Food by VICE

I Got Drunk and Cheated Death in a Ceremonial Horse Race

For a week each year, the Mayan villagers of Todos Santos, Guatemala, get wasted and race horses during their Skach Koyl festival. Sometimes people fall, sometimes people die. I decided to join them.

by River Donaghey
Mar 18 2016, 12:00am

Photos by Liz Cowie

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This article appeared in the March issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

Every year in Todos Santos Cuchumatán, Guatemala, the Mayan townspeople throw the local equivalent of a harvest festival. Except it's not the average harvest festival: Harvest festivals don't usually involve drunken horse races where villagers cry, bleed, puke, and pass out wasted on the streets. They don't normally end in dislocated shoulders, or broken collarbones, or people trampled to death on the racetrack. That's how they do it in Todos Santos, though. The local women say a racer's death is good for the next year's harvest.

Last October, I flew from New York to Guatemala, set on making it to Todos Santos in time to drink and race with the locals. I prepared for my trip by taking exactly one horseback riding lesson in Brooklyn's Prospect Park.

The festival, locally known as Skach Koyl, memorializes a hero from a dark part of the town's history. In the early 1500s, the Spanish conquistadors swept through Guatemala, slaughtering or enslaving the Mayans in their path. The conquistadors had swords and chain mail; the Mayans didn't even have wheels for their carts. They died fast, by the conquistadors' hand or by diseases brought from Spain.

Photos by Liz Cowie

When the conquistadors finally made it to Todos Santos around 1525, they planned to do what they had done to every other Mayan town. But this time, according to local legend, a brave villager stood up against the colonialists. He stole one of their prized horses and raced it around the mud streets until he was caught and killed. On November 1, every year since he died, the villagers honor this unnamed horse thief's memory. They drink and race and sometimes die—but they die with their freedom, as he did.

Todos Santos, 8,000 feet up in the mountains, is just 100 miles from Guatemala City, but the trip can take an entire day depending on the mode of transportation. You can rent a car and drive yourself, but good luck following road signs—there aren't any. You can waste hours trying to find your way through the streets of Huehuetenango, the town at the base of the Cuchumatanes Mountains. The directions to get through Huehue read like a cheat code you're supposed to mash into a Game Boy Advance: left, two rights, another left, right again, and so on.

On October 31, near the outskirts of Guatemala City, I paid a few dozen quetzals—less than five dollars—to squeeze myself onto a northbound bus of smiling locals holding chickens on their laps. These chicken buses, as the locals refer to them, are retired school buses brought over from the US. Wild DayGlo and pastel stripes cover the faded yellow paint jobs. They look like something the Merry Pranksters might have driven if Ken Kesey had never come back from Mexico in the mid-60s.

A kid I met in Guatemala City told me to look for buses with the most chrome detailing on their rims. If the owner could afford all that shine, the boy said, he could probably afford working brake pads too.

The bus only took me as far as Huehue, since the last 16 miles of serpentine roads into Todos Santos are too remote and too dangerous for many bus drivers. I flagged down a pickup truck, kicked the driver a couple of quetzals, and spent the last few hours with my tailbone bouncing against the rusted-out truck bed, trying not to look over the road's 400-foot cliff-side drop.

I was let off near the center of town, which consists of squat, painted stone buildings with flat façades and a modest square. The villagers were dressed in the same basic outfits—the men in blue and white shirts with embroidered collars and red striped pants, the women in conservative, dark blue dresses. Little boys peeked out from second-story balconies dressed like miniature versions of the men, whispering "buenas" as I passed. It felt as though I'd been transported back in time, to Todos Santos' distant past, save for the men in machine-made boots carrying plastic cups of Quezalteca, a Guatemalan cane liquor that tastes like watered-down moonshine.

Around 3,000 people live in Todos Santos year-round, herding livestock or manning storefronts or farming potatoes and coffee and corn in the hills, but its population swells during Skach Koyl. While some visitors came from other countries and other parts of Guatemala, the majority were men who grew up in Todos Santos, and now, in their 20s and 30s, support their families by working in the US. They're also the ones who race, since most of the town's permanent residents are too poor to afford horses. These expats keep the town's tradition alive, footing the bill for food, liquor, and horse rentals, even though they spend most of the year working for American contractors around Grand Rapids, Michigan, or Stockton, California.

