The Drunken Horse Race of Todos Santos

Todos Santos Cuchumatan is a small town (or a large village, depending on your point of view) nestled high up in the Cuchumatanes mountain range of western Guatemala, near the Mexican border. It’s a simple place – one bank (with one ATM), a handful of basic hotels, and a few even more basic restaurants. And at an altitude of 2,500 metres, it can get cold, cloudy, and rainy at any time of year. The streets off the main road are dirt (or mud, after it rains), and everything’s shut by 9pm.

But there are plenty of reasons to come here. The hiking around town is some of the finest in Guatemala (including some of the highest mountains in Central America), and the local Maya culture is incredibly strong and startlingly evident. And one expression of that culture occurs every year, on the first two days of November, when the town holds one of the most famous (or notorious) fiestas in the country, with unrestrained drinking, inebriated locals, and bizarre horse races.

Todos Santos is reached from the department capital of Huehuetenango, via a vertiginous bus journey that takes me up 1,000 metres in less than an hour, through endless switchbacks and constant ear-popping. At the top of the climb, the view to the south is of Huehue fading into the clouds (with several volcanoes on the distant horizon); while to the north, the road levels out and we pass through an empty, grassy landscape that wouldn’t look out of place in the Scottish Highlands or North Yorkshire (except for the huge cacti everywhere). This region altiplano is the same area of the Cuchumatanes that I passed through on my hike in the Ixil region in September, albeit at the other (western) end.

At the creatively-named Tres Caminos junction (which is at a lung-challenging 3,500 metres), we descend into a steep, forested valley that takes us down to Todos Santos. The town is basically one main street, with a large, colonial-era, whitewashed church at one end, overlooking the square. But the place is totally overwhelmed by the mountains looming on either side, rising up hundreds of metres and isolating the town from the rest of the surrounding villages (which are all equally dwarfed by the enormous landscape).

Walking around town, I can see that everyone’s gearing up for a big weekend – market traders are setting up their stalls, food vendors are frying chicken and baking pizza, the carnies have somehow managed to erect an entire funfair on the smallest plot of flat land, and (most importantly) Gallo is delivering a truckload of beer.

Everyone in town is wearing their traditional clothes (although it’s not just for the fiesta, the locals dress like this all the time). And unusually, it’s the men’s costumes that are more eye-catching – they all have red-and-white striped trousers, blue-and-white striped jackets with embroidered collars, and natty straw hats (with the occasional cowboy hat or sports cap, for the older men and the teenagers). The local ladies, like all Maya women, are wearing long skirts and shawls, these ones covered in geometric patterns of blue, purple, and red. Todos Santos is well-known as a traditional place, not only in terms of fashion – the locals (who are almost all indigenous) speak the Maya language Mam first and Spanish second (with some English spoken by the men who have worked in the USA); and the town uses two calendars, the 365-day Gregorian and the 260-day Tzolkin, which consists of thirteen twenty-day months and which has been used by the locals for thousands of years.

At various points along the high street, marimba bands have set themselves up, and are playing to enthusiastic crowds of dancing drinkers – and judging from the whooping and hollering, the staggering men, and the empty cans and smashed bottles on the road, the town is well into the celebrations. Meanwhile, across town at the ‘racetrack’, a ceremony is being performed where a chicken is sacrificed to bless tomorrow’s race. I take a look at the beauty contest (which is being held in the school gym) and go to bed, with the feeling that tomorrow’s going to be a big day.

The following day is November 1st – All Saints’ Day (Dia de Todos Santos). It’s also a national holiday in Guatemala, although today’s a Saturday. I’m glad I got an early night, as I’m awoken at dawn by the sound of bombs exploding. The Guatemalan’s love of fireworks and loud noises for their fiestas has been taken to the extreme, as people are launching what sound like cannonballs into the air. There’s one loud explosion as the thing is set off, followed a few seconds later by a really loud explosion as it goes off, scaring birds, rattling windows and causing me to have a mini heart attack.

Even though the day and the town are named for all the saints, there’s not much holy veneration going on. There are a few people in the church (which has combined Christianity and Maya religions by dressing the various sculptures in local clothing – so the Virgin Mary has a shawl and a Maya-style handbag, and the Three Wise Men are wearing stripy trousers and straw hats). And in the market, the kids are playing arcade machines and table football. But the real action is just outside town, on the dirt path that serves as the racetrack. It’s not Flemington or Aintree or Churchill Downs, it’s just a track of a few hundred metres that the riders are tearing up and down. And already, there are casualties – in front of me there’s a rider being supported by two other men, limping along. He has a bleeding cut on his forehead, a black eye, and is covered in mud. But he’s still clutching tightly on to his bottle of beer.

The race isn’t exactly the Melbourne Cup or the Grand National or the Kentucky Derby – the riders simply mount their horses, corral together at one end, and then ride as fast as they can to the other end. Where they turn round and go back again. Many of the riders are wearing long capes and colourful headdresses with flowing tassels. And (equally noticeably) they’re all hammered. At each end of the course, the riders take a drink of beer or Quetzalteca (Guatemalan firewater). And that’s on top of whatever they’ve imbibed over the course of last night (having spent the whole night drinking beer and liquor).

