From January to December. These are South America's greatest festivals
It is often said that South Americans will look for any excuse to put on a good party and when it comes to the continent’s best cultural, religious and culinary festivals, that assumption is certainly spot on. No matter what time of year you visit, you’ll find a host of festivals to brighten up your itinerary and inject a serious dose of cultural immersion into your trip.
3rd Thursday – Fiesta de la Santa Tierra, Lake Titicaca, Peru
If you’ve ever wondered just how alive ancient Inca culture is in the central Andean region of South America, kick off the new year by attending the Festival of the Holy Land on Amantani Island and you’ll soon know. The revered birthplace of the Inca civilization, Lake Titicaca and all its intricate relics still hold a lot of importance among locals, some of the most traditional Peruvians you’ll encounter on your entire trip. On the third Thursday of January every year, Amantani’s ancient Mother Earth and Father Earth temples (Pachamama and Pachatata) open their doors – for only one day a year. Villages visit the temples to pay their respects and ask for a bountiful harvest year ahead and although the festivities are not nearly as overwhelming as many others, this is perhaps one of the most culturally significant events in the region, one filled with endless rituals and symbolism. Besides all this, it’s a chance to visit two ancient temples that are normally out of bounds for visitors.
1st – 14th – Virgen de la Candelaria, Puno, Lake Titicaca, Peru & Bolivia
The patron saint of Puno is given an almighty celebration on the shores of Lake Titicaca in a 2-week-long festival that is elaborate, filled with rituals and very, very colourful. The most famous lake in the Andes springs to life in February with processions, traditional dance, music and stunning costumes brightening up the streets of Puno and its Bolivian counterpart, Copacabana, on a daily basis. Over 100 folkloric groups from the region take part, attracting villagers from all corners of the high-Andean plateau, making this a cultural experience that’s unparalleled, not just in Peru but throughout South America.
5th – 7th – Oruro Carnival, Bolivia
One of the least-known yet most colourful festivals in South America, the Oruro Festival honours the Virgin of the Mineshaft in celebrations that are more than 200 years old. In one of Bolivia’s oldest and most traditional mining towns, this is the year’s biggest event, featuring big brass bands, colourful and elaborate costumes, richly-decorated statues of the Virgin, boisterous processions and thousands of followers. The Oruro Festival has gained a lot of international interest since its dancers were granted UNESCO heritage status.
Varies – Carnaval, Brazil
The whole continent is gripped by Carnival fever this month, the most famous and outlandish celebrations taking place in Brazil. In Salvador de Bahia and (more famously) Rio de Janeiro, sensational 4-day-long celebrations turn already-vibrant cities into magnificent party scenes. Street parties, nightly samba contests, float parades, amazing costumes and an endless supply of food and drinks (nit to mention non-stop music) set the mood for what is widely hailed as ‘the party of the year’. Of all the festivals in South America, this is undoubtedly the one that attracts the largest crowds. Carnaval actually has religious origins and starts the Saturday before Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras) so the exact dates do change yearly.
Varies – Semana Santa – Continent-wide
The Holy Week leading up to Easter is possibly the busiest travel period in all of South America, as locals visit their hometowns to celebrate the religious event with their families or enjoy family-holidays. Unlike Christmas, however (which is actually a quiet affair, at least publicly) Holy Week sees processions and religious ceremonies taking place en masse. As a tourist, the most fascinating festivities to attend are in Cuenca and the Old Quito (both in Ecuador), Cusco (Peru – which also holds a vigil to remember the 1650 earthquake that razed the city) and all other major cities, as their opulent cathedrals get ready to welcome the biggest crowds of the year.
1st – 7th – Wine Harvest Festival, Mendoza, Argentina
The Vendimia takes place during the whole of February in Mendoza (the most famous wine-growing region of Argentina) although it culminates in fabulous festivities and fireworks during the first week of March. There’s really never a wrong month of the year to visit Mendoza but if you want to hit the jackpot, pick February or – even better – the first week of March and you’ll be in for a feast of wine, food, music and dancing.
