Journey to the Cultural Core: Our Top Ten Latin America Festival Picks

One of the most meaningful ways to encounter and really connect with Latin America is through its festivals. Stroll, for example, through a Mexican graveyard on the night …

Attending the Rio Carnival should be on everyone's bucket list. (Photo by @raulds)

One of the most meaningful ways to encounter and really connect with Latin America is through its festivals. Stroll, for example, through a Mexican graveyard on the night of November 1 and you may be walking among the spirits of the dead. Almost every grave is adorned with the deceased’s favorite snacks, bottles of tequila, photos of old times and cempazuchitl, orange marigold flowers whose sweet, enticing scent is supposed to draw out the spirits of the departed so that they can reconnect with their families. Derived from Aztecs celebrations of the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the Day of the Dead is just one of the many great idiosyncratic festivals that are unique to Latin America. Here are the top ten that everyone should experience once in their lifetime:

Palmares Civic Fiestas

Palmares, Costa Rica, January

Every January, the sleepy coffee town of Palmares hosts Costa Rica’s biggest and rowdiest party attended by as many as one million people, equivalent to one fifth of Costa Rica’s population! The celebrations feature copious amounts of beer, folk dancing, concerts, carnival music, fairground rides, an impressive equestrian parade and Costa Rican-style bullfighting. Unlike normal bullfighting, the bulls are not harmed in the Tico version; instead, unarmed daredevils attempt to touch the bulls as they charge around the area.

Rio Carnival

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, February/March

No bucket list is complete if it does not include attending arguably the world’s most famous party and the benchmark against which all other carnivals are measured: the Rio Carnival. Every year around 500,000 foreign tourists travel to this iconic city to experience this legendary festival. Considered a farewell act to the pleasures of the flesh, it takes place from the Friday to the Tuesday before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. This usually falls in February, Brazil’s hottest month, when the summer is at its peak. After months of preparation and eager anticipation, the event begins with the crowning of the Fat King, who is presented with a giant silver and gold key by the mayor of Rio de Janeiro. From then on, there is singing, dancing and drinking in the city streets, squares, bars and clubs until the carnival climaxes in an array of colorful floats and costumes with the Samba Parade.

Buenos Aires Tango Festival

Buenos Aires, Argentina, February/March

Tango enthusiasts should not miss this nine-day extravaganza. The world’s most important tango festival, this annual event was founded in 1999 and runs from late February through early March. Organized by Argentina’s Ministry of Culture, the Buenos Aires Tango Festival includes performances by celebrated dancers, a mass dance-off, free tango classes, concerts, parties and more, all hosted by one of Latin America’s most popular and iconic cities.

Oruro Carnival

Oruro, Bolivia, February/March

Also known as the Diablada (“Dance of the Devils”), the Oruro Carnival is Bolivia’s biggest fiesta and one of the nation’s primary tourist attractions. It takes place on the before Ash Wednesday in the Andean city of Oruro and draws crowds of up to 400,000 people. Although not as glamorous as the Rio Carnival, it is a more outlandish and outright surreal affair. The main event is the parade in which some 20,000 dancers and 10,000 musicians participate, all dressed in grotesque costumes. These include brass bands and hypnotic dancers representing the African slaves once forced to labor in the city’s silver mines. But the ultimate showdown comes when the Archangel Michael duels with the outrageously dressed devil and his hoards of demon minions.

Semana Santa

Antigua, Guatemala, Holy Week

The biggest Easter celebration in Latin America, this week-long event in the colonial city of Antigua features spectacular processions, elaborate carpet-making and candlelight vigils in honor of the crucifixion and subsequent resurrection of Jesus Christ. Throughout Semana Santa, the week leading up to Easter Sunday, the locals prepare floats adorned with flowers and sculptures of Christ on the cross, and on the cobbled streets they lay down beautiful carpets made of dyed sawdust and covered in pine needles and even fruits and vegetables. The celebrations comes to a climax on Good Friday, when the streets are filled with spectators eager to see the floats wind their way through billowing clouds of incense, accompanied by live music and hundreds of men and women clad in symbolic costumes.

