Laura Pattara | 29 November 2017
Experience it in Peru
Choose to spend Christmas in the highlands of Peru and you’ll be privy to one of the world’s most heart-warming (and delectable) traditions.
Christmas is a very special time of year to travel abroad, particularly to countries which hold such an unwavering connection with Catholicism. In Peru, a deeply religious country, Christmas is a time for celebration, a time for giving, sharing and very much caring.
If you, like us, hold the credo that no Christmas is ever complete without an overindulgence of chocolate, then you can’t miss travelling through Peru during this very special time of year.
What is a Peruvian chocolatada?
One of the earliest Christmas traditions in Peru, and the one which signals the start of the festivities, are chocolatadas. These are special gatherings whereby the more affluent members in the community come together to make offerings to those who are less fortunate. The offering comes primarily in the shape of sumptuous mugs of carefully prepared spiced hot chocolate. The kind that melts your heart and taste buds, in every which way possible.
Chocolatadas are held all over Peru but are more prominent in the high-Andean region of Cusco and the Sacred Valley of the Incas. It is here that children from poorer countryside families descend into prominent towns, where church groups, schools and shops hold daylong feasts featuring colossal vats of hot chocolate, served alongside generous slices of panettone, the world-renowned spiced sweetbread imported to Peru by northern Italian immigrants in the 1950s.
Music, games and team sports are usually organized, as a way to entertain and treat the children for a few hours whilst the chocolate brew boils and thickens. Gift-giving is also an intrinsic part of the festivities. For children of the poorest families in the region, the presents, chocolate and snacks offered during a local chocolatadas are usually the only treats they get over Christmas, which makes the tradition all the more special.
Made from locally-sourced chocolate from the nearby Quillabamba Valley, the mouth-watering concoction is made with water and infused with spices like cinnamon and clove. The vats can be on the stove for hours on end, resulting in an absolutely overwhelming aroma that envelops every street of every town that participates. Drinking chocolate has been part and parcel of Peruvian culture for centuries although the consumption has usually been reserved for the middle and upper classes of society. This is especially true of the classic hot chocolate served at Christmas, as tradition calls for it to be made with shavings of high-quality chocolate, something most Peruvians (especially in the countryside) simply can’t afford to purchase.
Spending Christmas in Cusco
The Sacred Valley is the springboard for Machu Picchu adventures and although the end-of-year Christmas period is not the best time to visit (climate-wise) it can actually offer a spectacular chance of visiting one of South America’s major highlights minus the ubiquitous crowds found at any other time of year. Sure, you’re going to have to put up with misty days and slightly lower temps (the average daytime temperature in December is 15-21 degrees Celsius) but those are minor hassles to tackle, given the stellar rewards.
Christmas traditions in South America are renowned for being joyous and colourful affairs, and chocolatadas combine with religious festivals, ceremonies and processions to create a truly festive atmosphere, most especially in larger towns and major cities. Festivities here culminate on Christmas Eve – this is their ‘Christmas Day’ – with gastronomic feasts and midnight mass bringing life and cheer to all major town centres. Cusco is absolutely resplendent on this night, as crowds of locals descend on Plaza de Armas to ogle at the wares on offer at the Saturantikuy markets, the largest artisan Christmas markets in the whole Andean region of Peru. People come from all over the mountains, and even as far afield as Bolivia, to showcase and buy the most coveted artefacts of all: decorations for nativity sets. Saturantikuy, which translates to ‘the selling of Saints’, attracts hundreds of vendors and buyers and the whole scene is a feast for the eyes for foreign visitors. This would have to be the only time of year when locals far outnumber tourists in this spectacular plaza.
Vendors mark their spot in the plaza for up to two days before Christmas Eve and the whole town is gripped by the kind of Christmas-fever that seems to have all but disappeared back home. It’s an extraordinary time to visit Peru and being in Cusco is especially rewarding. And while the week before Christmas is chock-full of exceptional events (pun totally intended) culminating on evening mass and fireworks on the night of the 24th,it all abruptly ends on the 25th as people stay home to spend time with their families.
Christmas Day is about the only time when the festivities turn to incredibly private affairs. For tourists, however, this day can also be totally magical. You’ll find Cusco deserted on Christmas morning and can wander the streets in blissful peace, photographing the main attractions and enjoying the blissful quiet in what is usually a very bustling town.
And all of this gorgeousness is coupled with the fact that Machu Picchu, at this time of year, is simply stellar.
So…why not do something truly amazing for Christmas? Travel to Peru, partake in a chocolatada and indulge in one of the most magical journeys in all of South America and have an unforgettable and very feliz Navidad.