A few old women spat mouthfuls of the cane liquor over us, mumbling blessings, praying that if someone had to die, it wouldn't be someone from their bloodline.

Twenty-eight-year-old Gildardo Ranferi Ramirez Mendoza has raced since he was 14. He returns from Stockton every year for the festival, and he corrected me when I asked him about moving away from Guatemala.

"I didn't move," he said. "I went to California to make some money, but my culture is in Todos Santos."

That night, the dirt plaza next to Mendoza's family's house filled with people drinking and dancing to a live marimba band. The other racers pulled me into their dance, a loping forward and-backward step meant to mimic the trot of a horse. They passed me endless shots of Quezalteca. Proud to share their culture with me, they said I was brave to race with them, and though they "hoped there were no accidents or deaths," they reminded me that deaths are good for the crops. People kept telling me that.

The next morning, after drinking through the night, we threw back our final shots and prepared to race. The locals dressed me in the traditional clothing of Todos Santos and topped my outfit off with a feathered hat, tied under my chin with a ribbon so I wouldn't lose it while I rode. A few old women spat mouthfuls of the cane liquor over us, mumbling blessings, praying that if someone had to die, it wouldn't be someone from their bloodline. I sat on my horse, thinking about the daylong ride on a rickety bus to the nearest hospital, and hoped it wouldn't be me either.

The race had already begun by the time I made it to the starting line. The adrenaline had sobered me up a bit, but locals continued to pass shots up to me on my horse. I watched the racers run in packs of five to eight, up and down a half-mile stretch of dirt road, as the spectators cheered from behind wooden fences. It wasn't so much of a race, really—it was an endurance test. No one kept tabs on which horse made it to one end of the track first. The winner was the guy who fell off last.

Someone on the ground whipped my horse into a gallop, and I was off. I reached the other end of the track in seconds. "Fucking fast," one of the other riders yelled to me, waving. I blinked and nodded because I couldn't make my hands release their grip on the pommel and wave back. Then my horse was running again.

The waving rider and I stayed head-to-head until the middle of the track, when he fell back. I was winning, I thought, until I realized the other racers had slowed their horses to a stop. Mine ran full speed into the next waiting batch of riders and didn't stop until he hit the fence separating the crowd from the track. I flew over his head, into the crowd, and landed hard on the packed dirt. I skinned my knuckles almost to the bone. An old woman pushed her way through the onlookers, grabbed my hand, and upended a bottle of Quezalteca over the cuts. She pointed me back to my horse. "Fucking fast," the rider said again, staring down from his mount. I climbed up for another lap.

By evening, the races were done. No one had died, though a few fell worse than I did. To celebrate the end of another year's race, some of the men cut the heads off live chickens and rode back to their houses, spilling blood as they went. The marimba band started up again, and we drank until I forgot about my bloody hand.

Sunrise the next day, November 2, welcomed Todos Santos' Day of the Dead: one final marathon of drinking and dancing. We loaded the marimba into a truck and drove it to the cemetery, to celebrate among the villagers' deceased relatives.

The Day of the Dead honors the villagers' lost loved ones—and not just those who took a nasty spill from their saddles or those who died when the conquistadors came. Almost two-thirds of the villagers were killed in the 1980s, when the president of Guatemala launched a quiet genocide against the Mayans. His militias destroyed 440 Mayan villages and murdered up to 75,000 mainly indigenous people. When the army came to Todos Santos in 1982, it left 2,000 townspeople dead.

The villagers of Todos Santos carry the pain of a people systematically slaughtered. Even the clothes they wear each day immortalize the dead. The red on their pants symbolizes the spilled blood of their ancestors; the white and blue on their shirts stand for the spirits in the sky.

The memories of their lost loved ones are especially present during Skach Koyl. Some years, when a rider dies during the race, the grief is fresh. But after centuries of murder at the hands of conquerors, dying drunk and free on a horse might not be the worst way to go. At least it means good crops for next year.

This article appeared in the March issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

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