15th-20th – Peruvian Paso Horse Festival, Lima, Peru
The Peruvian Paso is world-renowned and revered for its very distinct gait which offers its rider arguably the smoothest ride of any horse. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to ride one, or are as enamoured with the creature as we are, you won’t want to miss this 5-day-long dressage competition that takes place in Lima. The nightly festivities culminate in a wonderful traditional dance called the Marinera, in which a beautiful woman in traditional costume ‘dances’ with a man astride a Peruvian Paso. The Paso – a recognised national treasure of Peru – is the pride and joy of all Peruvians and attending this festival is a truly captivating affair.
Late May – Corpus Christi, Cusco, Peru
One of the biggest Catholic festivals in Peru is celebrated in grand form in Cusco, where more than a dozen statues are paraded through the streets, accompanied by much pomp and pageantry. Corpus Christi is, like so many festivals in South America, a blend of pagan traditions and religious significance and showcases the country’s culture, arts, traditions and cuisine. Another fantastic (and more off-beat) destination to join in Corpus Christi festivities is Pujili in Ecuador.
17th – Festival of the Gaucho, Salta, Argentina
June is a great month to tackle an overland journey along the famous Northern Route 40 and the glorious gaucho festivities that await you in Salta on the 17th are yet another reason to book a trip. This is traditional gaucho land in north-western Argentina and the event attracts over 2,000 hardy horse-masters who take part in parades and ceremonial festivities, celebrating their invaluable assistance in the successful fight for Spanish independence in 1813. Horses, handsome men in leather boots, food, wine and merriment: what more could anyone want from a festival?
21st – Aymara New Year, Tiwanaku, Bolivia
Indigenous New Year celebrations in Bolivia were reintroduced by President Morales and the largest celebrations take place in UNESCO-listed Tiwanaku, one of the most prominent pre-Columbian sites in the entire country. The ancient capital of the Tiwanaku culture, over 3000 years old, is set on the shores of Lake Titicaca and is a spectacular archaeological site to visit at any time of year. Add a sunrise ceremony on the Winter Solstice, a huge local crowd and day-long festivities and it becomes an unmissable cultural experience.
24th – Inti-Raymi, Cusco, Peru
The ancient Inca festival of Inti-Raymi (Festival of the Sun) was outlawed by the Spanish after they overpowered the mighty ancient warriors and was only reintroduced to the Peruvian festival calendar in 1944. The main festival is held in the archaeological site of Sacsayhuaman just outside the old Inca capital of Cusco, yet Cusco itself also hosts street parties and procession to celebrate the momentous occasion. Inti-Raymi has swiftly become the most popular cultural festival of the year in Peru, attracting thousands of locals and foreigners alike. Given the festival falls at the height of the tourist season, it makes for a fabulous add-on to visits of Cusco and Machu Picchu.
24th – Chaccu Nacional de la Vicuña, Ayacucho, Peru
The Pampa Galeras Reserve was founded in 1964 specifically to protect the nearly extinct vicuña, grower of the finest and most expensive wool in the world. The Incas used to harvest vicuña wool long before Europeans ever arrived, although they protected their herd for posterity by only shearing the animals once every four years, during a ceremonial festival called the Chacchu. Europeans, being none the wiser, almost hunted the llama-ancestor to extinction before realising the value of its incredible wool. Nowadays, a yearly Chaccu festival takes place in Pampas Galeras, where over 20,000 of the graceful creatures roam wild and free. The ritualistic shearing aims to reduce the incidents of poaching and is helping locals secure an income in return for protecting the wildlife. Pampas Galeras is just a few hours’ drive from Nazca so if you’re in the area this month, it’s really worth the detour.
