Guatemala in December: festival central

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Still dithering over what to do during the silly season? Why not head to Guatemala for a totally different take on all things festive? Sure beats sitting on some department store Santa's knee, asking for presents you know you're never going to get…

Quema del Diablo (Burning of the Devil)

Location: Guatemala City and Antigua, Guatemala
Date: 7 December
Participation level: Low. You'll be watching, unless you fancy throwing out some rubbish.

If you want some good heavenly brownie points ahead of Christmas, there are few better ways than to help the Guatemalans burn the devil. In local traditions, the devil lurks in the corners of homes, beneath beds and among garbage. Each year, as a prelude to Christmas, homes are cleaned and on 7 December the rubbish is collected in the streets. Often, an effigy of the devil is thrown on top, just to really sort him out. At 6pm the piles of garbage are set alight, chasing out the evil spirits and ushering in a devil-free Christmas season. To accompany the burn there might be marimba bands and there will certainly be fireworks…another rocket up the fleeing devil's behind.
Quema del Diablo is celebrated across much of the country but you'll witness the best festivities in the capital city and Antigua.

Essentials: The air in all Guatemalan cities and towns this night will be thick with smoke, so take precautions if you have respiratory problems. Save your garbage for a couple of days if you want to help stoke the fire.

Local attractions: Guatemala City's huge, chaotic Mercado Central (Central Market) bursts with dazzling smells, sounds and colours. Hire a guide in Antigua to climb one of the three volcanoes outside the city.

Fiesta de Santo Tomás (Feast of St Thomas)

Location: Town plaza, Chichicastenango, Guatemala
Dates: 13–21 December
Participation level: Medium. Enjoy the fair and fireworks and watch others risk a limb on the flying pole.

The highland city of Chichicastenango (Chichi) celebrates its patron saint in a rather death-defying way. For a week, festivities are limited to typical festival events – parades, traditional dances, fireworks – but on 21 December (St Thomas' Day) things look up, literally. On this day, wooden poles as high as 30m are raised in the plaza beside the Iglesia de Santo Tomás and the dance of the palo volador (flying pole) begins.
Two ropes hang from the top of each pole and the palo volador dancers ascend in pairs, scaling the poles on wooden steps and tying the ropes to their bodies. Then they leap, swirling around the pole at high speed, the ropes unravelling as they go, lowering them to the ground. Some hang onto the rope with their hands, and others tie it around their ankles. It's like bungee jumping for the faithful.

Essentials: As Chichi has few accommodation options, arrive a few days early if you want to stay through the festivities. Failing that, popular Panajachel is about 90 minutes away by bus.

Local attractions: On Sunday and Thursday, Chichi holds one of Guatemala's largest indigenous markets. Stalls with tourist-oriented goods (carved masks, embroidered cloth etc) are generally around the market's outer edges.

More info: www.visitguatemala.com

Do you like to party while you travel? Check out our Year of Festivals guide, and start planning your next trip to coincide with an exotic celebration. What better way to mingle with the locals?