6 must-see festivals in Central America
From Panama and Belize to Guatemala and Nicaragua, the warm waters and colourful traditions of Central America are brimming with celebration.
Whether you’re after a raucous street party, holy vigil or flamboyant parade, there is a destination, and a festival, to explore every month of the year. We’ve handpicked our six must-see festivals in Central America and Mexico – the promised lands of party:
1. Semana Santa – Antigua, Guatemala
Easter in Antigua is a traveller’s dream. Cobblestone paths meet pastel-painted shop fronts as parades of costumed locals take to the streets. During Holy Week, and beneath a looming Volcan de Agua, the colonial city is overrun with Semana Santa celebrations. Find street vendors selling hot comida tipica (traditional food) beneath doorways of centuries-old churches, or watch on as indigenous women weave thick mats of native flowers. Four in the morning sees dedicated locals awake to create the colourful alfombras (carpets) that line the Lenten streets. Made of dyed sawdust and pine needles, these beautifully detailed alfombras are enjoyed just as quickly as they are destroyed, washed away by the festive feet of passersby.
2. Carnival – Veracruz, Mexico
Okay, so we know Mexico isn’t actually in Central America, but it’s worth crossing the border for their amazing festivals. On the Gulf of Mexico, in the buzzing port town of Veracruz, locals throw a street party to rival the grandeur of Rio. Said to be Mexico’s greatest and most joyous celebration, the Carnival de Veracruz is a highlight of any festive calendar – and deservedly so. As the sounds of marimbas fill the harbour and parades take to the streets, watch the crowds gather to dance the chuchumbe and clap at the burning of Juan Carnival. Come nightfall, wish your worries away at the ceremonial ‘burning of the bad moods’.
3. Feast of San Jeronimo – Masaya, Nicaragua
If you love fireworks, you’re going to love the Feast of San Jeronimo. For three huge months, the city of Masaya rings with the crack of exploding fireworks and the night sky is filled with bursts of light. The celebration honours the city’s patron saint, San Jeronimo, a bearded campesino known as Tata Chombo or ‘doctor of the poor’. Every year on October 7, the iconic figure of Tata Chombo is removed from its mantle at the Iglesia de San Jeronimo and paraded throughout the town – doing what the locals call his ‘victory lap’. The streets then awaken to music and dancing as San Jeronimo passes by.
4. Day of the Dead (Dia de Muertos) – Mexico City
They do Halloween a little differently in Mexico. Forget ghouls and goblins, ghosts and gargoyles, Dia de Muertos is all about remembering, praying and partying for friends and family who have passed away. Taking a unique approach to death, locals see Dia de Muertos as an opportunity to celebrate and honour a life, rather than mourn its ending – a pretty nice concept, right? Arguably Mexico’s most beloved celebration, festivities kick off at midnight October 31 and continue all the way through to November 2. Expect to see highly decorated ofrendas (altars) on every street corner, vendors selling sugar skulls and parties in graveyards. A Mexican holiday is hardly complete without taking a trip to the world’s most joyous funeral service, but if you’re a little hesitant to venture alone, check out Intrepid’s thrilling new Day of the Dead 5-day adventure.
5. Feast of St Thomas – Chichicastenango, Guatemala
One hour’s drive from the still serenity of Guatemala’s Lago de Atitlan sits Chichicastenango, a quaint market village with a big reputation. Burrowed into the hillside, ‘Chichi’ (as the locals like to call it) hits its annual population high on December 27 for the Feast of St Thomas. Every year, Guatemaltecos and foreigners alike gather with necks craned skywards to watch the flying dancers take to the heavens. The pole valador, or flying pole dance, sees performers attach themselves to a ninety-foot pole and, quite literally, fly. It’s like a cross between acrobatics and bungee jumping, equal parts fascinating and terrifying.
6. New Year’s Eve, Caye Caulker, Belize
Watch the sunset over ‘the split’, share a fresh coconut with a friend and listen to the crowd on the mainland chant the countdown. Sit back and relax. After all, you’re on a Caribbean island, with nothing to worry about other than your next application of mosquito repellent. Where else would you rather bring in the New Year? Life is a breeze in Belize.
Ever landed in town just in time for a festival or have any favourite festival tips? We’d love to hear your comments!