Elizabeth Morrill takes us to the Sumpango kite festival in Guatemala where they fly giant, colorful kites in honor of All Saint’s Day.
What’s that in the sky — is it a bird? is it a plane?
If it’s November 1st and you happen to be in the Sacatepéquez Department of Guatemala, then it’s likely a giant kite.
The Sumpango Kite Festival on Dia de los Muertos is part of the All Saints’ Day celebration in the town of Sumpango, Guatemala.
A colorful cacophony of kites, music, food, and people, the festival recently celebrated its 40th anniversary.
The History Behind the Festival de Barriletes Gigantes
While much of Latin America celebrates Dia de los Muertos with special foods and events, the Kite Festival is unique.
Some sources date the kites back to pre-Colombian times when kites bearing messages to the dead were flown over the graves of the departed as a symbol uniting the living world with the underworld.
The kites in Sumpango, however, are linked to a more modern story. According to local legend, the inhabitants of Sumpango started building giant kites to frighten away evil spirits.
These evil spirits were distressing the spirits of ancestors visiting for Dia de los Muertos, resulting in a host of unwanted spectral visitors clogging up the streets. Local elders recommended that the sumpangueros fly pieces of paper in the wind to frighten away the evil spirits and allow their departed loved ones to find rest.
Now, forty years since the tradition first started, the festival has expanded to include kite competitions and artistic displays, as well as music, food, and markets.
The kites can stretch beyond 14 m (45 feet!). They are decorated in vibrant colors and often bear messages about peace and unity. Some kites sport more pointed commentary on environmental destruction or the impact of technology. The biggest kites take months to construct and require large teams of artists and engineers.
Want to get a taste of the local flavor? Check out this video by Guatevision.
How to Get to the Sumpango Kite Festival
Sumpango is a small town in rural Guatemala, about an hour and a half drive from Guatemala City (or 45 minutes from Antigua).
Although Sumpango is home to approximately 45,000 people, more than 100,000 people visit the kite festival.
This sudden influx of people means that traffic is truly insane and parking is non-existent. For those reasons, I recommend visiting the kite festival as part of an organized tour group with a professional driver who is familiar with the area.
The driver can drop you near the hill that leads to the kite festival and then return to pick your group up later, as opposed to spending half your time walking to the site from wherever you’re able to park along CA-1 (the major highway that runs past the town).
You’ll also want to arrive early before the main crowds descend. I recommend departing Guatemala City between 6:30 – 7 am (or between 7:30 – 8 am from Antigua). By 10 am, the crowds get crazy.
For more details about where to park and how to get to the event, check out this official recommendation (note: article is in Spanish).
Arriving at Sumpango
There are two main entrances to the soccer field where the kite festival is held. One road winds through Sumpango itself. We’d heard this road was crowded and long, and since we were visiting with a 7-month-old and a three-year-old, we opted for the shortcut.
Our bus dropped us off at the base of a dirt hill along the highway and we started climbing along with the throngs of other tourists.
After wending past street vendors and impromptu cafes, we reached the top of the hill about 15 minutes later. The last leg of the walk includes a very narrow path with a steep drop, but the views were so incredible that we barely noticed.
The view from the hill is truly spectacular, with a ring of volcanos looming in the distance. The sky just seems a little bit closer up on top of the mountain, and you start to see how the Maya believed their kites could speak to the spirits of the dead all those years ago.
Why are all these people trying to get me to use their private bathroom?
As there are no public facilities within the kite festival, your only bathroom options are port-a-potties or the pay-for-use outdoor toilets in the private homes as you pass. You’ll find large signs for BAÑOS as you walk along the road up to the festival, but you’ll want to take advantage before you arrive at the main field — you won’t want to shimmy along the path more than necessary.
Enjoying the Festivities
The kite competition doesn’t begin until later in the morning, and it runs all day. In the meantime, there are several areas to explore.
The cemetery is decked out for Dia de los Muertos, with colorful flowers, candles, and food offerings for visiting spirits.
As this is an important holiday where families remember and honor their deceased loved ones, it is important to be respectful.
Don’t take photos and don’t trample through a family’s private gathering. Their religious ceremony is not your photo op.
After a stroll around the cemetery, check out the souvenir stalls. Vendors hawk everything from kids’ toys to treats to (of course) kites.
If you get hungry, there are plenty of food stalls and impromptu restaurants set up around the main square. For those with adventurous (and resilient) stomachs, you can sample delicious tacos, empanadas, or tamales.
Be sure to wander through the display of giant kites before the crowds get too thick. The creators, usually a team, work for months to design, create, and build their kites. The largest rarely fly, but they make phenomenal works of art.
The Main Event – Giant Flying Kites, Oh My!
The main event, of course, is the kite-flying competition.
