Guatemala's Running of the Horses
Story and photos by Michael Shapiro

Drunken caballeros barely survive the New Year's Day festivities in Todos Santos

Chanting an ancient song that sounded like it could have come from the soul of a Native American warrior, the caballero wobbled on his old white horse, a flask of home–distilled corn liquor in one hand and the horse's reins in the other. He wore the typical traje (dress) of Todos Santos Cuchumatan: pants with thick red and thin white stripes, a blue–and–white striped shirt, a round, narrow–brimmed hat with a blue studded band, and a hand–knit turquoise and magenta bag. The red sashes forming an "X" across his chest showed he was a professional rider, not one of the local amateurs. Sprouting from his hat, to mark the special day, was a bouquet of yellow, red and blue feathers that caught the wind as he rode.

Like many of the other riders, as his horse trotted to the starting line this caballero continued to sip from his flask and splash a bit of the clear liquor on the ground in benediction. He listed from one side to the other, catching himself just before his angle became so steep that he'd tumble to the ground.

The morning sun had just risen above the jagged mountains enclosing the town, shining brightly into the weary riders' leathery faces. It was just after 8 a.m., the first day of January, and most caballeros had been up all night ushering in the new year at fiestas hosted by the head of their riding clubs. The New Year's Day correo de caballos (running of the horses) in Todos Santos, a remote village in Guatemala's western highlands, brings old and young out of their homes to line the streets and gaze from the rooftops.

Journey into the Mountains
A couple of friends and I decided that Todos Santos would be an ideal place to celebrate the new year. Far from the chaotic celebrations of Guatemala's cities and towns, we thought the remote mountain village would offer tranquility and time for reflection. And we wanted to see the market that drew produce and crafts from throughout the highlands and was famed for its intricately woven bolsas––the pouches carried by men and women.


Getting to Todos Santos isn't easy, but as they say in Guatemala, vale la pena: it's worth the effort. From our base in the colonial town in Antigua, my friends and I drove about five hours on the Pan–American Highway to the city of Huehuetenango. We continued on a paved road north for about 90 minutes, asking the locals where to turn for Todos Santos. There was no sign, but some friendly young men pointed us west and shouted "recto, recto" (straight all the way).

The arid brown hills were laced with pine trees and yucca–like agave plants, some with flower–laden spikes shooting twenty–five feet into the sky. Along the road were red–hot pokers, the bright scarlet succulents that seem to explode like floral fireworks. Cars and buses were scarce but sheep weren't: indigenous shepherds, some who looked as young as eight, steered flocks up steep mountain trails. Only a few dwellings dotted the road to the village; most of these no longer have the thatch roofs that just 15 years ago topped almost every home here. But they retain their old shape; some are very similar to the yurts of Mongolia.

We spent our first morning hiking up to Las Letras, the thirty–foot–high letters composed of rocks painted white that spell out the town's name. Think of the Hollywood sign but without the glitz or stability: the rocks have to be put back in place after each storm. As we climbed, we hiked past a farmer named Lucas, who was probably in his thirties but had the weathered face of an older man. Tending to his field of winter squash, Lucas asked in English, "Do you call this watermelon?" Other tourists must have put the word in his vocabulary––the gigantic green squash looks like watermelon and can grow just as large. Lucas's wife worked alongside him; an infant wrapped in a colorful shawl rested snugly against her back.

A few hundred feet above the town, a misty view of the valley opened after the gauzy clouds retreated. From Las Letras our gaze fell upon the cemetery, the closest thing to an urban center in Todos Santos: a tight cluster of mausoleums painted in vibrant blues, greens and pinks. What a contrast to the sterile whitewashed cemeteries of the U.S.

Home in the Village, or Not
A slight local man came down the trail carrying a massive bundle of logs held to his back with a strap that looped around his forehead, the way Maya have been bearing their burdens for millennia. He rested while his young son climbed in nearby trees and asked why my two female companions weren't home with their parents for the holidays. I asked if I could lift his bundle. He agreed but warned me with a single word: "pesa"––it weighs. I could barely budge it. "Si," I said, "pesa mucho." The logs must have weighed close to 100 pounds, probably about the same as the man.

As we reached the edge of town, we came upon an indigenous woman weaving a huipil (blouse) while her 10–year–old daughter wove her mother's hair into a braid. The woman, who told me her name is Simona, used wooden slats to press the threads into place. Into the weave she inserted delicate designs, a bird here, a local pattern there, to signify she's from Todos Santos. Each Mayan village has its own huipil style, color and pattern, and the locals proudly wear their traje, showing where they're from. What's special about Todos Santos is that the men still wear the indigenous clothes; men in almost all of Guatemala's other villages have abandoned traditional dress.

Virtually all residents of Todos Santos are descendants of the Maya: they have strong squat builds, round faces, dark eyes and jet–black hair. They speak Mam, one of the 22 Maya languages still widely used in Guatemala. When we conversed in Spanish, we were all speaking our second language.

Unexpectedly, I met several people in the town who spoke English well. One of them was Juan, whom I met while he was painting his three–story house peach–orange. Juan told me he'd been working in Michigan, manufacturing auto parts, but had a hard time because unemployed Americans accused him of stealing their jobs.

His father had left him their house in Todos Santos when he died, and Juan had added rooms and balconies, working to make it a hotel. He asked us what travelers look for in a hotel. I said I just want a firm bed. Samantha and Carey, the two women I hiked with, responded almost in stereo: "clean bathrooms." Juan told me that he's close to gaining his American citizenship and proudly proclaimed that he'll be the "primero Todos Santero Americano!"

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