The world is full of festivals but none come as colourful as those in Latin America. Latinos certainly know how to throw a good party and festivals in Latin America are famous for their size, noise and extravagance. While Carnival (or Carnaval) in Rio de Janeiro, the world’s largest street party, is the most famous one, there are plenty of festivals across the continent and throughout the year. When you want to be involved in a pure cultural experience, there is nothing like witnessing and even participating in an authentic cultural festival.
Festival de la Candelaria - Copacabana, Bolivia & Puno, Peru (February)
The Virgen de La Candelaria is the most revered saint in both Bolivia and Peru, as well as being the Patron Saint of Copacabana in Bolivia. This festival to honour her is full of colourful parades, traditional music and dance, elaborate costumes, intricate masks and headpieces and a feast of local food and drink. Starting at the beginning of February, this two-week festival takes place on the shores of mystical Lake Titicaca in Copacabana and, over the border in its Peruvian neighbour, Puno. Combining an eclectic mix of pagan and Catholic rituals, this spectacular festival is arguably the most authentic and inspiring in Latin America.
Tapati Rapa Nui - Easter Island, Chile (February)
Every year for two weeks in February, the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island put on a show like no other. The Tapati Rapa Nui Festival started out in the 1970s as a way for the native inhabitants to celebrate their heritage while passing their traditions on to the younger generation. This festive carnival is widely regarded as the biggest Polynesian festival in the world. Horse and swimming races, a cross-island triathlon, reed canoe races and the infamous 'Haka Pei', a speed race down a 1,000 foot volcano on a crude banana tree sled with contestants only wearing a loincloth. Locals don tribal body paint and put on traditional loincloths and headdresses before heading out for an exuberant day of song and dance. Visitors are openly encouraged to get in on the action!
Carnaval - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (February/March)
By far the most well known festival in Latin America is Carnaval in Rio. Embracing its Catholic roots, it marks the start of Lent and is a chance for everyone to engage in hedonistic activities before the fasting and sacrifice of Lent begins. With almost two million participants, expect a massive party with amazing music, incredible dancing, flamboyant floats, outlandish costumes, and fantastic food. If the crowds of Rio seem a little overwhelming, many head north to the city of Salvador where the Afro-Brazilian vibes make this an exciting alternative to Rio.
Fiesta de la Patria Gaucha - Tacuarembó, Uruguay (March)
This colorful, authentically homegrown five-day event in March is the planet's largest gaucho festival, attracting participants from Argentina, southern Brazil and all over Uruguay for exhibitions of traditional gaucho skills, music and other activities. Thousands of Uruguayans, Argentinians, and Brazilians of all ages flock in to the big lake, Laguna de las Lavanderas, to embrace in their shared heritage, culture, and history. The Fiesta de La Patria Gaucha is action-packed with gaucho parades, equestrian exhibitions, traditional dance, live music and poetry, art exhibitions, fireworks, big bonfires and a never-ending gastronomic affair. Montevideo’s Semana Criolla or 'gaucho week' every Easter is another festival not to be missed if you happen to be in Uruguay.
Fiesta Nacional de la Vendimia (Grape Festival) - Mendoza, Argentina (March)
The annual Fiesta de la Vendimia takes place in March every year when around 40,000 visitors descend on the normally sleeping city of Mendoza, to celebrate and enjoy their local wines. Apart from the abundance of locally produced Malbec, the city-wide party includes traditional cuisines and folkloric song and dance, all culminating in the main event – a beauty contest to select The Queen of Vendimia. Wine connoisseurs from around the world and artists from all over South America descend on Mendoza during this time, creating a carnival-like atmosphere in the streets. It is a unique experience as the worlds of gauchos, international visitors and Mendocinos (as locals are known) collide and drink great wine.
Semana Santa (Holy Week) - Antigua, Guatemala (March/April)
The Spanish tradition of Semana Santa arrived with the Spaniards in Guatemala around 500 years ago, in 1524. Semana Santa is celebrated all over Latin America, however, Guatemala arguably holds the most elaborate celebration in the world. With grand processions, lavish floats and intricately designed alfombras (carpets), Antigua hosts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year to witness this spectacular religious and cultural festival – a mix of Spanish tradition and indigenous cultural beliefs.
Inti Raymi (Festival of the Sun) - Cusco, Peru (June)
On June 24th every year, Cusco celebrates the most famous of all the pre-Colombian festivals, Inti Raymi, the Inca Festival of the Sun. The festival, which started in the early 1400’s, was created to appease the Sun God, Inti, the most revered of all the gods. The Incas would offer animal sacrifices and perform colourful processions and dances in this multi day festival. Today the festival takes place just outside of Cusco at Sacsayhuamán, where a pair of llamas are ritually sacrificed. A host of street parties, dances, processions, and fiestas are held in and around Cusco during the last week of June, in what has become Peru’s most popular cultural event.
