Fireball Festival Nejapa
El Salvador: the “Did that really just happen?” capitol of Central America
By Alex Daue
Ahh, there is nothing like the acrid scent of your own beard burning to remind you that you’re in El Salvador. Sprinkle in the screams of crowds of local villagers running for cover; groups of youths dressed in black, wearing huge gloves and grimacing through black and white face paintings a-la-KISS; and, of course, the BALLS OF FIRE THEY ARE THROWING, POINT BLANK, AT EACH OTHER, and it is nearly impossible to forget that you’re in El Salvador.
“¿Esta bien?” asked El Pollo, one of our Salvadoran amigos, after an early fireball careened off my noggin.
“Excellente,” I replied, batting off his attempt to touch my burnt hair while the others laughed, mimicking the fireball clocking me as I (unsuccessfully) tried to duck. “Excellente.”
Three weeks into our El Salvador trip, with only one weekend left before our return to the States, Chachi and I found ourselves bumping down the Ruta de LasFlores (The Flower Route) in the back of a classic ‘76 diesel Land Cruiser. Our destination was Nejapa, a small village 30 km outside of San Salvador which hosts one of the wildest parties in Latin America every August 31st – Bolas del Fuedo (the Fireball Festival). The festival commemorates the 1658 eruption of nearby Volcan San Salvador that forced the villagers to move to Nejapa’s current location.
Legend has it that lava from the volcano was actually fireballs hurled by the local patron saint in a battle with the Devil. So, for the past 90+ years, locals soak balls of cloth wrapped with wire in gasoline for more than a month until they are ready to light on fire and then hurl them at one another. Protective gloves, water soaked clothes, painted faces, and truckloads of machismo protect them from serious injury. Crowds of visiting Salvadorans scream for the teams, then scream for their lives as stray fireballs lance the crowd. The party is wild, crazy, and quite clearly a bit unsafe. Obviously, we had to go.
After hearing of this party from our Salvadoran friends Cesar and Yena, we made a 8 hour bus detour back to their hostel to tag along with them and their friends. They seemed happy to have us along, and we all chatted about the upcoming event as the cornfields flitted past. After stops to pick up Memo, Pollo (and his rolling cooler), and Ramiro, we dropped into the sleepy village of Nejapa around 4 in the afternoon. The town was full of food stalls and visitors were already milling around, drinking, eating, and listening to the marching band warming up.
Little did they know that, aside from exerting a seemingly supernatural ability to catch on fire, gringos are also foolish enough to wear highly flammable synthetic pants to a pyromaniac dodgeball festival. We should have noticed that everyone else was wearing jeans…
BOOOOOOOOOOM!!!!!! A huge explosion and mushroom clouds of flames and smoke erupted from the street just a block away.
Hundreds of people screamed and turned to run toward us. The air was filled with smoke, fireballs, screams, and the most incredible electricity, a mixture of excitement, fear, and the primal relationship between humans and fire. I sat, enthralled, as the people poured past and the energy of the masses rushed over me. Then a fireball beaned me in the head, singeing my beard and reminding me that I enjoy being able to see out of my non-burned eyes; I turned to run with the others. The Fireball Festival had begun.
Soon a parade was underway, paper machier monstrosities eliciting laughs and shrieks from the crowd. We sat by Memo’s truck and drank beers from the cooler, enjoying the front row seats we had on the main street. Locals gathered on the sidewalks as young guys dressed in black with fantastic face paint began lighting up fireballs and bouncing them in the air. Suddenly a big group of them gathered in a crouch midway up the next block.
Later, sitting on the church wall as huge fireworks mortars exploded from launch tubes stationed just feet below us, I saw a frightening glint in Chachi’s eye. He laughed maniacally with each explosion, and I had a feeling that things were going to get crazy, really crazy that night.
Would I have guessed that just hours later I’d be watching Chach jumping up and down naked, stamping on his burning pants in front of 8000 screaming Salvadorans while fireballs whizzed past his head?
The naked part, yes. Probably wouldn’t have guessed he would be on fire. El Salvador is a pretty loco place though, and after 3 weeks there, I’d say it was an appropriate ending for such a trip…
Do It Yourself
Nejapa is a 30 minute drive from San Salvador on the road from Redondel Constitution (also known as La Chelona). The Northern road from the redondel passes through Nejapa.
Take the Easy Route
Typically tours take people from San Salvador and the Western Beaches (El Tunco and El Zonte, specifically) to Nejapa for the festival. Tour companies don’t start advertising until a week or two before, so either check the calendar at www.wtf-elsalvador.com for up-to-date info or with Surfo’s Travel Agency in El Tunco where there is almost always a tour bus set up for the festival.
Under extreme heat, synthetic clothing melts to your skin, so avoid polyesters, spandex, lycra, and other synthetic materials. Locals will be in 100% cotton jeans and t-shirts and you should be too. As an extra precaution, you can wet your clothes to keep the burns to a minimum. Women and men with long hair should wear a cotton hat to protect your head.
Since the balls are soaked in kerosene, when they hit someone or something, it will take a few extra seconds for the spot of kerosene to burn off, which makes putting the fire out immediately difficult.
Luckily, this festival is one of the most organized productions WTF has seen in the country, with hoards of first aid responders all fully equipped with salvs, bandages and burn-care knowledge.
At the end of the festival, the teams and the crowds are ushered down the street for a concert where everyone dances and sings the night away. If you are going with a tour, make sure they stay for this part! The concert often lasts until 12:30 or 1 am!