Planning a trip to South America this year? Wherever and whenever you go, you’re sure to come across at least one festival or national holiday: this is a continent that loves a party, and the bigger the better! Here at Backpack South America, we’ve put together a list of fourteen of the biggest fiestas, parades and events across the continent. Since it’s impossible to select the best events, or those most worth attending, we’ve tried instead to suggest the festivals which best encapsulate the culture, spirit and people of their country.
January: Lavagem do Bonfim Festival
Where: Salvador, Brazil
When: 15th January 2015
What: The Lavagem do Bonfim, (washing of Bonfim), is one of the most important religious ceremonies in Brazil, certainly in Salvador. A festival of humble beginnings, the Bonfim festival originated in the work of slaves preparing the church for the Catholic feast of Our Lord of Bonfim. Now, the celebration involves a procession of hundreds of women in traditional Bahian dress, carrying perfumed water to wash the church steps. The event is enormous, drawing close to a million visitors who come to partake in the joyous party atmosphere.
February: Baranquilla Carnival
Where: Baranquilla, Colombia
When: 14th – 17th February 2015
What: Everyone’s heard of Rio’s Carnival, but equally as massive and much less touristified (read word) is the UNESCO world heritage event of Baranquilla Carnaval. Second biggest in the world, the carnival in Colombia is a fantastic alternative and somewhat more affordable than the Brazilian version. Four days of musical and masquerade parades, street dances, and concerts, with incredible street food and plenty of cheap aguardiente (the local firewater). Expect mammoth crowds, pulsing rumba, constant dance, beautiful women, and bucket-loads of foam squirted from the cheaply available foam canisters – you definitely can’t beat them, so join the locals and come armed with your own spray-can!
March: Fiesta de la Patria Gaucha
Where: Tacuarembó, Uruguay
When: 4th – 8th March 2015
What: The Fiesta de la Partria Gaucha (Festival of the Gaucho Motherland, is Uruguay’s largest and most authentic celebration of its deep-rooted gaucho (cowboy) culture. Over five days the city of Tacuarembó goes loco for all things gaucho, with music, dancing, bonfires, displays of gaucho skills, and a parade with thousands of riders mounted on horseback in full gaucho regalia. And don’t forget the food: typical cowboy fare including plenty of barbecued meat. Sure to bring out your inner cowboy.
April: Semana Santa
Where: Across South America
When: 29th March – 5th April (Easter)
What: Given that 92% of the continent is Catholic, it’s no surprise that Semana Santa (Holy Week) is a huge deal in South America. Across the continent, the week leading up to Easter is celebrated with festivals, processions, parades, church services, fireworks, feasts, and loads of unique local traditions. Some of the best destinations to celebrate Easter in South America include:
- Popayan in Colombia – named UNESCO World Heritage Site for its “Oral and Intangible Cultural” legacy.
- Cusco in Peru – where a special procession is held each year on the Thursday before Easter. Señor de los Temblores (Lord of the Earthquakes) commemorates the day in 1650 when an earthquake struck Cusco, but the Cathedral was spared.
- Recife and Ouro Preto in Brazil – where a popular tradition is to cover the streets with rugs and carpets, then pile on flowers or sawdust in elaborate shapes and designs.
May: Labour Day
Where: La Paz, Bolivia
When: 1st May 2015
What: Labour day is an official holiday in most other South American countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela. La Paz is a great place to observe the holiday, though: Bolivia’s unofficial capital fills with marches, rallies, and parades representing the various workers groups and unions. There’s particularly huge support for the group representing the cholitas; Bolivia’s indigenous working women, dressed in the traditional outfit of multiple skirts, cardigans and shawls topped off with the iconic bowler hat and plaits. The streets of La Paz fill up with food stalls and daytime fireworks, and the parks host funfairs and other festivities.
June: Copa América
Where: Chile (eight cities)
When: 11th June – 4th July 2015
What: The South American version of the Euros, the Copa América is to be held in Chile this year, with nine stadiums across eight different cities: Antofagasta, Viña del Mar, Santiago, Concepción, La Serena, Valparaíso, Rancagua, and Temuco. South America takes football very, very seriously, and after the 2014 World Cup last year there will be a few teams and players looking to settle old scores or for a second chance to prove themselves. If you can get tickets, get to a match; the atmosphere at South American football games is electric – but be prepared for huge rivalries, like Chile-Peru and Brazil-Argentina.
July: Pisco Day
When: 26th July 2015
What: The fourth Sunday of every July has been officially marked as Peru’s National Pisco Day since May 6th, 1999. Although celebrated all across the country, the best places to experience this event are the main pisco-producing regions of Lima, Ica, Arequipa, Moquegua and Tacna, where local viñedos and bodegas pisqueras (vineyards and pisco wineries) take part in the festivities. Think market stalls, tasting sessions, gastronomic fairs, exhibitions of the history of pisco, vineyard tours, concerts, and pisco. Lots and lots of pisco. In 2010, local authorities in Lima teamed up with the Plaza Vea supermarket chain convert the central water fountain in the Plaza de Armas into a pisco fountain providing free samples.
August: World Tango Festival
Where: Buenos Aires, Argentina
When: 12th to 25th August 2015 (unconfirmed)
What: Dance lovers shouldn’t miss the world’s most significant tango festival in the great tango capital, Buenos Aires. Over nine days, Tango aficionados from all over the world converge on the the dance’s birthplace, hoping to walk (or strut) away with the coveted first-place prize. Alongside the main competition, the capital fills up with hundreds of events including concerts, exhibitions, public dance-offs, classes and general festivities. A celebration of the country’s most famous artform; whether you’re a dance lover or not, this is sure to be one awesome party.
