A brush with death, or at least a close call, is to be expected at Skach Koyl, the Mayan name for the annual All Saints Day celebration in the Guatemalan village of Todos Santos Cuchumatan. In a race where the winner is the last man left on his horse after a day of racing, drinking and more drinking, the lead-up to the Day of the Dead is heralded in this tiny town unlike any other.
I had come to Todos Santos Cuchumatan, a tiny pueblo tucked away in the mountainous farmlands the region is known for, to witness this deadly drunken horse race. An eight-hour bus ride from Guatemala City and then another hour by taxi (although I had come another way), this town is a bear to get to. But after taking a winding road through the rugged Cuchumatanes mountain range, I got to Todos Santos and asked an old man the way to the race.
“Vai recto alllllííííííííí,” he exclaimed, pointing up the one main road in Todos Santos.
I then joined several hundred men and women dressed in typical Mayan garb, all converging from surrounding pueblos and farmlands, just as they do every November to watch the spectacle. I had my toe stepped on by an unruly horse trying to reach the track, and I dodged another rearing horse, but eventually I found a spot with the other spectators on the sidelines. In groups of four or five, drunken men clad in an array of colorful feathers and streamers were ushered onto a straight 100-meter dirt track and sent hollering to the other side where they turned around and did it all over again.
The riders were Mayan men from Guatemala's Western highlands, and most were too drunk to stop their mounts from ramming into the wooden barriers that blocked each entrance to the track. Men standing at the gates would beat the animals to a halt with rod and rope. Some of the more brazen — or more wasted — riders would let go of the reins completely, arms flapping, eyes half closed and whooping as their mounts careened up and down the track.
A celebration founded in protest
The race has its origins in the time when large landowners controlled the region's indigenous population. Peasants weren't allowed to ride horses like their Spanish and German masters, so the races started as a form of protest. At one time during Guatemala's violent civil war in the latter half of the 20th century, the races were prohibited and the tradition nearly died out completely. But in an age where indigenous peoples the world over relinquish their lifestyles before industrialization, the pull of the city and encroaching modernity, this tradition and the region's culture seemed very much alive in Skach Koyl.
"At one time there were as many as a 100 riders in the race, now sadly there have been years with only 10 to 15," said Francisco Martín Carrillo, a local outfitted in boots, striped pants and an embroidered shirt. "But little by little, it’s growing."
Most of the villagers I spoke with didn't seem to know anything about the history of this peculiar event, saying only that it has always been the custom to race wildly the day before Día de los Muertos. But it's also true that most were not in a state to answer me. I walked up to a group of jovial riders taking a break and asked about their reasons for participating.
El "primer capitán," the group's leader named Ramos Ortiz, looked at my fair eyes and hair and somehow slurred out the words in English, "What's up … no problem… how you? You very good…"
At least he was still on his feet. I walked by more than a few men passed out on the town streets well before one o'clock in the afternoon. This level of intoxication certainly made the laps the racers galloped over and over again more interesting, if not terrifying. At one point, the crowd gasped as two horsemen barely avoided what would have been a catastrophic, head-on collision. A visitor beside me from the next closest city, Huehuetenango, remarked, "Well, no one ever gets bored here. Just when you're about to get bored, something happens."
And he was right. Several of the riders left the track with black eyes. A street fight broke out over someone kicking another man's dog, and my friend barely dodged a rock thrown by an inebriated assailant. At least the four-legged race participants seemed to fare better than their human counterparts. I heard before going that it wasn't uncommon for a rider to turn up dead after the race. I asked a rider if this was true.
"Ah, sí pasa," he said. In other words, it happens.
A tombstone for Skach Koyl?
For the sporadic, raucous outbreaks brought on by Gallo beer and Quetzalteca, a strong Guatemalan liquor, as well as the occasional fatalities, some people have lobbied to see the races pass into myth.
"The evangelicals here don't want the people to race or to dance," said Francisco Martín Carrillo. "I hope they keep the races, but the people need to understand not to drink as much. I dream that this event will be one of happiness, of peace."
Most of the region's inhabitants speak Mam, one of over 20 Maya tongues still spoken in Guatemala. One such woman, wearing her embroidered belt and floral shirt, said she is confident that Skach Koyl will endure.
"This is a day of happiness, if people drink it's because they are happy," said Vacilia Lucas. "The races will never change."
I looked over the riot of color and rip-roaring riders as I headed back to the urban sprawl of Guatemala City and hoped she was right.