showed up every year (also true).

Personally, I find the giant kites of Sumpango enjoyable. Maybe it’s the excitement that builds up the further along one walks the main road that ends at the cemetery. Or maybe it’s all the delicious smells of mouth-watering food at the stalls we come across – which by now I’m familiar with and have grown to appreciate. It helps that the town seems to be better suited to accommodate visitors.

That said, I enjoyed Santiago more and felt it was closer to the roots of what the real festival is about. Sumpango’s kite stage is prettier – but it feels like it’s purposely set up to be a spectacle. In Santiago, there’s a sense that the kites are there for reasons other than for the TV cameras and tourists.

Arrival to Santiago Sacatepequez

I arrived in Sumpango via car – back when we had one. Now that I’m a veteran chicken bus rider, getting to Santiago Sacatepequez was as easy as eating a piece of pastel (cake).

From Antigua, we took the Guatemala City-bound bus and stepped off at the first San Lucas stop (Q5). The buses to Santiago Sacatepequez (Q3) were waiting around the block, behind the road that runs parallel to Highway CA-1. Once dropped off in the center of town, it was time to walk.

The Long Walk To The Cemetary

The walk was pleasant, if long – I estimate it was close to two miles – and definitely one of the best parts of the trip. At the edge of town, there seemed to be little activity – we arrived early. The crowds increase considerably after 10 am.

main road to Santiago Sacatepequez

 Shaved-Ice cart

street performers in Santiago Sacatepequez

Street performers

But things picked up once we turned the corner in front of the municipal stadium. We even came across Antigua’s own food truck, the Shtilero (click here for review – opens in new window)!

Shtilero in Santiago Sacatepequez

Shtilero goes where others can’t or won’t

I had no idea Santiago Sacatepequez had its own Arch.

Santiago Sacatepequez's arch

Santiago Sacatepequez arch

But unlike Antigua’s, this one you can walk across.

Arco de Santiago Sacatepequez

From atop the arch

The town’s church is next to the arch and more colorful inside than churches in Antigua.

Santiago Sacatepequez Barriletes Gigantes

 Kitemakers heading towards the cemetery.

Santiago Sacatepequez church

Church of Santiago Sacatepequez

interior of Santiago Sacatepequez church

 Inside the church of Santiago Sacatepequez

patron saint of Santiago Sacatepequez

San Santiago (Saint James), Patron Saint of the town – and also Antigua’s

religious imagery in Santiago Sacatepequez

Religious imagery

altar at Santiago Sacatepequez church

 The colorful chapel inside the church

dome of Santiago Sacatepequez church

 The main altar is rather simple

Saint Lucy with missing eyes Santiago Sacatepequez

 Saint Lucy – Tradition says her eyes were taken out when she was martyred – my Google search history got a bit weirder when I tried figuring out who she was

Once we went past the arch, that’s when the food stalls really kicked into gear. Lots of cooking, lots of meat and fish. If you’re a vegetarian, feel free to scroll down to the next set of pics…

street food of Santiago Sacatepequez

Fish on the menu…

grilling meats in Santiago Sacatepequez guatemala

She barely flinched – I would’ve screamed like a little girl

roasted pork Santiago Sacatepequez guatemala

Roasted pork and beer – a classic food pairing

It was also a great place to people-watch.

Guatemalan Indigenous Maya in Santiago Sacatepequez guatemala

Having a good time

wearing hats in guatemala

I’ll have to get me a cowboy hat one of these days – so cool

taking kites to cemetery in Santiago Sacatepequez guatemala

Going to a kite festival? Take a kite with you. Why didn’t I think of that?

In addition to the food, there were all sorts of artwork and trinkets up for sale.

paintings in guatemala

 Even in Santiago, you can’t escape Antigua paintings

bratz dolls in guatemala

It’s usually Barbie dolls, but nice to see sassy Bratz dolls get some respect

After a very entertaining walk, we finally saw the entrance to the cemetery at the end of the road.

crowds heading to the giant kite festival

Almost there

At the Festival

One big difference between this festival and Sumpango’s is that the stage where kites are placed in the cemetery. People pile up wherever they can, crypts and burial plots trampled over – more on that later.

