Royal Ascot it wasn’t.
Amid the sound of marimba music and spectacle of masked dances a smiling, drunken horse rider bit the top off a beer bottle. It was All Saints’ Day (1 November), the prelude to Day of the Dead, when families all over Latin America spend hours in cemeteries at the tombs of their lost loved ones.
But in Todos Santos Cuchumatán, a remote village in the northern Guatemalan highlands, it was more like the Day of the Dead Drunk. Their All Saints’ Day festivities see masked dance troupes, firecrackers and ferris wheels take over the village square in an orgy of sound and colour, but it is a brilliant and madcap horse race not even Monty Python could have thought up that is the centrepiece of the fiesta. And as settings go it takes some beating. Todos Santos is a two-hour drive along a seriously bumpy track from the nearest town of any size, Huehuetenango. This mist-covered highland village, at an altitude of 2,470m, is set in a spectacular valley of the Cuchumatanes mountains.
The actual race is the culmination of week-long celebrations and the riders will have spent a sleepless night drinking - as well as being at the bottle most of the previous week too. But what may initially look like the annual meeting of Alcoholics-not-so-Anonymous is an endurance test of gladiatorial proportions, in which riders gallop between two posts, pausing to drink at each end. Displays of horsemanship are matched by their ability to drink and determined competitors see who can stay in the saddle for the longest time. Riders call it a day when they can no longer keep themselves on the horse. Every now and then you see a rider laid-out and left to sleep it off, surrounded by his concerned wife and young children. Many of the riders are decorated with ribbons and feathers and some wear a black woollen cape to protect against the chilly mountain air.
Crowds of local men and women line the course to watch. Many women wear distinctive hand-woven clothes and the men brilliantly-coloured (and pretty funky) traditional costume of Todos Santos - red and white striped trousers and shirts with heavily embroidered collars. Mothers carry their young in colourful sacks upon their backs, while their silent babies stare out wide-eyed. With foreign tourists wearing their own traditional dress code of fleeces and wraparound sunglasses it was like a meeting of two tribes.
During the wacky races my eyes looked continually at the face of one rider in particular. He grimaced a lot and was older than the other riders. His face was lined and sweat-free and he had the wisdom and quiet dignity of a village elder. He looked rather fed up with the whole caper and you sensed he had got roped into it for another year by his younger, more sweaty-faced competitors.
As the late morning sun started to burn my face I felt a steadying hand on my shoulder which soon became a gentle hug. "You’re gatecrashing our party, but you’re very welcome," a local man said. In Todos Santos it was easy to enter into the spirit of things and I soon discovered the benefits of joining in, rather than observing from afar. I hit the quetzalteca, a potent raw cane spirit that tastes like aviation fuel, and it wasn’t long before I was wobbling too. There’s nothing like a bit of the hard stuff to warm up a cold highland morning.
The festival in Todos Santos is probably the only horse race in the world where riders are more inebriated than the spectators, although in the sobriety stakes locals do not lag far behind. At the end of All Saints’ Day it’s not just the riders who are flat-out, besieged in a beautiful blur.
Your edit for Latin American inspiration
Our exciting range of articles on Latin America explore everything from iconic destinations and lesser-known cultural gems to delicious traditional recipes. You’ll also find exclusive travel tips, first-hand client reviews and the chance to get your personal questions answered by our travel experts.View Extraordinary Inspiration
Ben Line - Travel Expert
Ben fell in love with Latin America on a six month backpacking trip from Colombia to Mexico in 1995. Since then he has explored most of South America, including living in Peru for a year. He is now Head of Sales.
Lina Fuller - Travel Expert
Lina's passion for the continent where she was born really took off when she moved to Córdoba (Argentina) to study, spending the holidays travelling between Argentina and her native Colombia.
Maggie Wilson - Travel Expert
Maggie visited Latin America on her first backpacking trip when she was 19. Since then, she has taken every opportunity to travel, and has managed to explore a lot of the region in subsequent trips.
Hannah Waterhouse - Travel Expert
Hannah had an early introduction to Latin America when her family moved to Ecuador and she returned to study in Buenos Aires for a year before backpacking across the continent.
Sophie Barber - Travel Expert
Sophie lived in Chile before joining us and has travelled extensively across Latin America, from Mexico to the furthest tip of Patagonia and beyond to Antarctica.
Juliet Ellwood - Travel Expert
After graduating with a degree in Anthropology and History and having been fascinated by Latin America since childhood by the book featuring photos of Nazca, Juliet first visited the region in 2003. Since then, Juliet has visited the majority of countries in Latin America but has particularly extensive experience with Peru, a country she loves for many reasons but not least, its incredible archaeological richness and delicious food!