flying poles at the fiesta de santo tomas in chichicastenango, guatemala

During the fiesta of Santo Tomas (Dec. 21), in Chichicastenango in the Guatemalan highlands, extremely tall pine poles are consecrated and erected in the plaza for the ceremony of the palo volador — the flying pole. Pole dancers climb in pairs to the top via platforms and ropes, and then they spin at the end of the ropes dizzyingly (and dangerously) down in great swooping circles. The ceremony’s origins must lie in the Maya tradition of yaxche, the tree of life.

Santo Tomas is Chichi’s patron saint, and with Christmas approaching this festival is one of the years biggest events, perhaps equaled only by the semana santa festivites in La Antigua. The festival attracts a very large crowd from all over the highlands. The rowdy, noisy, alcohol-fueled ceremony extends for several days around the saint’s official days. That day is marked by colorful processions, which include the baile de la conquista, the dance of the conquest, in which masked dancers portray the Spanish conquistados. It is the best market day of the year in Chichi, which is the prime highlands market town.

This picture was taken many years ago.