Easter in Latin America: Semana Santa in South America

Semana Santa Easter Festival at Oaxaca Cathedral.
John Sones Singing Bowl Media/Getty Images

Easter in Latin America is one of the most important times of the year. The Holy Week of Easter is the most important Catholic religious festival in South America.

Semana Santa also known as Holy Week in English, celebrates the last days of Christ's life, the Crucifixion and Resurrection, as well as the end of Lent. Semana Santa is observed with a range of celebrations, from the most solemnly religious, to a mix of pagan/Catholic, to commercial.

When is Easter in Latin America?

Semana Santa begins on Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday) through Jueves Santo (Maundy Thursday) and Viernes Santo (Good Friday, culminating in Pascua or Domingo de Resurrección (Easter Sunday).

What Happens During Semana Santa?

Each day has its rituals, processions through the streets with participants on their knees or carrying large wooden crosses. There are masses and religious observations, prayer meetings, and thousands of devout Catholics doing homage.

In many communities, the full Passion Play is enacted from the Last Supper, the Betrayal, the Judgment, the Procession of the 12 Stations of the Cross, the Crucifixion and, finally, the Resurrection. Participants are costumed and play their parts with reverence.

During this week, many schools and offices are closed. You can expect resort areas to be crowded as people take advantage of the holiday.

Interesting Traditions by Country

  • Peru: While it's customary to go to church every day during Semana Santa, some days are especially important. On Maundy Thursday history is incorporated into the celebrations in Cusco as there is a procession to remember an earthquake in 1650. It ends at the Cathedral as it was the one building that survived this damaging earthquake.
  • Venezuela: Things heat up in the capital city of Caracas as it's traditional to burn an effigy of a local figure. This is known as 'Burning of Judas' where locals will parade the effigy through the streets before meeting together to burn it in a bonfire. In many other regions in Latin America this is done on New Year's as a way to rid the new year of bad energy and move on
  • Colombia: In Popayan, which is known as the white city, Easter is a time to celebrate art as well as the religious holiday. While there is an annual Easter parade, there are also many art exhibits and events celebrating Semana Santa.
  • Brazil: Easter is an important time in Brazil and while traditions vary from region to region one of the most popular ways to celebrate Easter is the tradition to cover the streets with various rugs and carpets and then cover them with flowers and sawdust in beautiful patterns and designs.
  • Argentina: While many people think that chocolate Easter eggs are only a North American tradition, the tradition exists elsewhere too. WIth 85% of the Argentine population being Roman Catholic, it's common for families to leave the city for the hillside to spend with family. After a big Easter meal, chocolate eggs are exchanged, and some families with smaller children will have a chocolate egg hunt.
  • Ecuador: Like in Argentina, it's common for Ecuadorians to travel during Easter and most often it is to the beach. One of the most religious cities in Ecuador is Cuenca, and it's common for devoted Catholics to come to the city to celebrate in this colonial city. In addition to the many processions, locals will eat fanesa, which is an Easter stew with salt cod, beans and grains. There are 12 grains in the soup to pay tribute to the 12 Apostles, and while fanesa exists in many cities in Latin America, it is widely believed that the best fanesa exists in Cuenca. While many stores will be closed throughout the week, the only day they must be closed is Saturday so it's wise to plan ahead.

Updated by Ayngelina Brogan June 1, 2016.

Was this page helpful?