Traditional fiestas are one of the great excitements of a trip to Guatemala, and every town and village, however small, devotes at least one day a year to celebration. The main day is normally prescribed by the local saint’s day, though the celebrations often extend a week or two around that date. With a bit of planning you should be able to witness at least one fiesta – most of them are well worth going out of your way for. A list some of the best regional fiestas appears at the end of each chapter in the Guide.
Until recently fiestas came in two basic models – except Garífuna events, and were broadly ladino or Maya in style. Ladino towns’ fiestas involved fairgrounds and processions, beauty contests and perhaps the odd marching band and nights dancing to Latin music. In the Maya highlands, traditional dances with costumes and musicians dominated the celebrations. But today there’s a certain blurring of the boundaries between the two and some fiestas in indigenous villages have Latin music and dancing. What they all share is an astonishing energy and an unbounded enthusiasm for drink, dance and fireworks.
One thing you shouldn’t expect is anything too dainty or organized: fiestas are above all chaotic, and the measured rhythms of traditional dance and music are usually obscured by the crush of the crowd and the huge volumes of alcohol consumed by participants. If you can join in the mood, there’s no doubt that fiestas are wonderfully entertaining and that they offer a real insight into Guatemalan culture, ladino or indigenous.
In Guatemala’s Maya villages traditional dances – heavily imbued with history and symbolism – form a pivotal part in the fiesta celebrations. The most common dance is the Baile de la Conquista, which re-enacts the victory of the Spanish over the Maya, while at the same time managing to ridicule the conquistadors. Most are rooted in pre-Columbian traditions.
Guatemalan music combines many different influences, but yet again it can be broadly divided between ladino and Maya. For fiestas, bands are always shipped in, complete with a crackling PA system and a strutting lead singer.
Traditional Guatemalan music is dominated by the marimba, a type of wooden xylophone that originated in Africa. The oldest versions use gourds beneath the sounding board and can be played by a single musician, while modern models, using hollow tubes to generate the sound, can need as many as seven players. The marimba is at the heart of traditional music, and marimba orchestras play at every occasion, for both ladino and indigenous communities. In the remotest of villages you sometimes hear them practicing well into the night, particularly around market day. Other important instruments, especially in Maya bands, are the tun, a drum made from a hollow log; the tambor, another drum traditionally covered with the skin of a deer; los chichines, a type of maracas made from hollow gourds; the tzijolaj, a kind of piccolo; and the chirimia, a flute.
Mainstream ladino music reflects modern Latin American sounds, much of it originating in Miami, Panama, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. The sound on the street is currently reggaeton, which uses a dancehall reggae beat, fused with hip-hop vocals and techno. Merengue – fast moving, easy going and very rhythmic – is also very popular, as is salsa.