Step back in time to a period before Christopher Columbus’ arrival, along with his conquistadors, to colonize South and Central America. You’ll find stone pyramids intact where the Mayan people worshipped, celebrated, and mourned life’s fragility. In these same tropical rainforests, filled with panthers, monkeys, anacondas and other amazing wildlife alongside dormant volcanoes, the Coffee Harvest Festival takes place to celebrate Guatemala’s famous coffee. Besides taking the time to chase waterfalls, you can hike through the jungle and visit cities rich in colonial history. Arrange to attend one of the lively festivals held during the year, like Day of the Dead Kite Festival. Be certain to check out their Holy Week (Semana Santa) celebration in addition to other culturally significant, music-filled festivals featured in this list of top festivals in Guatemala.
1. Cobán Folkloric Festival
Join one of Guatemala’s most recognised festivals held on the last Saturday of July. The Cobán Folkloric Festival, known locally as Rabin Ajau, is held annually and celebrates the culture of the Kekchis Aboriginals. The festival is truly a feast for the eyes for those attending, with locals dressed in colourful costumes, performing traditional dances, retelling Mayan history. Accompany the citizens of Cobán in a joyous sing-a-long of traditional marimba songs.
Cobán Folkloric Festival
Address: Cobán, Guatemala
Takes place: July
2. Semana Santa
Every spring, Guatemala celebrates Holy Week (Semana Santa) with much anticipation of the amazing processions through its streets countrywide. First off, large hand-woven carpets featuring designs of tropical fruit are laid down on the main streets used for the procession. Slowly, the religious procession moves over the carpets accompanied by priests and nuns dressed in robes carrying huge ornately decorated relics of Mary and Jesus. During the religious ritual, the faithful watch in anticipation of each statue while singing along to the hymns and burning incense with a large crowd of swaying attendees.
Takes place: March/April
3. Day of the Dead Kite Festival
While visiting Guatemala, make sure to voyage to the small hillside village of Sumpango for the spectacular Day of the Dead Kite Festival. Indulge in some authentic street food before heading towards the cemetery where the commemoration of deceased relatives takes place. On All Saints Day (November 1st), the kites are finally readied to soar after months of laborious workmanship to create these colourful, stunning, giant masterpieces. The kites are released on the sacred hill overlooking the cemetery. Locals believe that they will succeed in protecting the town from evil by scaring off the spirits of the dead through offerings attached to the kites.
Day of the Dead Kite Festival
Address: Sumpango, Gautemala
Takes place: November
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4. Fiesta de Santo Tomás
One can feel the anticipation in the crowd for the fireworks to be set off to start the Mayan- and Catholic-fused celebration of Saint Thomas (Fiesta de Santo Tomás) each December. After the fireworks are set ablaze in front of the church, locals dressed in traditional Mayan costumes, with monkey and leopard masks, adorned with colourful plumage, dance their way through the street. Crowds line the streets, celebrating and dancing along with the beat of traditional Mayan music. The truly spectacular performance occurs when pole dancers scale a 100-feet (30.48-meter) pole with their hands or ankles tied with a rope and spin around at high speed in a death-defying performance before awestruck attendees.
Fiesta de Santo Tomás
Address: Chichicastenango, Guatemala
Takes place: December
5. Día de la Asunción
Each August, the summer version of Easter is celebrated throughout Guatemala with a stunning religious procession, local delicacies, activities, and much more. In the capital of Guatemala City, the festivities begin at Plaza Major with fireworks to signal the commencement of the procession. The celebration commemorates Mary’s ascension to heaven, according to Catholic faith. Crowds of locals and visitors line the streets to witness the ornately adorned Mary with a crown of stars, and statues of angels slowly make their way through the streets accompanied by sacred hymns.
Día de la Asunción
Takes place: August
6. Coffee Harvest Celebration
The Coffee Harvest Celebration kicks off in the sleepy highland town of Fraijanes with a procession featuring the relic of the Virgin of Candelaria known as Black Madonna. The festival is full of traditional dance and music to celebrate the production of the world-famous coffee grown by local farmers in the rich volcanic soil found around Antigua and its mountains. Be sure to join in the action by indulging in champurrado (sesame seed cookie), by dipping it in coffee or cocoa as you would with biscotti in cappuccino.
Coffee Harvest Celebration
Address: Fraijanes, Guatemala
Takes place: February
7. Día de la Independencia
Expect lots of fanfare, marching bands and waving of the Guatemalan flag as the parade makes its way through the capital of Guatemala City. The day when Guatemala became independent from Spain is celebrated throughout the country. Those in attendance will be exposed to speeches by their local government officials. It is set to rile up the crowds in a patriotic fervour. Indulge in local delicacies while watching a dance-off between the Christians, the Moors and the El Baile del Torito, to traditional marimba bands.
Día de la Independencia
Address: Guatemala City, Guatemala
Takes place: September
8. La Quema del Diablo
Every December 7th, locals clear out their homes of rubbish to be burnt in a large bonfire at 6 pm. This is basically a ‘burning of the devil celebrations’, La Quema del Diablo. This celebration, which can be traced back to colonial times, was originally held in October but was reinstituted in December to be celebrated along with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Piñatas of the devil are burned in bonfires throughout Guatemala. And it is believed that through the Virgin, good triumphs over evil forces. It is important to sanctify or exorcise the villages and cities of evil spirits to prepare for the commencement of the holy Christmas season and its celebrations.
La Quema del Diablo
Address: Guatemala City, Guatemala
Takes place: December
9. Day of the Dead Drunken Horse Race Festival
Around November 1st, the Day of the Dead Drunken Horse Race Festival is held throughout the Mayan Highlands. During the three days prior to the festival, locals drink and dance along to marimba while enjoying the party atmosphere. Local men dress in white striped pants, colourful shirts and straw hats while overdrinking to the point of falling down drunk. They are strapped onto their saddles to participate in a horse race. The horses race throughout the village at very high speed and the event lasts for hours.
Day of the Dead Drunken Horse Race Festival
Address: Todos Santos, Gautemala
Takes place: October/November
10. Mayan New Year
In April each year, Guatemalans join together to celebrate the Mayan New Year. During this time of celebration, the Mayans take time to reflect on all that has happened on a personal or community scale. They evaluate which have been a force for good or bad during the year. The locals perform cleansing ceremonies with bonfires and make offerings to the Gods. Some ceremonies take place before the ancient stone ziggurats (pyramids) near Lake Atitlá.
Mayan New Year
Address: Lake Atitlán
Takes place: February
Attend culturally rich Guatemalan celebrations
Between visits to National Palace of Culture and National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, to check out ancient Mayan history, be certain to arrange your travel plans so that you can attend the culturally rich festivals. Become a local by indulging in the native cuisine and listening and dancing to the music. Celebrate with the colourfully costumed participants of the celebrations held throughout Guatemala. Don’t leave without experiencing popular festivals such as those honouring Saint Thomas, Guatemala’s independence day, and many other fun-filled, joyous celebrations.
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