For the Mayan people, the Day of the Dead, or Dia de Los Muertos, is an annual tradition bringing families together to honor those who’ve passed. Every November 1st, the cemeteries in Santiago and Sumpango, in the Sacatepequez region of Guatemala (only 30 minutes from Antigua), sees families pouring in from all over the country carrying orange flowers known to represent the dead and pray softly for their safe journey back to Earth from the afterlife. But the festival begins when brilliant colors hover high in the sky.

Traditional and Modern Significance

The well-known tradition of Barriletes gigantes, or giant kites in English, is a cultural event for Mayan communities which dates back to the pre-columbian era–a time before European influences were forced on the Americas. Colorful kites represented the union of the underworld of the deceased and the land of the living. According to the legend, the specifics of the designs, weavings, and colors on the kites helped the living communicate with their ancestors and assisted them on their journeys back to Earth to visit family members without the interruption of evil spirits.

In a report about Guatemala’s traditions, Michael K. Steinberg, an associate professor at the University of Alabama notes “The weavings and kites are important cultural symbols and tied to specific ethno-linguistic Mayan identity in Guatemala, with designs depicting specific family stories, including, at times, government oppression and economic conditions.”

Now a days, the significant messages displayed on the kites has moved from a desire to communicate with the dead, to one of peace, hope, and companionship for the living. Designs are influenced by current social movements sometimes calling an end to careless violence or government corruption. Some of the messages displayed in recent years include “No more deaths of innocent lives in Guatemala,” “Children of the ancestral culture,” “Respect life is weaving peace,” and “We all deserve the same respect.”

Constructing the Barriletes Gigantes

Traditionally, the construction of the kites took 40 days to make; the first day saw the unmarried men of the village heading out at 4AM to collect the bamboo that is used for the kite’s frame. Every part of the kite is a natural resource–the tails are made from woven cloth, the rope is made from the strong maguey plant, and even the glue is made from yucca flower, lemon peel, and water.

Today, designs for the barriletes take many months to complete and typically artists are inspired by what they’ve seen at the festival; they begin preparations for the following year almost as soon as the festivities are over, painting and weaving the face of it in significant colors.

About two weeks before November first, local communities begin to put their kite together; the kites are often constructed using bamboo, cloth, and paper and on the day of the festival, they’re transported to their respective sites and hoisted upwards by several people. Because of their sizes, the barriletes gigantes don’t actually fly, though you must look up to the sky to see them. Participants along the sidelines make smaller kites to fly overhead.

Onlookers clap and cheer for their favorite barrilete gigante. Those whose kites win best design and stay afloat (upright) the longest win prizes.

What to Eat

The staple dish sure to cure your growing hunger throughout this all day event is called fiambre–a dish where its recipe often depends on the family which makes it and the variations they’re able to come up with based on available ingredients. However, throughout the years, a few staple fiambres have been established.

Fiambre rojo specifically contains beet for its red color.

Fiambre verde is characterized by the green color of the steak’s juices caused by its seasonings.

Fiambre blanco includes the same ingredients as those above, but does not include any beet.

Fiambre dulce is characterized by the sweetness of its juices which are seasoned with brown cane sugar.

Plan Your Visit

Dia de Los Muertos is a cultural festivity that dates back to the reign of the Mayan people. The crowd is a mix of local Guatemalans and tourists from all over the world eager to take part in the day long festivities. Its bright colors, sacred traditions, and delicious meals create an unforgettable experience for locals and visitors every November 1st. So, don’t forget to add this event to your bucket list and see it for yourself!