Todos Santos is a very closed indigenous community located high in the barren, rocky Cuchumatanes mountain range. The nearest city is Huehuetenango. The men and women still wear their traditional, brightly colored clothing and speak Mam, the local language that has not changed since before the arrival of the Spanish. They do not trust outsiders, but have learned to tolerate tourists. The people survive on subsistence farming, tourism and textiles: the men knit finely-made shoulder bags and the women make huipiles (a sort of colorful blouse). There only about 30,000 members of the community living in town and the surrounding areas.
Every year, thousands of visitors descend upon the village in order to see the famous festival, which begins in late October but culminates on the first of November. A big part of the festival is devoted to riding horses. Itâ€™s called a â€śrace,â€ť but it really isnâ€™t, in the traditional sense of the word. There is no competition and no winner: just men riding back and forth on the same stretch of road all day. Most of them are drunk: they have been drinking for days. Itâ€™s part of the ritual. Many fall from their horses and fatalities have been known to occur. The races have religious significance, and if someone dies during the race it is considered an offering to the Mayan spirit world, and the community will have good luck in the coming year. The members of the community save money all year in order to spend it on food and alcohol during the festival.
Another fascinating part is the â€śDance of the Conquistadoresâ€ť in which local men dress up as Spanish conquistadores, complete with hand-carved wooden masks depicting blond haired, blue eyed men. They dance in the central square in an elaborate, intricate ceremony, depicting the conquest. The Devil even makes an appearance, in a bright red suit and painted mask. The outfits are elaborate and colorful.
You donâ€™t have to wait for November first to visit Todos Santos: itâ€™s fascinating on any day of the year, and if youâ€™re interested in traditional native culture, you may want to check it out quickly before the modern world makes it to this remote corner of Guatemala. The community is sort of going forward and backward at the same time in terms of traditional culture: although more and more people are abandoning traditions â€“ such as by wearing western clothes â€“ there is a new era of religious tolerance in Guatemala, and long-repressed local religions are making a comeback.
More to know: the village sits at about 2500 meters (9000 feet) and the mountain pass to get there from Huehuetenango goes higher than that. The bus trip takes almost two hours, even though Todos Santos is only about 45 kilometers (30 miles) away. It gets quite chilly in the evenings, so dress accordingly. Food and lodging are relatively cheap in Todos Santos. There are no deluxe hotels or fancy restaurants in town.