15 Religious Festivals That Are Worth Enjoying in South America

Peru - Cusco 122 - Inti Raymi solstice festival

McKay Savage / Flickr / CC by 2.0

Religion plays a very important role in the culture of South America, and while many people have adopted the Catholic Christian traditions that were brought to the continent by the conquistadors, there are also several native religions to be found across the region too. One of the interesting aspects is that in many cases the festivals that are seen now are a combination of European Christian and indigenous religious beliefs. To see the continent during one of these events is a great privilege, and being able to share those celebrations makes for a very special trip to the region.

Semana Santa, Peru

Also known as 'Holy Week', this particular celebration is one that is celebrated throughout much of the Spanish-speaking world, but in Peru, it is believed that there are no sins committed during this period, which helps to make it an all-out party. The festival takes place in the week leading up to the Easter celebrations, and the event in the town of Ayacucho is often considered to be the most enjoyable and raucous of all, particularly on Easter Sunday when there are music and singing, prayers for those who go to church and superb fireworks display to end the week.

Fiesta de San Juan Bautista, Venezuela

This festival is held in the town of ​San Juan in ​Venezuela, and celebrates the town's patron saint, with the festivities taking place in the week leading up to the biggest day of the festival on 24 June every year. As well as the religious ceremonies that are to be found around the town's church, there are also many other aspects of the celebration, including wandering minstrels, a fireworks display and particularly in the Isla Verde district, there is a tradition of walking backwards into the ocean three times as a way of cleansing the spirit of the individual.

Inti Raymi, Peru

A festival which was originally celebrated during the Inca Empire, and prior to the arrival and conquering of South America by the conquistadors, Inti Raymi was one of the four most important events in the religious calendar of the Inca. Resurrected in the mid-twentieth century by indigenous groups, the festival is most celebrated in Cusco, where grand displays performed by indigenous people in traditional dress have proved to be very popular among visitors, while there is also plenty of chance to share in local traditional food and drink.

Carnival, Brazil

Carnival is held in towns and cities throughout the country, but without a doubt, the largest and most famous of these is held in Rio de Janeiro, where the celebrations include marching bands, samba dancing troupes and hundreds of floats. The event begins on the Friday before Ash Wednesday, and officially finishes at midday on Ash Wednesday itself, and marks the period leading up to the Christian season of Lent.

Dia de San Blas, Paraguay

Held on February 3 every year, this festival is one that is celebrated to honor the patron saint of the country, Saint Blaise, and from the smallest village to the largest city, there will be something happening to mark this special day. In the churches, you will find there are parades and services held to honor the saint, while in cities such as Ciudad del Este the parades are supplemented by dance groups and marching bands to help the event go with a bang.

Fiesta del la Virgen de Candelaria, Peru

This is one of the largest events held in Peru in terms of the number of dancing and music performances that are on display, with the festival itself being held in the city of Puno, where the Virgin of Candelaria is the patron saint. The event is interesting as the Quechua and Aymara people also join in the celebration alongside the Roman Catholic population of the area, with the festival being held in early February every year.

Dia de la Virgen de Lujan, Argentina

The festival celebrates the sixteenth-century icon of the Virgin Mary which is kept in the Basilica in the city of Lujan, and the feast day of the Icon falls on May 8 every year. There are several parades and processions which are held in the days leading up to the feast day, while the largest is on the feast day itself, with those involved in the procession and many of those watching then attending the church to share a very special holy mass.

Aymara New Year, Bolivia

The Aymara New Year is a holiday that has been reintroduced to the Bolivian calendar under the leadership of Evo Morales and is an event that marks the start of the year in the Aymaran calendar, with the date matching the winter solstice on 21 June every year. The best place to enjoy the festival is in the historic site of Tiwanaku, where thousands of people join the indigenous religious leaders in marking this event with a sacrifice and a large celebration that begins at sunrise, and then a great party.

Pas Del Nino, Ecuador

Cuenca is home to this quirky event which is one that not only features a lot of religious imagery, it also has some more unusual and quirky aspects, with the festival held on Christmas Eve. At the heart of the event is an evening-long parade that has decorated cars, floats and street performances, and involves the carrying of a depiction of the baby Jesus through the streets of the city.

Day Of The Dead, Uruguay

This religious festival is also known as All Saints' Day and is held on 1 November, and during the event, there are a significant number of people who go to the cemetery to remember their ancestors. There are also a series of light-hearted parties and local events held throughout the country which will have a theme based on skeletons and other death-related aspects.

Quyllur Rit'i, Peru

Also known as the Star Snow Festival, this event has both indigenous and Catholic aspects to the festival and is held high in the Andes mountains with up to 10,000 peasants coming from around the country to the Sinakara Valley. The festival matches the date of the Feast of Ascension in the Christian calendar, which means it is usually in mid to late May, and they have dance processions in the valleys, while a ritual figure known as an 'ukuku' ventures up onto the glacier and brings back blocks of ice which are said to have a healing effect.

Urkupina, Bolivia

Near the city of ​Cochabamba, this festival celebrates the legend of a poor shepherd girl who saw the Virgin Mary on the hillside above the town of Quillacollo, and the festival takes place in the third week of August each year. At the heart of the celebration is a parade with over 10,000 performers including dancers and musicians, and then a service in the church ends with a procession up to the hillside where people carry small pebbles and stones which are left on the hillside.

Phagwah, Guyana

A festival that is mainly celebrated by the Hindu population of ​Guyana, it is a part of the Hindu calendar that celebrates good defeating evil. Similar to the festival of Holi in Asia, the most popular part of the event is when people throw water, colored powder and perfumed water at other people, and this is an activity that is celebrated by many others within the population as it is such a fun way to celebrate.

Festa Junina, Brazil

This annual festival takes place in June every year and is a festival that is dedicated to St John the Baptist and is usually held in a tent, as the festival originally marked midsummer in Europe, but this is during the winter in Brazil. Bonfires and fireworks are a popular part of the event, while there is plenty of traditional food and drink to be enjoyed too.

Christmas Day, Across the Continent

One of the most important Christian festivals wherever you are in the world, Christmas has many of the traditions to be found in Europe such as gift-giving and traditional foods, but there are also many traditions unique to South America. The Ibirapuera and Lagoa are the main streets in Sao Paulo and Rio, and have the brightest decorations in the region that means there is a traffic jam on these streets on Christmas Eve, while in La Plata it is traditional for the whole family to make cardboard puppets which are then burned as a part of the New Year's celebrations. 

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