The Deadly, Drunken Day of the Dead Horse Race
The remote village of Todos Santos Cuchumatanes is a pain in the ass to get to. You have to drive over a road that crawls 12,000 feet up into Guatemala’s Cuchumatanes mountain range, near the Mexican border, along the way passing massive boulders, Guatamalan army vehicles, and vultures slowly dismembering dead animals by the side of the road. The region is isolated enough that the Spanish had a hell of a time conquering the mountain people, and even today you get the sense that they’d rather be left alone—the population of Todos Santos is entirely Mayan, and for most Spanish is a second language after the indigenous Mam dialect. And while many of them are ostensibly Catholic, ancient Mayan religious traditions and beliefs still have a lot of power.
An expression of those traditions is a daylong horserace and bacchanal that locals call the Race of Souls or the Game of Roosters, which has been held every year on November 1, during the Day of the Dead festivities, ever since anyone can remember. It has its roots in the 17th century, when the conquistadors, having won a difficult victory, prohibited the indigenous people from riding horses—today the race is both a protest against colonialism and a ceremony that honors the dead. When I asked elderly residents of the town about the history of the race they said it was “ancient” and left it at that.
The riders begin preparing for the event the night of October 31. A chicken is sacrificed to bless the sandy track that snakes up a central road, and the competitors vow to abstain from sex. They spend the entire night drinking Gallo beer and a potent Guatemalan liquor called Quetzalteca. By the time the race begins the next morning, the riders are already intoxicated, and they’ll spend the rest of the day getting even more wasted—it’s what the ceremony demands—while riding back and forth on a track that goes from one end of the village to the other.