Inti Raymi

Otavalo, Ecuador, June

Inti Raymi is a week-long celebration of the sun that takes place in late June to coincide with the summer solstice. Also celebrated in the Andean villages of Peru and Bolivia, it sees large crowds come together with indigenous communities to show gratitude for the bounties that the sun provides us with. The festival is celebrated across several areas of Ecuador but one of the best places to experience it is in the city of Otavalo, where the celebrations last for days and have become a popular tourist attraction. The city’s central plaza is decorated with boldly striped flags representing unity and diversity, while the traditional festivities include big barbecues, parades, dances and bonfires. Throughout Inti Raymi, members of local indigenous communities typically travel to local springs, rivers and waterfalls to undergo ritual spiritual purification so as to strengthen their relationship with Mother Nature. In Otavalo, this ritual takes place at midnight at a nearby sacred waterfall.

Santiago Carnival

Santiago, Cuba, July

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Cuba is gradually becoming a more accessible destination for U.S. tourists and if you do get a chance to visit then July is the best time to go in order to attend the famous Carnival de Santiago de Cuba. Located in south-eastern Cuba at the opposite end of the island to Havana, Santiago is a city that literally never sleeps – at least during this raucous, week-long street party when thousands of visitors congregate to dance all night long to live music and absorb as much of the local rum and cuisine as possible. The carnival began as a religious celebration of Saint Santiago but it has since incorporated elements of Cuba’s African, Spanish and French roots, as well as the island’s lively contemporary culture.

Medellin Flower Fair

Medellin, Colombia, August

Colombia’s second biggest city, Medellin is known as the “city of eternal spring” and every August it plays host to the Feria de los Flores, a 10-day celebration dating back to the 1950s. Each year thousands of visitors from across Colombia and all over the world, including the United States, Europe and Australia, make the pilgrimage to see the city come alive and enjoy its botanical beauty as local balconies, terraces, gardens are all covered in colorful flowers. The fair’s main event is the Flower Parade, in which flower growers carry millions of floral arrangements representing the culture and history of the places where they live and work. The festival also includes a range of other activities, including a firework display, a mass dog-walking event, horse riding, a classic car parade, live music and a range of kids’ activities.

Mistura Food Festival

Lima, Peru, September

Gastronomy is Peru’s greatest passion and in recent years Lima has increasingly become regarded Latin America’s culinary capital. Every September many of the world’s best chefs gather in the Peruvian capital to participate in Latin America’s biggest food festival. Having grown rapidly since it was launched in 2008, Mistura now draws crowds of over 600,000 from Peru and beyond to celebrate the nation’s incredible cuisine. Peru’s diverse dishes are typically divided into those from three different regions: the Pacific coast, the Andes mountains and the jungles of the Amazon basin. The nation’s best known delicacies include ceviche (marinated raw fish) and guinea pig, while fusions of Peruvian food with Japanese and Chinese cuisine are also represented at Mistura. In total, over 50 restaurants participate each year, alongside another 70 food stands and a dozen or so open wood barbecues serving the best smoked and grilled meats in the country.

Day of the Dead

Mexico, November 1-2

Mexico’s best known festival, the Day of the Dead – or Dia de los Muertos, as it is known in Spanish – is based on pre-Columbian religious rituals dating back over 500 years. After the conquest of Mexico, the Spanish sought to merge the festival with All Souls Day, so every year on November 1 and 2 the nation’s cemeteries are packed as relatives leave offerings at their graves. One of the best places to celebrate the Day of the Dead is on the island of Janitzio in Lake Patzcuaro in the western state of Michoacan. On the night of November 1, thousands of people flock to the island to leave offerings at the graves of loved ones and join in the unique celebrations. Typical customs include eating Pan de Muertos, a special, sweet “bread of the dead,” drinking fruit punch spiked with liquor to ward off the cold night, and watching an eerie procession of boats lit up with candles glide silently across the lake to the island.

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