Latin America is known for its parties and they reach a zenith during festival time. All the countries in South and Central America have festivals, but some stand out more than others and are worth making the journey for. From the traditional to the downright surreal; here are the best festivals in South and Central America. They’ll give you an extraordinary glimpse into the heart and soul of the continent, but do remember to plan in advance. Because due to their popularity, hotels fill up quickly during these festivals.
1. Inti Raymi (Festival of the Sun), Cuzco, Peru.
When: Mid to late June
The Inti Raymi festival in Cuzco is in honour of the god Inti (Quechua for “sun”), which was the principal object of Inca worship. This is Cuzco’s most important festival, with people from all over Peru (and the world) arriving in the city to celebrate in the streets with dancing and parades. This 9 day festival event takes place leading up to the winter solstice. This is the first day of the New Year in the Inca calendar, during which they honour their deity.
The procession is led by the Sapa Inca (the emperor). The emperor is carried in a golden chariot from the temple of Qorikancha in Cuzco to Sacsaywaman, the fortress which overlooks Cuzco. Streets are filled with music, dancing, prayers, flowers and ladies with brooms which sweep away evil spirits. Once at Sacsaywaman, there is dancing, speeches – all of which are delivered in Quechua. Finally, there is a simulation of a llama sacrifice. It is colourful, hectic and a lot of fun!
Perfect for: those who are very interested in ancient civilisations. You could combine this festival with a trip to majestic Machu Picchu.
Where to stay: Our recommended hotels to stay in Cuzco
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2. Rio Carnival
When: Late Feb, early March
The carnival in Rio is arguably the the best festival in South and Central America and certainly the most famous of all the Latin American festivals. However, in reality this fiesta happens across the whole of Brazil. The carnival has become part of Brazil’s national identity; joyful, colourful, tropical and playful. It sums up Brazil’s melting pot of a population where there are no boundaries of gender, race, class, age or sexual orientation.
All of this is portrayed in the form of parades of large floats and adornments from the numerous samba schools. They pass through the streets in a strict order, and these processions are an assault of the senses. You’ll find drumming, samba dancing and some of the most colourful costumes you can imagine. But make sure you are ready for the largest party on earth! The spectacle goes all night, past dawn and into the next morning!
Where to stay: Our recommended hotels to stay in Rio
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3. Semana Santa, Guatemala
Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala is one of the most remarkable, intense and surreal festival events you will ever experience. Semana Santa means ‘holy week’ and is a display of faith for the majority of Catholic Guatemalans.
Although an incredible spectacle, and warrants being included as one of the best festivals in South and Central America, it is generally a sombre affair as they specifically re-enact the last days of Christ. In the days leading up to Easter, they begin to make elaborate alfombras (carpets). These are made up of sawdust, flowers (sometimes even chocolate) and are laid out on the streets.
These carpets are a work of art and families plan out their carpets in preparation for the city’s processions on Good Friday. Approaching 04:00 on Good Friday the crowds gather outside the four separate churches across Antigua. At the stroke of 04:00, Roman reenactors on horseback clomp into the streets, followed by the elaborately coloured floats. Each of which has a carpet of flowers, known as alfombras de flores as well as a statue of Christ. Some of these take 80 men to shoulder.
It is only the float-bearers that are then allowed to walk over the carpets. These disappear in a moment as they move down the streets in their purple costumes surrounded by incense. This is the biggest Easter festival celebration in Latin America and a sight to behold!
Perfect for: those who like a sense of drama and pageantry. Combine with the breathtaking Mayan ruins of Tikal.
Where to stay: Our recommended hotels to stay in Antigua
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4. Feria de las Flores (Festival of Flowers), Medellin, Colombia
The 10-day festival is an epic and beautiful celebration of paisa culture. Paisas is the name given to the people that live in the region of Medellin. At this festival there are over 400 different events taking place in the city. You’ll see everything from fireworks, classic car parades, trail rides on horses, dances, and craft-seminars to full on music concerts.
The main event however is the flower parade – Desfile de Silleteros – where the crowds come out in force. This is where paisas of all ages carry flower displays on their backs on wooden silletas, often for hours. To give you an idea of the variety and colour on display, expect to see over 3,000 different kinds of orchids and other plant species.
The first Feria de las Flores took place in Medellin in May 1957. It was intended to host a tribute to the thriving flower business but has morphed since those early days. Today you’ll see locals wearing the classic paisa hats and donning their traditional Ponchos. On street corners, locals consume arepas (a traditional type of bread). Whilst bottles of Aguardiente (the local liquor which can be up to 60% proof) are drunk in vast quantities. All the while, bachata music (mostly guitar and bongos) throbs from local bars. The Flower Festival seems to be an excuse to party and perhaps it is; but there is no better way to get an authentic taste of this unique culture!
Where to stay: Our recommended hotels to stay in Medellin
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5. Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), Mexico
When: First weekend in November
The Day of the dead is Mexico’s best and most characteristic festival. It is a time where people from all over Mexico, but especially the southern regions, come and pray for and remember friends and family members who have died. The aim is to help support them in their spiritual journey. This 3 day festival event happens all over Mexico and is such a unique festival, that it is worth planning your holiday around as it is one of the best festivals in South and Central America
The most common symbol is the skull, which they represent in masks, but also food. Expect to see chocolate skulls offered as both gifts to the living and the dead and pan de muerto, a type of sweet bread. The bread is made in various shapes such as skulls, rabbits and bones, but always decorated with the sweetest of frosting!
Perfect for: Those who want to combine some culture with a beach break because the Caribbean coast of Mexico is heavenly.
Where to stay: Our recommended hotels to stay in Mexico
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