Travel writer Max Wooldridge joins the crowds at an unusual celebration in Todos Santos Cuchumatán, Guatemala.
Royal Ascot it wasn’t.
Amid the sound of marimba music and spectacle of masked dances a smiling, drunken horse rider bit the top off a beer bottle. It was All Saints’ Day (1 November), the prelude to Day of the Dead, when families all over Latin America spend hours in cemeteries at the tombs of their lost loved ones.
But in Todos Santos Cuchumatán, a remote village in the northern Guatemalan highlands, it was more like the Day of the Dead Drunk. Their All Saints’ Day festivities see masked dance troupes, firecrackers and ferris wheels take over the village square in an orgy of sound and colour, but it is a brilliant and madcap horse race not even Monty Python could have thought up that is the centrepiece of the fiesta. And as settings go it takes some beating. Todos Santos is a two-hour drive along a seriously bumpy track from the nearest town of any size, Huehuetenango. This mist-covered highland village, at an altitude of 2,470m, is set in a spectacular valley of the Cuchumatanes mountains.
The actual race is the culmination of week-long celebrations and the riders will have spent a sleepless night drinking - as well as being at the bottle most of the previous week too. But what may initially look like the annual meeting of Alcoholics-not-so-Anonymous is an endurance test of gladiatorial proportions, in which riders gallop between two posts, pausing to drink at each end. Displays of horsemanship are matched by their ability to drink and determined competitors see who can stay in the saddle for the longest time. Riders call it a day when they can no longer keep themselves on the horse. Every now and then you see a rider laid-out and left to sleep it off, surrounded by his concerned wife and young children. Many of the riders are decorated with ribbons and feathers and some wear a black woollen cape to protect against the chilly mountain air.
Crowds of local men and women line the course to watch. Many women wear distinctive hand-woven clothes and the men brilliantly-coloured (and pretty funky) traditional costume of Todos Santos - red and white striped trousers and shirts with heavily embroidered collars. Mothers carry their young in colourful sacks upon their backs, while their silent babies stare out wide-eyed. With foreign tourists wearing their own traditional dress code of fleeces and wraparound sunglasses it was like a meeting of two tribes.
During the wacky races my eyes looked continually at the face of one rider in particular. He grimaced a lot and was older than the other riders. His face was lined and sweat-free and he had the wisdom and quiet dignity of a village elder. He looked rather fed up with the whole caper and you sensed he had got roped into it for another year by his younger, more sweaty-faced competitors.
As the late morning sun started to burn my face I felt a steadying hand on my shoulder which soon became a gentle hug. "You’re gatecrashing our party, but you’re very welcome," a local man said. In Todos Santos it was easy to enter into the spirit of things and I soon discovered the benefits of joining in, rather than observing from afar. I hit the quetzalteca, a potent raw cane spirit that tastes like aviation fuel, and it wasn’t long before I was wobbling too. There’s nothing like a bit of the hard stuff to warm up a cold highland morning.
The festival in Todos Santos is probably the only horse race in the world where riders are more inebriated than the spectators, although in the sobriety stakes locals do not lag far behind. At the end of All Saints’ Day it’s not just the riders who are flat-out, besieged in a beautiful blur.