The Deadly, Drunken Day of the Dead Horserace

By Benjamin Reeves

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.

While drunkenness is partially a ritual state for the riders, the rest of the town gets hammered too. It doesn’t take many drinks to knock the village on its collective ass, as alcohol is generally unavailable during the year except in restaurants that cater to tourists.

“We don't really drink the rest of the year because of tradition,” an elderly woman named Feliciana told me. There’s a long precedent of teetotalism in Todos Santos, and in in 2008 a strict mayor banned hard alcohol entirely except on the day of the race.

By midday, men were passed out in streets and ditches, and their compatriots lurched up and down the main road on a quest for more beer. Boys as young as 12 can partake in the imbibing, but women and girls almost entirely eschew alcohol. It's not unusual to see a wife or child resolutely standing over a man blacked out in the street clutching a can of beer.

Most riders are completely unfamiliar with their mounts. All of the horses are rented, and some may be more skittish under the hands of a drunk man than others. “The hardest part is if the horse doesn't know the rider, it can get a little crazy,” a local named Freddy said. “The owners are here to calm them down. The whole day the riders drink, and so later in the day it get's crazy.”

It’s a big day for the horse owners, who can make as much as $511 on rental fees and bets, big money in a country where the per capita GDP is only $5,200. One horse owner, a 15-year-old named Henry, walked an entire day from his remote village to enter his horse, Rosio, in the races. While the only prize for finishing the race is honor, many people gamble on the outcome, and paying riders off is not unheard of.

Horsemanship is obviously out of question in conditions like these, and the riders who do well are the ones who can hold their liquor. Violent death is a very real risk for the riders, and extreme intoxication can cause bloody accidents. If any of them die, it’s considered an offering to the underworld that will bring fertile crops in the coming year. Some spectators told me a man had died early in the morning, but the festivities carried on.

“Oh, it's not really dangerous. Only a little sand in the eye,” Feliciana said moments before a disoriented rider crashed his horse into his neighbor. Both men flew from the saddle—one went through a fence—and landed hard. The first rider soon bounced back to his feet, but the second lay motionless in the sand. A collective gasp went up and the crowd dragged him from the track. Although he was still breathing, he looked close to death. Eventually they carried him from the track by his arms and legs.

There is no hospital in Todos Santos, and a visiting American anesthesiology resident, Pablo Guzman, was the only doctor on hand. Pablo helped get the man away from the racetrack and into a car that took him home.

“Before we put him in the taxi, this woman came by with some water or something in her mouth,” Pablo recalled later, “and then she spat it on him.” Mayan shamans frequently spit Quetzalteca onto people in supplication for cures to ailments. Later, when the man was at home resting, “his grandma came by and spat some more water or Quetzalteca on him, and put some flowers [in his bed],” Pablo said.

The riders don’t seem to care how close they could be to death. The most macho spread their arms wide; it wasn’t unusual to see one carom down the track clutching a beer. Toward the end of the race, one man urged his horse up the hill while brandishing a flapping chicken. On the return lap, the chicken was dead, its neck broken. In past years live chickens were hung from ropes above the track for the racers to grab, according to one extraordinarily drunk man well into his 80s.

After the race, blitzed riders and spectators made their way to the center of town for a night of (yet more) drinking and dancing. The next day, the festival continued in the village's graveyard as revelers gathered among the tombs of their departed ancestors. By then, I was on my way back down the mountain roads. I couldn’t keep up with them.

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