15th- 17th – Virgen del Carmen, Paucartambo, Cusco
Some religious festivals in South America are sombre and quiet affairs but the celebration of the Virgen del Carmen is no such event. Loud, colourful and totally fun, this 2-day event sees the celebration of the patron saint of the region around Cusco and culminates in festivities in a small town called Paucartambo, about a 3hrs’ drive from Cusco. The village is small and homestays limited so you’ll need to book your side trip well in advance. Steady on for a very early wake-up call though, as the festival ends with a sunrise viewing over the Tres Cruces up in the highlands. A stellar cultural experience that’s sure to be a real highlight of your trip to Peru.
17th – 27th – International Tango Festival – Buenos Aires, Argentina
Tango is celebrated in Argentina every day of the year yet the world’s largest festival dedicated to this most hypnotic dance is held in Buenos Aires in August. In this most captivating festival, you’ll have your tango-fill like nothing else, with hundreds of events taking place all over the city, attracting the best tango dancers from Argentina and abroad. Tango passion is an inherent part of the local culture and is incredibly contagious, making a visit to the Argentinian capital at this time absolutely fabulous.
3rd Week – Virgin of Urkupina Festival, Quillacollo, Bolivia
Legend has it that a young local girl was once visited by the Virgin Mary as she was tending to her flock atop a hill above Quillacollo, a small and (usually) sleepy town just outside Cochabamba. The Virgin instructed the girl to gather stones and take them home – by the time she did, they had turned to gold, the event lifting her family out of poverty. Trust that in Bolivia, one of the poorest, most religious and traditional countries in Latin America, celebrations of the event are spectacularly huge. Over 500,000 descend on Quillacollo on the 3rd week of August every year, to partake in festivities which include an amazing 10,000-strong parade up to the top of the hill where the young girl had her fortuitous vision.
Varies – Mistura, Lima, Peru
Finally, a festival for the foodies! Mistura is the largest food festival in the entire continent and, considering it is held in one of the most gastronomically-progressive capitals of all, we call this an absolute win-win. Head to Lima on an empty stomach at the beginning of September and for the price of the entry ticket – $8 – you’ll have over 100 superb food trucks and stalls at your beck and call. The top chefs from the best restaurants showcase their skills at Mistura, all in the name of raising awareness of Peruvian culinary prowess. You win, any which way you see it. Check dates before planning your travels, however, as some years have the festival was held in August.
31st (until 2nd November) Día de la Canción Criolla, Peru
A relatively recent addition to the Peruvian festival scene, The day of the Creole Song started in the 1940s by then-President Prado y Ugarteche and celebrates the Creole culture imported into the southern regions of Peru.
1st & 2nd – Day of the Dead, Continent-wide
Mexico hosts perhaps the most famous Day of the Dead celebrations in all of Latin America but its southerly neighbours, particularly Bolivia, put on a great fiesta as well to remember the dearly departed. The ritual of celebrating the dead used to entail digging up skulls and decorating them with glee but, nowadays, you’ll only see this tradition carried out in Bolivia. In our books, that’s reason enough to attend.
1st – 8th – Manco Capac Festival, Puno, Peru
The founder of the Inca civilization, said to have risen from the depths of Lake Titicaca, is given a whole week of celebrations in Puno at the beginning of November. Expect a lot of music, dancing, food and alcohol.
24th – Santikuraray, Cusco, Peru
If you’re in Cusco over Christmas you’ll be in for a treat as on the 24th the Plaza de Armas fills with artisanal stands selling all manner of Christmassy saintly figurines, which make for awesome souvenirs. This is one of the year’s largest handicraft markets in the country.
Whilst we endeavour to highlight the biggest and most interesting festivals of the year in South America, do note that our list is far from exhaustive. Patron Saints are celebrated in just about every city, town and village in the continent and some of the biggest celebrations are reserved for Independent Day, held on a unique date in each country. Let us know where you plan to tour South America and when, and we can offer personalised advice as to any festivals which may be happening at the time.