I get chatting to a local (who proudly tells me that her grandfather took part in the races for many years), and she explains a bit more about the strange tradition. During the colonial period, it took the Spanish years to control this part of the highlands, due partly to the rugged terrain and bad weather, and partly to the inhospitable locals (who were constantly rebelling against the Spanish). Apparently, when the colonists finally took control over this area, they forbade the locals (who had a reputation as fine horse-breeders and riders) from riding horses. In addition, the locals were so dismissive of the Spaniards’ horsemanship that they claimed they could ride better while drunk. So when Guatemala became independent, the first thing the Todos Santeros did is get drunk and have a horse race. So the event is partly a celebration and partly a two-fingered f*** you to their ex-rulers. When I ask if the alcohol is absolutely necessary (and possibly even dangerous), she looks a little offended. “It’s tradition,” she replies. “And no more than one person dies every year.”

Looking at the state of the wasted riders by the afternoon, I’m surprised it’s only one. The ‘winner’ of the race is simply the last man on a horse, and having paid several thousand Queztals to the horse owners for the day (none of the riders own the horses), many riders get their money’s worth by riding until they fall off or pass out from the booze (or both). Some even get their friends to tie them to their mounts. Perhaps the horses would be happier if they weren’t being ridden by strange (and drunk) men – at one point, a horse rears, knocking over the flimsy wooden barriers and sending spectators, mud, and beer in every direction. And causing nothing but laughter from everyone else. I get the impression that even if there were deaths, the locals would just chuckle and carry on (and apparently, if any riders do snuff it, it’s considered an offering to the gods that will bring fertile crops in the coming year).

And then there’s the chickens – for reasons I could never discover, if you compete in four races (for four years, that is), you get to ride with a chicken. A rider tears past me holding a live, flapping bird in one hand and a can of beer in the other. A few minutes later he passes by on the way back, the beer replaced by a bottle of liquor and the chicken dead, its neck snapped and its body hanging limply in the man’s hand. I don’t think the RSPCA or PETA would approve of this…

Horsemanship is out of the question here, and the riders who do best seem to be the ones who can hold their drink. And considering that alcohol is generally unavailable for the rest of the year, it doesn’t take much to knock the town on its collective backside.

The following day is All Souls’ Day (Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos). The action has moved from the racetrack to the cemetery, as families clean the graves of their departed loved ones, leave offerings of flowers, food, and drink, light candles, and have a picnic. A picnic in a graveyard. But despite the setting, the atmosphere doesn’t feel morbid or gloomy. It feels more of celebration than of grief (I only see one person crying, and he’s plastered, so I’m not sure if that’s sadness or sloshedness). Guatemalans don’t seem to bury their dead underground in individual plots (lack of space perhaps), but in family tombs with spaces for each member, and with the larger families having tombs that rise up several metres, like small, concrete, multi-storey buildings. And just in case it gets too quiet and sombre, the kids have got more of those bloody bombs, which they’re launching from inside the cemetery, and which are producing explosions loud enough to wake the dead.

There are marimba bands and drinks stalls set up among the tombs. And the locals are eating fiambre, a huge dish of meat, cheese, and vegetables that’s made especially for this occasion and eaten only today. And outside, dancing drunkenly to another marimba band, is what-I-think-is-the-winner of yesterday’s horse race, along with his staggering friends.

Back in the town, and the rest of the men are still drinking. And judging from the state of their clothes and faces, many of them haven’t slept or changed or bathed. At the market, there are the usual food vendors and clothes sellers and wandering salesmen hawking cures for every ailment, from gastritis to impotence. There are also several photographers who’ve set up backgrounds that you can have your picture taken in front of. They aren’t of scenes that are anything real (like the Grand Canyon) – instead, they’re bizarre photoshopped collages of nature, skyscrapers, and random animals. One is a waterfall in between two mountains, with several Russian-looking churches, a helicopter, and two tigers. Another is a photo of everyone’s favourite American city, Atlanta (not New York or Chicago or San Francisco, but Atlanta), with a photoshopped plane flying out of it, in a distinctly September 11th-y way. And another is a random city of gleaming skyscrapers, with another plane, and more tigers. Who makes these, and where do they get their ideas from?

And there’s more random weirdness in the shops. Stopping in the hardware store to buy some more beer (the owner has cannily bought crates of Gallo and boxes of cigarettes, and is selling them out of his shop), I peruse his regular stock. Which includes a host of scented candles and soaps, with names like “The Honey of Love” and “Good Luck Always”. The Honey of Love soap has a picture of a copulating couple on it, and the Good Luck Always candle is covered in dollar signs. Considering my romantic and financial state, maybe I should stop drinking beer and spend my money on these instead?

Apart from a couple of older ladies, I don’t see any women drinking. But I do a double-take as a boy who can’t be more than twelve walks past me swigging from a litre bottle of beer. Men are passed out in the street and slumped against walls, and there’s an overwhelming smell of wee from every side street. A woman and a small child are standing over the body of a man who’s lying on the pavement, blacked out but still holding his beer can. Another guy has somehow managed to collapse underneath a car, between the front and back wheels – that should make things interesting when the driver comes back (unless he’s actually been run over). I take a look at the funfair (and even ride on the frighteningly-fast Ferris Wheel), then go to bed. I can’t keep up with these people…

The following day should be a working day for everyone. Except everyone’s at home, nursing what must be some epic hangovers. The town is quiet and empty (probably what it’s like for most of the year); and now the fiesta’s over, almost all the tourists have gone. And for the first time in four days, the weather’s warm and dry and clear – perfect for hiking. The hotel owner recommends some good walking and asks me how I liked the weekend. When I ask him if it was a good fiesta, he wistfully replies that nowadays it’s not the same as it used to be – “really crazy”. According to him, this year was quiet. Because only a few people were arrested, and nobody died!

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