I have been to Benque Viejo del Carmen on several occasions, in fact one of the main reasons I visit is because my family roots go very deep in ‘Benque’. This trip however, my travels were beyond the family reasons. It was time for the long awaited yearly Benque Viejo del Carmen municipal fair. I have never before been to the Benque Fiesta, so this year when I was invited to attend, I was eager to experience the hype that so many prepare an entire year for. The fiesta celebrates the day of Benque’s patron saint Our Lady of Mount Carmel (Nuestra Señora de Monte Carmelo) with traditional marimba bands, local food and drinks, games, mechanical rides, cultural presentations, sports and dances with entertainment from neighboring countries such as Guatemala and Mexico.
Just the combination of food, drinks, cultural shows and music was enough to get me off Ambergris Caye and heading down to the western most towns in Belize. I decided to take the trip the way many do, by boat then by bus. Taking the first Caye Caulker Water Taxi off the island placed me in Belize City by 8AM just in time for the express bus from Belize City to Belmopan.
A scenic hour and a half drive down the winding Western Highway, with the cool country wind maneuvering through the opened windows of the bus provided for a very relaxed journey to the country’s Capital. After a short stop in Belmopan City it was time to resume my journey and head to Benque. The remainder of the journey was equally enjoyable, admiring the various villages, mountain side, rivers and pastures that border the highway as I made my way to my final destination.
Smack between the western hills of Belize and the boarder of Guatemala is the small sleepy municipality of Benque Viejo del Carmen. With a population of less than 6000, the always silent and sleepy town comes alive with festivities every year when the municipality commemorates their patron saint Our Lady of Mount Carmel (Nuestra Señora de Monte Carmelo).
The commemoration of the patron saint lasts for a period of about 16 days starting with solemn religious celebration. The loud cannon blast signals La Alborada; the daily early morning service leading up to the 16th of July, the day of the patron saint. Similar at nighttime for the 16 days, the loud blast heard all over the small town signal to the church goers that it is time to dedicate at least two hours to their patron saint. And just as the church services come to an end, resounding blasts and bright colorful rain of fires illuminate the night’s skies as the fireworks steal the show, leading to the soothing sounds of the Marimba that fill the air around the church. It is during the 16 days of religious celebrations, that the municipality comes together in true unity. This amazing festival is usually preceded by the selection of their Municipal Queen “Señorita Flor de la Feria.”
The festive activities kick off on the week- Continued on Page 2 end of July 16th. It starts with the official opening ceremony at the Cancha Marshallek in Benque Viejo del Carmen. Once the official ceremony is held and the fair is declared open by the Mayor of the town a truly spectacular show of fireworks, custom designed to mark the occasion provides a sparkling veil over Benque. It is perhaps one of the most impressive fireworks display in the entire country of Belize, as far as I’m concerned – THE BEST! I joined the hundreds of onlookers, visitors and residents on the open fields and enjoyed the impressive display.
Afterwards, I headed to explore the festival grounds, finding it filled with fun games and entertainment for the entire family. A particular game that caught my attention, as it usually does, was the marbles game. With $3.00 you get nine marbles to play and try to win a prize. I roll the marbles on the perforated board; each hole has a corresponding number, with the sum of all numbers indicating which prize I’d get. Each prize has a matching number and with tons of prizes to choose from, I walked away with a very huggable stuffed bear. It took me back to my childhood days where I grew up in Libertad Village in northern Belize.
The festival attracts a host of visitors from all walks of the country as well as internationally, crowding the various blocked streets of town. There was food galore! With so much variety to choose from, I found a cozy little stall that served an array of delicious finger-licking beef, pork and mutton kebabs.
Appetite sated, it was time to enjoy the many cultural performances that are the highlight of the festival. Cultural groups from all around the country perform every night of the weekend leading up to the 16th Benque Fiesta of July. There is a wide variety of music to enjoy, from live bands to deejays from Belize, Mexico and Guatemala. While not as internationally acclaimed as the entertainment provided by other festivities around the country, these entertainers gave stellar performances, making the Benque Fiesta a “must do” annually.
For those who love sports, the traditional football marathon takes place on the Sunday of the festival. Normally the marathon includes teams from neighboring Guatemala and Belize that challenge each other for bragging rights as well as cash prizes and trophies. During the daytime, while taking a break from festivities, many locals and visitors choose the scenic view of the river. The babbling of water as it cascades down the rocks certainly soothes and clears the mind. I even took a cooling dip! To have a Benque experience, one doesn’t need to wait for the annual Benque Fiesta though, for there is always something to do in Benque that will surely have you coming back. But if you try out the Benque Fiesta, keep in mind that enjoying it with family and friends enriches the experience. It is a time that one can share in tradition and festivities. I was happy to have joined Benqueños as they celebrated their Patron Saint, and it will surely be a yearly experience for me.