The kites themselves are a marvelous combination of art, engineering, and a little luck. Made primarily of bamboo, tissue paper, and cloth, they require several adults to launch.
You can stand in the general field area, or you can pay to sit in the VIP bleachers (but be warned that it’s pretty hot no matter what you choose). Kites bounce and dip in the wind and the crowd roars their encouragement – the longer the kite stays up, the higher the score.
But watch out! When these kites go down, they crash hard. You’ll want to keep little kids well out of harm’s way.
Want to build your own kite? See this tutorial by PrenseLibre.
Sumpango With Small Kids
Our family had a blast at the festival…for the first hour and a half. After we’d eaten breakfast at one of the stalls, wandered through the kite display, and bought (and crashed) our own kite, our kids were hot, tired, and cranky.
Since we’d traveled with a group, we had to tough it out. A few quetzales bought us access to the VIP bleachers where we could sit down.
However, the bleachers were steep, with huge gaps in the slats, making them very dangerous for the baby and my preschooler, neither of whom were in the mood to sit still.
Later, we found it stressful to watch the large kites in flight. Every time the kites dipped over the stands, we nervously leaned over the kids in case the kites suddenly came down — the flight paths were unpredictable and they frequently crashed into the crowds without warning.
Trying to Get Home
When it was time to meet our bus at the bottom of the hill, we struggled to make our way through the crowds to the path. Only two people could fit on the path at a time, and then only just. I had the baby in my arms while my husband carried the older one. Due to the crowds, we were immediately separated from one another. There were also areas where you had to ascend steep embankments (nearly impossible with a baby in arms), and I had to rely on the help of strangers to haul me up.
Our family finally reunited at the base of the hill — hot, scratchy, and exhausted. As we waited for the bus to arrive, we stood on top of what was essentially a run-off ditch (that smelled more like sewage). All the kids instantly plopped down and started building “mud castles”– while we did our best to keep them out of the way of the highway traffic just a few feet away. Of course, due to the festival traffic, our bus was quite late. I won’t lie, it was a rough hour.
But we made it home in one piece, a little sunburned, a little headachy, and very glad to have participated in such a unique cultural event.
Don’t Forget Your Sense of Humor
We travel a lot with our small children, and we fully expect that travel at this stage of life to be more challenging. From road trips to El Salvador to hiking active volcanoes — our kids are pretty adventurous travelers.
But in full disclosure, this particular outing was one of the most difficult trips we’ve taken so far.
From sunburn to street food, from crashing kites to sewage ditches, this was a tough trip.
Worth it? Possibly.
Will we go again? Maybe when the kids are older.
(And definitely not three days after moving into a new house!)
What to Bring to the Sumpango Kite Festival
Expect a hot day with minimal amenities. Bring plenty of sunscreen as well as hats, sunglasses, and an umbrella for shade — the sun is very intense at the top of the mountain.
Bring tissues and hand sanitizer for the bathrooms (they often do not have toilet paper or soap).
If you want to avoid street food, be sure to pack a lunch and snacks. Water and sodas are easy to find for purchase, but you’ll need cash for any souvenirs or food. Don’t forget to bring plenty of small bills (but do be careful of pickpockets).
Who Should Visit The Sumpango Kite Festival?
The Sumpango Kite Festival is a special kind of chaos, but it’s not for everyone.
If you have mobility issues, it will be practically impossible to scale the steep hill into the festival area. Kids who struggle with crowds, noise, or heat probably won’t have a great time.
Due to the limited activities and the crowds, which make it difficult for kids to run around safely, this event is best for families with older children. Babies, toddlers, and preschoolers may struggle with the heat, the lack of easy access to bathrooms, and the need to stay very close to parents.
Getting lost in the crowd is a real concern. And keep in mind that it would NOT be easy to leave in a hurry if someone gets sick, tired, or overwhelmed.
That said, adventurous kids, young adults, and do-or-die parents will likely love the experience.
Alternatives to Sumpango
If you’re looking for something quieter, consider the smaller festival in the neighboring town of Santiago Sacatepequez.
You might also visit on November 2 — the kites will still be on display, although the competition and festival are over.
Sumpango Kite Festival At a Glance:
- Date: November 1 (Dia de los Muertos)
- Where: Sumpango, Guatemala; (1.5 hrs from Guatemala City; 45 minutes from Antigua)
- Activities: Giant kite competition, private Day of the Dead ceremonies in the cemetery, lots of street food and souvenir vendors
- Don’t forget to bring: tissues and hand sanitizer (for the bathrooms), plenty of small bills, lots of sunscreen, your camera, a sense of humor
- Be sure to: buy a small kite to take home and fly
- Best for: older kids, young adults, and the young-at-heart
- Skip it if: you hate crowds, heat, or the thought of being stuck on a mountain top with no way to leave
- Iconic moment: Viewing the giant kites against the backdrop of the volcanoes in the distance
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