Inside the festival that’s as dangerous as it sounds

While Australians are busy putting travel bans in place amid the coronavirus outbreak, Mexicans are strapping explosives to sledgehammers in preparation for the Exploding Hammer Festival. And, yes, it’s as dangerous as it sounds.

To celebrate Shrove Tuesday each year, the small town of San Juan de la Vega is rocked by explosions and filled with the acrid smell of gunpowder. Shrapnel flies across the cobbled streets, huge plumes of smoke rise above the church, and the ground continually shakes with fierce vibrations.

This isn’t a war zone. This is the Fiesta de los Martillos Explosivos, a tradition celebrating the start of Lent and the mysterious local patron saint, San Juanito.

Inside Mexico’s bizarre exploding hammer festival.Source:Supplied

While other countries traditionally use Shrove Tuesday as a chance to get rid of excess eggs and sugar to make pancakes, in San Juan de la Vega this is the chance to get rid of excess gunpowder in explosive fashion.

Located three hours north of Mexico City in Guanajuato Province, the few tourists that ever make it to San Juan de la Vega only do so to visit the annual Exploding Hammer Festival.

“The rest of the year it’s incredibly quiet, peaceful even”, says local photographer Nathan Williams who attends the festival every year.

The main event takes place in a rocky, rubble-strewn field by the town’s railway. A cautionary line is drawn across the dirt, behind which a shrine to the festival’s patron saint is set up. A band casually plays Mexican songs on trumpets and trombones while drums beat in the background.

Only a few tourists manage to see the festival each year.Source:Supplied

Exploding hammers have been part of the celebrations only ‘for the last 100 years’.Source:Supplied

The music is quickly drowned out by explosions. Some participants are dressed in homemade body armour, wearing gas masks or construction helmets. Others wear a bandana and a pair of sunglasses to protect against the force of the explosions. Many have no protection at all.

A man draped in the Mexican flag smashes his sledgehammer into a metal anvil. He’s flung across the rough ground by the force of an explosion before the smoke engulfs him. The scene resembles a post-apocalyptic nightmare, not a religious festival.

“They use a mixture of gunpowder and sulphur”, explains Williams. “They strap the explosives to the hammers with duct tape, and then it’s all about who can make the biggest explosion”.

Some festival-goers wear little protection from the explosions.Source:Supplied

Earplugs, sunglasses and a face mask or scarf are a must for onlookers, as the audience is continually peppered by flying rocks and broken sledgehammers.

The explosions are supposed to be contained at the field on the edge of town for health and safety reasons, but the local police aren’t too keen to stop anyone wielding a sledgehammer strapped with explosives from detonating them in the streets either.

There’s a week of festivities and solemn religious ceremonies in San Juan de la Vega, but explosions are only allowed on Shrove Tuesday. The same day, a large parade is held through the town, featuring dancers, costumes and beer-swigging horse riders.

The religious aspect has been stolen by the spectacle of the exploding hammers.Source:Supplied

A local newspaper claimed that 61 people were treated by the medical services during the festival in 2020.Source:Supplied

The religious aspect has been stolen by the spectacle of the exploding hammers, but the festival, which traces its origins back to the 16th century, sees an image of San Juanito being paraded through the town.

There are many conflicting legends surrounding the fiesta, but Williams believes that the exploding hammers have been part of the celebrations only “for the last 100 years”.

“During the Mexican Revolution at the start of the 20th century,” Williams explains, “local bandits would stop the trains using gunpowder and then rob them. The sheriffs would try to stop them. Now everyone dresses up and they attach gunpowder to sledgehammers to remember this. It’s a re-enactment of good versus evil, thieves versus sheriffs.”

A local newspaper claimed that 61 people were treated by the medical services or were taken to hospital during the course of the festival. No one was killed.

Richard Collett is a travel writer and photographer who has previously written for Lonely Planet, Culture Trip and Atlas Obscura.

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