Fiesta de Santo Tomás (Feast of St Thomas): tips for Guatemala's religious festival with acrobatics

Chichicastenango. Guatemala. Market. Church. Shopping.Mayan Flea Market (I) by Poldavo (Alex)Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

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Location: Town plaza, Chichicastenango, Guatemala

Dates: 13–21 December

Level of participation: 3 – 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 1½ hours 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

See other festivals in December here.