The small plaza in front of the entrance featured a giant kite and an ongoing presentation. We also got a glimpse at the winners of the beauty pageant to choose the festival’s princess.

the lines stretch for miles at the kite festival

Huge bamboo sticks make up the kites’ frames

giant kite at the entrance to cemetery in Santiago Sacatepequez guatemala

The first kite we saw – Cardinal points (N, S, E, W) are very important to the Maya

Mayan beauty pageant

Beauty pageant winners

mayan beauty pageant speech

 The winner says a few words – Peace, human rights, and nature conservation are the usual talking points.

Notice they’re wearing the traditional traje (dress) of Santiago Sacatepequez.

the wind is strong at the giant kite festivalGiant kites on display – A kite is being raised

it takes many men to erect a giant kite

Everyone cheers and claps whenever a giant kite goes up.

preparing to raise up a giant kite in guatemala

 Giant kite components are made elsewhere and assembled at the cemetery on the date of the festival

Cost To Build a Giant Kite

We finally settled for a break at the edge furthest from the cemetery’s entrance. I struck up a conversation with one of the guys that had built the kite below. He said the total cost of materials had been between Q2,000 to Q3,000 ($250 to $375USD) and had taken them about two months to build. I was surprised at this since I’d always heard it was closer to Q50,000 ($6,250USD). When I told him this, he said that this was probably true when labor and the artisans’ time was factored in.

Giant Kite Design Themes

The theme of each kite varies. For the one below, the theme was a rather somber one. It depicted all the tragic events that have brought death to Guatemalans – earthquakes, malnutrition, civil wars, corruption, etc.

giant gite goes up

 This kite, which took two months worth of work to design and put up, went up at 12:04 p.m…

wind takes giant kite down in Santiago Sacatepequez guatemala

 …only to come down at 12:37 p.m. when high winds broke the bamboo frame 

On All Saints-Day, relatives of the deceased usually come in at dawn to repaint shrines, place fresh flowers, and spend some time remembering the dearly departed.

graves are cleaned up in all saints day in guatemala

 Tomb with fresh flowers

Oblivious Tourists

I felt a bit apprehensive about stepping over graves, especially those that appeared freshly dug. Seemed somewhat disrespectful. Although people certainly didn’t appear to mind, climbing atop anything they could to get a better view of the kites.

people climing over graves at Santiago Sacatepequez guatemala

Climbing over graves

As we were leaving, I spotted what appeared to be an older couple, grieving next to two small graves. The man held a piece of string- its purpose became obvious after a few seconds of observation.

The man holding the string was trying to stop people from trampling over the graves of his loved ones. While I was watching, a small child zoomed past me and ran over the graves, managing to knock the string out of the man’s hand. Before he could say anything, the kid was gone. The man sighed, picked the string up, and went back to whatever deep thoughts had him occupied moments earlier. Took a pic of the couple:

couple grieving at giant kite festival in Santiago Sacatepequez guatemala

 Couple sharing a moment with loved ones

The Meaning of Giant Kites

At the beginning of this post, I mentioned it was a fun trip – which it was. But because the festival was held in a cemetery, the experience felt a bit more meaningful.

The kites weren’t there originally for the amusement of city folks or conceived as a tourist attraction. Their original purpose was to help relatives cope with the loss of their loved ones, giving them a sense that they could do something to carry their spirits still “stuck” on this earth towards the heaven, where they believed they belonged.

Ultimately, this is what most people hope for their loved ones – and for themselves. Whether you believe there’s nothing on the other side, or that there’s a heaven or hell awaiting, what happens in the afterlife is a question most of us ponder at one point or another.

And so we walked back, towards an uneventful trip home. Only this time we didn’t need a kite to guide us.

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