Gauchos of Güemes Parade - Salta, Argentina (June)
This epic procession is held in Salta to celebrate the life of one of the most influential generals of the war of independence in Argentina against the Spanish royalists, General Juan Martin Miguel de Güemes. Every June 17th, tribute is paid to this liberator who, accompanied by his gauchos, aided the national army commanded by San Martin to keep their ideals of independence and national sovereignty. The gauchos, symbols of the Province of Salta in their black and red outfits, parade several days before around the town on their horses and they look forward to the last night so that they can carry out one of the most historical traditions of the town: the ritual of the bonfires.
La Fiesta de la Tirana - La Tirana, Chile (July)
La Tirana Festival, Chile's Andean Carnaval is the most important religious celebration in the country, a party full of brightness, color and joy, in the middle of the desert. Up to 250,000 people gather in the tiny town of La Tirana in northern Chile, to celebrate. The festival finds its origins in the story - part history, part legend – of Ñusta Huillac, an Incan princess who rebelled against the European conquerers in the 1540s. Taking refuge in an oasis near Iquique, she was known to ruthlessly execute or enslave any Europeans or Christians who encroached on her territory – which is how she got the name La Tirana, meaning ‘the tyrant’. Today the festival is a celebration of altiplano music, dance and fireworks, all in honour of the Virgen del Carmen (Our Lady of Mount Carmel).
Feria de las Flores (Flower Festival) - Medellin, Colombia (August)
This weeklong event is the biggest and most spectacular annual event in Medellin. Colombia is the world’s second largest exporter of live flowers, so this festival celebrates the importance of this blooming industry. Festivities include numerous parades and concerts as well as the massive flower fair in the city’s botanical Gardens. The Festival’s highlight, however, is the Desfile de Silleteros (Peasants Parade). The silleteros are farmers who work on the local land and use wooden chairs strapped to their backs to transport items up and down the mountain. During the parade, over 500 silleteros walk from Santa Elena into downtown Medellín carrying stunning flower arrangements on their backs.
Tango Festival - Buenos Aires, Argentina (August)
More than just a dance, Argentina’s beloved tango seems to encapture the very essence and soul of the Argentinian people. Declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2009, this dance seems to be celebrated every day of the year in Buenos Aires, however never more so than in August, during the annual Tango Festival. Expect hundreds of events all over the city, culminating in the World Tango Championships, one of the most exciting and enthralling festivals in all of Latin America.
Mistura Food Festival - Lima, Peru (September)
Mistura is the largest culinary event in Latin America and a must for food lovers all over the world. The annual 10-day festival is an opportunity for Peru to share its love of food with the rest of world. With Peruvian food and chefs currently making such a big global splash, this is the perfect opportunity to see what all the fuss is about. Acclaimed chefs, humble street cart vendors, both established and up and coming restaurants, all come to Mistura to showcase and serve their culinary creations. The only mandate is to show up with an empty stomach and a desire to try new and, in some cases, unusual flavours. Perusing the festival grounds, you can search for familiar favourites or enticing new flavours while also learning more about each region’s specialties. This is the perfect opportunity to experience the best of Peru in one place.
Festival de la Tradición (Gaucho Festival) - Areco, Argentina (November)
The town of San Antonio de Areco in the heart of Argentina's Pampas, a two hour drive from Buenos Aires, is the symbolic center of Argentina’s vestigial gaucho culture. Its Fiesta de la Tradición dating back to 1939 puts Areco in the limelight as the country celebrates its biggest criollo tradition. The weekend event is held in early to mid-November, and includes displays of horsemanship, folk dancing, live music, craft exhibitions and plenty of grilled meat. The festival culminates in the historic town centre, and in the heart of the vast Criollo Park, where the bravest gauchos compete during the 'jineteadas' (rodeos), which provides for spectacular action!
El Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead) - Mexico (November)
Linked to the Catholic festival of All Souls Day, the Day of the Dead is a two-day celebration whereby families create offerings to honour their departed family members that have passed. These alters are decorated with bright yellow marigold flowers, as well as photos of the departed and their favourite foods and drinks. These offerings are believed to encourage visits from the land of the dead as the departed souls return to join in the celebrations. Despite its name, the Day of the Dead is one of Mexico’s most colourful and joyful festivals. The celebrations take place all over Mexico but our favourite spots to enjoy the festivities are Mexico City, San Miguel de Allende, and Merida in the Yucatan.
Latin America has many more festivals scattered across the region throughout the year, but we feel the ones listed above are those worth making the journey for. Many people schedule their travels to Central and South America around these fascinating traditional Latino celebrations. Don't forget to ask your A2A Journeys specialist if there is one happening at or near the cities you are visiting on your next trip.