Fiesta Patronal de Joyabaj

By Diana Pastor

It’s 4.30 in the morning on August 9th, and in Joyabaj you can hear the fireworks announcing that the show has begun. There aren’t many people in the central square, but the traditional dances begin to flow through the streets of the town. One of these dances, called the flying bat, is one of the oldest traditions in the municipality. A depiction of it is on the municipality’s coat of arms, which depicts two men descending from the air, tied with ropes from a giant wooden stick.

Patron saint festivals, or fiestas patronales, are yearly celebrations dedicated to a patron or saint and are held by most towns in Guatemala, and Joyabaj is one of the most famous. Joyabaj is a municipality in the department of Quiché, located 4 hours from Quetzaltenango. Although it is a bit far from Xela, it is certainly worth traveling to during its fiesta patronal which runs from the 8th of August to the 15th. We recommend visiting Joyabaj during the first day of the fair, which is when an interpretation of the pole-stick dance is performed, along with many other colorful dances. The traditional dance of this area has ancient origins, and requires quite a bit of preparation which must be done days in advance.

It all starts with the journey of several community members, who travel to the forest to choose and cut a huge branch off a tree to be used for pole-stick dance. Women are generally not permitted to take part in this part of the process, only the Indigenous princess elected in a pre-ceremony is entitled to accompany the group. The group then carries the branch back to towards the town centre with a crane, rods and wheels, dumping dozens of bottles of artisan liquor during the journey back. Accompanied by live marimba, the group of men announce that the stick is on its way to the people. There is a ditch prepared in advance of their arrival, which the stick will be placed into. Liquor and all kinds of meat cuttings are thrown into the ditch before the stick is placed there.

August 9th arrives, and after dancing and celebration in the streets the moment everyone’s been waiting for arrives. Four men dressed as monkeys climb the top of the pole and, tied with string, begin to slowly descend through the air in a circular fashion. The monkeys represent the brothers in Jun Batz and Jun Ch’owen, characters in a story of the Popol Vuh (the Mayan holy book written in K’iche), according to which Jun and Jun were turned into monkeys by Mayan gods for trying to kill their brothers, Hunahpu and Ixbalanque.

If you want to visit Joyabaj for this festival, you can take a bus from the Xela’s bus terminal on Sunday August 7th. There is one bus that will leave directly from there at 11:50 pm, which takes about 3 and a half hours and charges Q30.00. It is also possible to take a bus from Xela to Los Encuentros for Q20.00, and then Los Encuentros to Quiché for Q10.00, and then Quiché to Joyabaj Q15.00, but the multi-bus journey will take about 4 to 5 hours. In Joyabaj you can find several hotels, but it is a bit difficult to find vacancies during this time due to the festival. Here are a few numbers you can call to book in advance:

Hotel Posada de Don Guillermo: 42187699

Hotel La Hacienda de Los Panchos: 77559592

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