Giant Kites, Bright Colors, and a Graveyard: Guatemala's Day of the Dead

by Anders Bruihler / Mar 27, 2014 / 0 comments

People scream as the huge mass of bamboo poles and tissue paper plummets toward them. At the last moment, it pulls out of the dive and soars back up into the air. Everyone keeps a watchful eye on the giant kite. I’ve heard enough stories to know that these things really can hurt.

In Central and South America, November 1st is known as Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), an important holiday in remembrance of the deceased. Today is that special day, and I’m in Guatemala. This country has a very unique way of celebrating this holiday.

My eyes follow the shallow steps up the side of the nearly vertical hill. Damp dirt sticks to my hands as I pull myself up the slope. At the top I see a path leading up the hill. Two women cook corn on a grill on one side of the path. Further up the hill, a man sells kites. His kites are quite unusual. They are either hexagons or octagons, very colorful, with streaming tails. The ones for sale here are only two feet across, but the big barriletes gigantes are what we are here to see.

Food Vendors. Giant Kites, Bright Colors, and a Graveyard: Guatemala's Day of the Dead

Food vendors

We walk onto a green space on the side of the hill. Families are scattered throughout the field, and some kids are flying, or attempting to fly, the small kites. More vendors sell a rainbow of kites. All colors and designs, they flap in the wind. The reds, browns, oranges, and yellows of candy wrappers fill cheap plastic trash baskets. Traditional foods roast on black coal grills, and blue and yellow tortillas fry on large metal sheets.

Selling Kites. Giant Kites, Bright Colors, and a Graveyard: Guatemala's Day of the Dead

Selling kites

Up the slope, a jumble of stalls stands in front of a concrete wall. People walk through openings in the wall, and I see something multicolored jutting up above the top of the barrier. Are those the famous giant kites? We walk up the hill to take a closer look.

Kite on a hill. Giant Kites, Bright Colors, and a Graveyard: Guatemala's Day of the Dead

Kites on a hill

After emerging from the small maze of vendors, we walk through the gap in the concrete wall. We are on the edge of a huge stadium located at the top of the hill.

The following scene is an amazing sight. Towering bamboo poles, rooted in the dry brown earth, reach towards the sky. Browned-skinned locals (and the occasional white-skinned tourist) wander among the poles. The people are adorned with clothes of all colors. On my left, three bamboo rods form a star, and a white hexagonal fabric hangs from the bamboo. This structure leans on one of the tall bamboo posts, and rows of these constructions stretch off away and to the left, some of them octagons or other shapes. A crowd further away hides something from my vision.

But as I look to my right, my breath gets taken away. Giant kites - more than 40 feet tall - reach up into the sky. A rainbow of colors covers the front of each kite, featuring all kinds of designs. I am drawn toward the giants.

Giant Kites, Bright Colors, and a Graveyard: Guatemala's Day of the Dead

Giant kites

A burst of clapping and cheering steals my attention, and I jog ahead to see what has happened. I come out from behind a kite just in time to see a magnificent peacock spread its blue wings into the sky. The huge paper creature flaps its wings just like it were a living, breathing bird, and men tie the beast to the poles.

As I approach, I can see the amount of work that has gone into this craft and the detail that has come out in the creation. Each feather contains an impossible amount of detail. I now notice that the fabric is just tissue paper, but it is several layers thick, and not flimsy at all. Small openings in the paper give a glimpse of the blue sky. As I peek behind the artistic front of the kite, I see the monster of a bamboo frame behind. It looks like the spiderweb of a drunken arachnid, with long bamboo pieces tied together all over the place. I can’t imagine how this peacock can fly, with all that weight on its back.

We’ve heard they do fly the huge ones, but only if the conditions are right. There isn’t much of a breeze now, so I don’t think I’ll get to see these beasts dance in the air today.

I head back toward the center of action, and weave through the rest of the kites. The barriletes have all sorts of colorful designs. Some aren’t even shaped anything like a circle. Various designs that I spotted included celebrating Mayan heritage, promoting the Red Cross, and protesting child labor in Guatemala.

Giant Kites, Bright Colors, and a Graveyard: Guatemala's Day of the Dead

There are far more locals than tourists here, and traditional dress is popular. Across the dirt field, food stalls line the edge. Plumes of smoke rise up above the diners.

I leave the kites behind me and come to a clearing with lots of people scattered around. On a small stage, a man talks in Spanish; speakers blast his voice to everybody's ears. I don’t quite comprehend what he says, but then people applaud lightly. Heads turn towards a bleacher in response to the introduction. Halfway up, someone is holding a kite (about five feet across), and I see a thin rope running from it to somewhere in the crowd below.

