The best of the rest (4)
Fiesta de Santo Tomas
Where? Chichicastenango, Guatemala
How long? 1 days ~
The Fiesta de Santo Tomas takes place over the seven days leading up to St Thomas’s Day on December 21, and is arguably one of the biggest and best annual events in Central America. Held in the relatively remote (and unpronounceable) highland town of Chichicastenango – “Chichi” to you and me – the festival combines Catholic and native Mayan traditions in a series of unique dances, processions and live music.
The central square, with the church of St Tomas on one side, forms the centre of activities each night, hosting traditional masked dancing to crowds of locals in swirls of billowing incense. It’s a solemn, quasi-religious affair, but not without humour and the odd modern touch. The dancers, exotically dressed, are traditionally led by a king and queen who command the show with whistles; in years past, they have been followed by Batman and Robin, Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble, a bumblebee couple, a few mockingly endowed “women”, and a variety of others that really fit no description. In pairs, they do a sort of two-step, side-to-side jig with their arms swinging, to music that is pumped out of huge speakers mounted on a van.
After the dancing, thousands of firecrackers and firebombs are let off, after which there’s a candlelit procession of the Virgin that starts at the steps of St Tomas, and proceeds to the indigenous Indian church of El Calavario, where native musicians play simple drums and flutes and an incense burner stokes yet more clouds of smoke. The procession stops at the next corner of the square, with more firecrackers and firebombs soaring into the sky, a deafening practice that is repeated at every corner throughout the three-hour parade. This is repeated every night until the festival is over, although the focus during the last couple of days shifts to the Palo Voladores, a towering twenty-metre-tall tree trunk off which inebriated daredevils fling themselves, bungee-style – much to the amusement of the gathering crowds.
Where? Cusco, Peru
When? 24 June
How long? 1 day
The winter solstice has been a big thing for the Peruvians ever since the Incas, who were so concerned that the sun might one day disappear forever that they marked it with a huge festival to honour Wiracocha, the Sun God, and entice him to return for the new year by ritually sacrificing a whole farm’s worth of llamas. The event was revived in the latter part of the last century and now draws up to two hundred thousand people to the three-hour ceremony, held in the ancient Inca ruins of Sacsayhuaman, 2km outside Cusco. The re-enactment comes complete with costumes; speeches in Quechua, the Inca tongue; the parade of an Inca high priest in a golden throne; and choreographed dances. All rather cheesy, but it does give a hint of the incredible spectacle the original festivities would have presented. One thing that is missing, however, is the ritual animal slaughter – the llamas only notionally get their throats cut, and survive to spit their way through another day. The only other concession to modernity is the introduction of comfy seats for wealthy spectators, but there’s plenty of standing room with the locals if you get there early enough.
How long? 1 week
Everyone knows that the devil has the best tunes, and they never play louder than during La Diablada, held on the shores of beautiful Lake Titicaca. The festival serves several purposes. It’s a celebration of the city’s liberation from the Spanish, and a way of paying homage to the ancient spirits of the lake; but, mainly, one suspects, it’s an excuse to dress up in outrageous costumes and to party like olg Nick himself. An extravagant parade, led by the Peruvian version of Beelzebub, winds through the town’s streets to the lakeside in the afternoon of November 5.
Los Diablos Danzantes
Where? St Francisco de Yare, Venezuela
How long? 1 day
Like many South American festivals, Pentecost in Venezuela has a mixed African heritage and a Christian front. Fired by rum, performers dressed as devils play drums, dance madly, and generally stir up merry hell in the streets from dawn to dawn, while there are also big church services and cross-carrying parades. The point of all this is to chase away evil and so purify the community, and so the harder you party, the more effective your efforts will be. St Francisco de Yare, sixty miles southeast of Caracas, puts on one of the best shows, but it’s also worth getting out to some of the smaller coastal towns or villages a few days in advance to enjoy tourist-free warm-up sessions. Either way, you’ll get plenty of dance practice.