If the world’s continents were to attend a ball, we all know who’d rule the dance floor. From world famous carnivals to fiestas in tiny mountain towns, Latin America knows how to let down its hair and kick up its heels. Reggaeton pumps out from speakers, rum flows freely and colour explodes whichever way you look. Grounded in Catholicism and Andean folklore, Latin festivals honour everything from Aztec Sun Gods to the spirits of the dead. Perhaps it’s this mix of pious faith and hedonism that is so compelling; whatever it is, it’s best not to overthink it. So grab a michelada, loosen those hips and get ready to fiesta with the besta. Sitting out is not an option.
Tours for Festivals in South America & Central America
Read about Festivals in South America & Central America
Bolivia’s Anchocalla festival, which originated in the country’s unofficial capital of La Paz and marks the beginning of the potato harvest, is concerned with invoking the Andean goddess of fertility, Pachamama, to grant good rains and bountiful harvests. To this end, local La Pazzians dress up and take part in the ‘tarqueada’; a colourful folkloric street dance performed with loaves of bread on the head and garlands of pears looped about necks. And why not?
When to travel: The Anchocalla festival takes place each year during the first week of January.
Festival Survival Guide
- Aside from La Paz, the best places to witness Anchocalla are Oruro, Cochabamba, Potosi, Sucre, Tarija and Reyes (Beni).
- Nothing really to heed too much for this one. Just rock up and enjoy the show.
Inti Raymi, South America
These days, Inti Raymi, the Festival of the Sun, isn’t so much a celebration as a full-scale reenactment of what once was. This is a good thing for black llamas at least – back in the day, they were liable to being sacrificed and their gizzards splayed out for future forecasting. Prior to the Spaniards’ 1572 outlawing of the ‘pagan’ event, the ceremony – which takes place during the winter solstice, when the sun sits furthest the earth – was a way to thank Inti, the Aztec Sun God and invoke his return. A renaissance was then instigated in 1944, and Inti Raymi is now purportedly the second biggest festival in all South America. With highly elaborate costumes, polished dance performances, mock sacrifices and extravagant processions, some spectators do begrudge its ‘inauthenticity’ – a peculiar reproach given that the event is a reconstruction. For those willing to go along with the charade however, it’s an entertaining glimpse into a world long gone.
When to travel: The Incas were none too shabby astrologers, to which their knowhow in telling the Winter Solstice attests. Accordingly, the festival takes place on June 24th each year. No ifs, no buts.
Festival Survival Guide
- Inti Raymi is a hugely popular event, with both seats and accommodation booking up well in advance. Unless you’re happy to watch the spectacle standing – and plenty are – you’d do well to do the same.
Semana Santa, Peru
Never mind scavenging for chocolate eggs planted by some mysterious rabbit of the night; Peru is the place to see in some Easter celebrations. Running for ten days over… well, Easter… Semana Santa is the biggest festival on the country’s religious calendar with the town of Ayacucho playing host to its most extravagant manifestation. The whole shebang kicks off on the Friday before Palm Sunday, with a procession honouring ‘Our Lady of Sorrows’ and some enthusiastic bouts of ‘Sorrow sharing’ (see Festival Survival Guide below). The following nine days then feature various celebrations of spiritual devotion, culminating in Palm Sunday, where one lucky donkey gets to wheel an effigy of Jesus into the city’s main plaza amid thousands of fans.
When to Travel: The dates of Semana Santa vary year on year. To witness the festival in its totality, you’ll want to be there from Good Friday to Easter Sunday.
Festival Survival Guide
- An unfortunate part of the procession of Our Lady of Sorrows includes ‘Sorrow Sharing’; a rather poetic name for ‘shooting people with pebbles from slingshots’. Get involved if you don’t value your eyes; consider steering clear if you do.
- In the Semana Santa hubs of Cusco, Ayacucho, Arequipa and downtown Lima, accommodation can book up fast. Make your reservation early if you’d like to stay local during the festivities.
- While Semana Santa is all about celebrating the love and benevolence of Christ, hazards do exist. Just as with many big festivals around the world, drunkenness does occur and crime does escalate over this period. Maintain a particularly vigilant alert against pickpockets.
Festival de La Virgen de la Candelaria, South America
Each February, deep in the folkloric heart of South America, a festival comes to town. Or, more accurately, to two towns. Depending on which side of Lake Titicaca you’re on – Peru’s or Bolivia’s – the Festival of the Virgin of Candelaria, while honouring the same figure, takes quite different forms. In Puno, dancers and musicians, dressed in colourful costumes and creepy masks, make offerings to the Inca earth goddess, Pachamama. Over in Bolivia’s Copacabana meanwhile, the Dark Virgin of the Lake is the lady of the moment with the focus on praying and partying, beers and bulls. Puno’s is arguably the more spectacular event, Copacabana’s the more lively. But given the chance, it’s worth checking out both.
When to Travel: The Festival of the Virgin of Candelaria runs for the first two weeks of February every year. February 2nd is the day of the most colourful procession however, so this is one party you don’t want to rock up to fashionably late.
Festival Survival Guide
- Bolivia’s Festival of the Virgin of Candelaria celebrations include a running of the bulls. Common sense, and good taste, would advise an avoidance.
Rio Canaval, Brazil
It’s probably the world’s most famous party, a sequined, feather-filled fiesta that pulses to a fiery Brazilian beat. Welcome to carnaval! Every February in the lead-up to Lent, Rio’s streets erupt with colourful floats, exposed flesh, thumping samba rhythms and up to two million revellers. The epicentre of festivities is, of course, the Sambadrome, but smaller street parades break out all over the city, swinging and sweltering in the Brazilian summer sun. To the uninitiated, carnaval can seem a bit overwhelming – like being hit in the face with a rainbow – but that’s where Intrepid steps in. We’ll get you behind the scenes and the sequins to uncover carnaval the local way. Get your dancing shoes on.
When to travel: Carnaval runs from the Friday before Lent and finishes on Fat Tuesday (after which, traditionally, one is meant to give up all bodily pleasures). This usually falls around mid-February each year.
Festival survival guide
- Get in the swing with a funky dress-up outfit. The locals will love it and you’ll blend right in.
- Prepare for the heat. Bring good quality sunscreen and lots of water to make it through the sweltering days.
- For a miracle local hangover cure, walk into any pharmacy and ask for ‘engov’, a local wonder tablet containing caffeine and paracetamol.
- Don’t be shy to mingle with the locals. Now is the perfect time to practise your Portuguese.
- Plan your return journey. Buses usually finish around 11 pm and it’s not wise to wander Rio alone after dark.
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