August: Arequipa Week
Where: Arequipa, Peru
When: 13-19th August 2015
What: Every August, Peru’s “second city” of Arequipa celebrates the anniversary of it’s founding on 15th August in a remarkable fashion. Over a full week of celebration, thousands of revellers and tourists paint the White City red in a flurry of celebration and excitement, with colourful processions, firework displays, an international folklore dance festival, and craft markets. Plus there’s a sillar stonework and metalwork contest, beauty contests, outdoor musical performances, and even sporting events like a race up El Misti Volcano, while the main event is the Corso de la Amistad (Friendship Parade) on the 15th.
September: Brazil’s Independence Day
Where: Brasilia (and across Brazil)
When: 7th September 2015
What: Never one for understated festivities, Brazil goes all out in celebration of their National Independence Day. Marking the date that Prince Pedro declared the Independence of Brazil on September 7, 1822, the country hosts largely military based celebrations. The biggest celebration takes place in the capital, Brasilia, in the presence of the President, with airshows and huge military parades, featuring various battalions as well as tanks and different weaponry.
October: Día de la Raza
Where: Santiago, Chile
When: 12th October 2015
What: 12th October marks the date that Columbus first arrived in the Americas, and until the early 21st century the day was celebrated across many Latin American countries as Columbus Day. But, given the subsequent slave trade and oppression that the arrival of the Spanish caused, many people across the continent found the celebration offensive. Some countries dropped the day altogether, while others kept the holiday and changed the name. In Chile, it became Día de la Raza (Day of the Race) a day which celebrates Chilean culture. In Santiago, a parade is held with traditional dance and ethnic costumes celebrating Chile’s indigenous groups.
Other countries that still observe the holiday include:
- Argentina, Día del Respeto a la Diversidad Cultural (Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity)
- Uruguay, Día de las Américas (Day of the Americas)
- Venezuela, Día de la Resistencia Indígena (Day of Indigenous Resistance)
November: Día de los Difuntos
When: 2nd November 2015
What: Very similar to Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in Mexico, Día de los Difuntos (Day of the Ancestors) is a major holiday in Ecuador, with schools and businesses closed in observance. The vibe is far from sombre; this is a time to remember the dead with love and laughter, and the celebrations have the atmosphere of a party. Ecuadorians honour their dead with flowers and joyful remembrances, and many families head to the cemetery dressed in their finest clothes, where they dine on top of the graves of their ancestors. Central to the the meal are the Guaguas de Pan (bread babies), which are about 12″ long, shaped from balls of dough and decorated with icing. These are eaten with colada morada, a purple drink made from blackberries, blueberries, cinnamon, and cloves, cooked with oatmeal.
December: Ferias de Cali
Where: Across South America
When: 25th – 30th December 2015 (to be confirmed)
What: Cali, the world’s salsa capital, is known as one of Colombia’s hardest partying cities, and at Christmas the city really shows what it’s made of with Las Ferias de Cali (the Cali Fair). Usually starting on 25th December and officially ending on the 30th, Cali Fair often extends up to 6th January. In a massive year-end celebration that lasts two weeks each winter, the streets of Cali become one big party, full of street vendors, performers and merrymakers. Originally a bullfighting celebration, the bullfights still form a big part of the fair, along with beauty pageants, public concerts, horse parades and ballroom dancing, but much more central now is the salsa dancing. The highlight is the Salsódromo, a mile-long parade featuring hundreds of dancers of all ages, forming a spectacular display of Cali style salsa.
December: Christmas and NYE
Where: Across South America
When: 25th December
What: Being largely Catholic, the continent celebrates Christmas (Navidad in Spanish or Natal in Portuguese) in a big way, but expect a few differences from the traditional western Christmas. The biggest celebration happens at midnight on Christmas Eve: many cities will host festivities on the streets, with fireworks, neighbourhood parties, and singing. Here are some of the best traditions to watch out for…
- Quito, Ecuador, holds pesebre (nativity scene) competitions, and a giant nativity scene is held over the Panecillo.
- In some countries, Missa do Galo or Misa de Gallo (midnight mass) starts right after Christmas Eve dinner, and is so long that people don’t get home until dawn – many families watch it on television instead.
- In Brazil, people like to drive past the hugely popular Christmas trees set up on Ibirapuera in São Paulo and Lagoa in Rio – but this holiday habit tends to cause major traffic jams.
- Roasts are common across the continent, as are sweets. In Argentina it’s pan dulce (a vanilla bread with nuts, almonds, raisins, chocolate chips, and dried fruits), in Brazil it’s panetone (often adaptated with flavours like chocolate, brigadeiro, dulce de leche, or guava), and in Ecuador they eat buñuelos (fried dough balls) with honey and chocolate milk.
- In Brazil, the tradition of Folia de Reis happens between Christmas Eve and early January, honouring the three wise men from the nativity story with a festival involving a choir, clowns, a ceremony master, a flag-man, and – of course – three kings.
- New Years Eve celebrations are big all over, but the most famous event is probably that of Rio in Brazil. Crowds two million strong descend on Copacabana Beach to watch the incredible firework display, and the city fills up with street parties, live music, and samba. It’s customary to wear white on NYE in Rio, as it’s said to bring luck for the year ahead.