We wait a while, probably for the wind to pick up, and then the kite soars up into the air! A man runs wildly through the crowd pulling the tether. The long tail sways in the wind, and the man takes a short break from running. The kite starts to fall towards the ground, and the man runs off again, which raises it higher into the air. At the edge of the field, he can’t run any farther, and so the kite makes a few wide turns and then crashes to the ground. The crowd applauds, and the voice makes another announcement. I see the next kite being readied for launch.

Flying a big kite! Giant Kites, Bright Colors, and a Graveyard: Guatemala's Day of the Dead

Flying the big kite

We head back out of the stadium and walk halfway down the green hillside. My brother buys two kites, and we take turns flying them. By now many more kites are scattered in the air. The traditional kites are surprisingly easy to fly, as long as there is enough wind. Our hexagon flies better than our bird-shaped kite. I think pulling the string back and forth helps keep it up higher in the air, but I’m not sure. Little kids run around, laughing and pulling their kites along either low in the air or on the ground.

flying small kites. Giant Kites, Bright Colors, and a Graveyard: Guatemala's Day of the Dead

Flying small kites

Hungry, I walk back up with my mom to buy some food. We tour the variety of stands, pondering what to eat. A large pig roasts over a fire, and tortillas are a common sight. chaotic blend of smells fills the air. We eventually choose a stall and get our food. We dig into three tortillas and some meat covered in an orange sauce.

Eating well! Giant Kites, Bright Colors, and a Graveyard: Guatemala's Day of the Dead

As we head back, I notice teams assembling additional kites.

We stop to watch the raising of another giant kite. After a countdown of Cinco! Cuatro! Tres! Dos! UNO!, rows of men heave on long ropes and the beast lifts up off the ground. More perspiring men push from underneath as the kite rises up into the air. When vertical, it thunks into the bamboo posts and men scramble to tie the bottom down before the breeze works any mischief. The crowd applauds as the last of the ropes are tied down.

Lifting the big kite. Giant Kites, Bright Colors, and a Graveyard: Guatemala's Day of the Dead

Lifting a big kite

Tourists cover their ears as the gunshots of firecrackers erupt from where the kite had been lying on the ground. Firecracker pieces explode in all directions, and I squint as smoke rolls over the crowd. One of the small projectiles flies into my face just above my eye, and I turn away. We move away as another chain of explosions is set off.

After we finish eating (and do a bit more more kite flying), we decide to follow the crowds to the cemetery nearby. We walk back across the field of kites and join the stream of people walking up the street. People move elbow to elbow as even more vendors promote their wares. Soon the herd of people squeezes through the white arched cemetery gates.

I am not usually excited by cemeteries (who is?), but this time I am genuinely interested. It’s not every day that you get to experience a giant holiday that centers around the dead. My expectations pay off on this special day.

This is not your typical cemetery. At the entrance, someone sells pine tree branches, and I see the needles and flowers decorating the tombs. The biggest and fanciest tombs are huge cubes of concrete painted different colors. The mood is not very somber, and this seems more like a celebration of life than death.

Tombs. Giant Kites, Bright Colors, and a Graveyard: Guatemala's Day of the Dead


As we wander around, we see families eating at graves. They leave some of their food for the dead, and light candles to guide the deceased into the living world. Plastic cups of Coca-Cola signify God (because of the fizziness), and are placed on the graves too.

Giant Kites, Bright Colors, and a Graveyard: Guatemala's Day of the Dead

One section of the graveyard doesn’t have concrete tombs, but rather mounds of dirt and something to mark the grave. Large families sit in circles around these graves and eat their lunches with the dead. People write messages to the dead on kites and fly them here, too.

Giant Kites, Bright Colors, and a Graveyard: Guatemala's Day of the Dead

We eventually find our way back to the entrance of the graveyard. I take one last look at the multicolored tombs, and we wind our way back up the hill. I hope that somehow the big barriletes gigantes are up in the air. As we push our way back up the road to the hilltop, my optimism faces realism.

When we top the rise over the field of kites, I see no giants in the sky. But as I look down, I see rows and rows of grounded multicolored kites. Guatemalans scurry around like ants on the field below, enjoying this holiday. The giant kites dwarf everything else. The festivities are continuing just as happily without the wind, and I suddenly realise why. These kites aren’t really built to fly. They’re more an art, a message for God and for ones who have passed away. Taking to the air is just a bonus in the way they’re made. What really matters are the carefully crafted designs and the intent behind them.

Giant Kites, Bright Colors, and a Graveyard: Guatemala's Day of the Dead

The Day of the Dead is more a celebration of life than a mourning of death. It’s a time for families to meet and have fun.





Anders Bruihler is a member of the Youth Travel Blogging Mentorship Program


All photos courtesy and copyright Anders Bruihler