Latin America is a melting pot of hundreds of different cultures, each with its own traditions and rituals. It is no wonder, then, that this eclectic mix has given us a wonderful range of unique carnivals and festivals around the continent. Some are very famous – Rio’s carnival is a must-see event, as is the Day of the Dead in Mexico. However, this Top 5 aims to introduce you to some of the lesser-known, but no less special, festivals celebrated across Latin America.
Guatemala’s ‘Day of the Dead’ Kite festival
The Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) is usually associated with Mexico, but it is also an important date in many other countries. Celebrated on the 1st and 2nd of November, the festival remembers friends and family who have died. The festival has mixed origins, combining elements of Spanish and indigenous culture and religion.
Popular belief is that on the Day of the Dead, the souls of the deceased return from the afterlife. Families prepare for the return by building altars on which they place their loved ones’ favourite food and drink, fruit and skull-shaped sweets, and other goodies for them to enjoy. The altars are decorated with flowers and photographs of the deceased and then taken to the cemetery to welcome the departed. Candles on the grave illuminate the path back home for their loved ones.
In the Guatemalan cities of Santiago Sacatepéquez and Sumpango, the Day if the Dead is celebrated on 1st November – also All Saints Day in the Catholic Church – with an impressive kite festival. Locals spend months designing and creating the giant handmade kites, which can be more than 20 metres wide. Traditionally, every part of the kite is made using natural resources: the glue is a mixture of yucca flower, lemon peel, and water; ropes are made from the maguey plant; and the tails are made from woven cloth. The face of the kite is made from tissue paper stretched over a bamboo framework. The colourful kites, which depict religious, cultural, folkloric, political or social themes, can take up to five months to make.
On the Day of the Dead, locals, many dressed in colourful Mayan clothing, flock to the cemetery to honour the dead and cheer on the launch of the giant kites which fly on the wind high above. According to tradition, these kites represent the union between the world and the afterlife; locals believe that the kites reach up to the souls of loved ones and carry messages from the living. The noise they make in the wind is thought to frighten away evil spirits.
Qoyllur Rit’i, Peru’s Star and Snow Festival
On the night of the full moon before Corpus Christi – typically at the end of May or early June – more than 10,000 pilgrims make the journey to the Sinakara valley, which stands almost 5,000m above sea level in Peru’s southern Andes, to celebrate Qoyllur Rit’i festival.
The festival is a pilgrimage to the shrine El Señor de Qoyllur Rit’i where processions and dances take place. Some pilgrims continue their journey to the glaciers beyond.Although groups of pilgrims come from all over Peru and from other countries, the majority come from rural communities in nearby regions. Each group comes with a dancers and musicians dressed in colourful costumes in four distinctive and representative styles: qulla, ch’unchu, ukuku and machula. Qulla represents the Aymara inhabitants of the altiplano (high plains); ch’unchu the indigenous inhabitants of the Amazon Rainforest; machula represents the early mythical inhabitants of the altiplano; and ukuku is a half-human, half-bear character. Ukukus are mischievous pranksters, but they also protect pilgrims from the damned souls who are thought to wander the glaciers at night.
The festival is an example of religious syncretism, combining different and seemingly contradictory beliefs.
It is believed that the Qoyllur Rit’i has pre-hispanic origins as a celebration of the stars and the mountains – pre-Columbian civilisations were close observers of the heavens. Qoyllur Rit’i takes place when the Seven Sisters constellation disappears and then reappears in the southern hemisphere, signalling a time of change and the forthcoming harvest. The cycle of the moon was also particularly important and so the festival takes place at full moon.
The shrine of El Señor de Qoyllur Rití, almost 5,000 metres above sea level, is a picture of Christ painted on a stone. According to historians, this image was painted by the Catholic Church in a bid to convert Inca descendants to Christianity and stop them worshipping the mountains. However, according to the Catholic Church, the Qoyllur Rit’i festival began in 1780 when a native child was befriended in the Sinakara valley by a mestizo boy who, through a series of miracles, eventually revealed himself to be Jesus Christ.
Each group of pilgrims carries its own icon of El Señor de Qoyllur Rit’i to the festival to be blessed. At the shrine, pilgrims lay small models or drawings, representing their aspirations for the future, at the feet of the saints who, they trust, will make them come true. The festival lasts for three days, during which pilgrims sing dance and celebrate around the shrine.
On the last morning, ukuku dancers climb up the mountain Qollqepunku, more than 3,000 feet further above the valley. This is the main peak of the Sinakara, and is one of the three great mountain-spirits, or apus, of this region. Locals regard this apu as the doctor who brings health. The ukukus climb to the heart of the glaciers where they light candles, pray, and retrieve the crosses placed three days earlier. They then break off large chunks of ice and carry them down the mountains on their backs. Halfway down they are greeted by the others dancers and everyone parades down the steep mountain path. The blocks of ice, which when melted are believed to cure all ills, are shared amongst the pilgrims.
Año Viejo in Ecuador
In Ecuador, at the stroke of midnight on 1st January, locals welcome in the New Year by burning thousands of life-size dummies under a sky filled with smoke and fireworks.
The dummies are called año viejos (old year) because they represent the year which is drawing to a close. They are made of cloth, stuffed with sawdust, ground cardboard, straw, or leaves, and often have intricately-painted papier-macheé faces.
The life-sized dolls typically represent an event or a person that has made the headlines internationally or locally that year, either for their comedic value or for political or social reasons. Traditional favourites include the presidents of Ecuador and the United States or figures from popular culture such as Spiderman, Sponge Bob, or El Chavo (a character from a 1970s Mexican sitcom which still plays throughout Latin America).
The origins of this festival, which is at least two centuries old, are uncertain. However, the significance of the festival is clear – out with the old and in with the new. For some, the burnings herald the start of a New Year’s resolution with their old habits going up in flames with the dummies.
On New Year’s Eve, the año viejos are displayed outside houses. Notes left on the dummies express the things they wish to leave in the past and what they want to take with them into the New Year. These notes are often light-hearted rhymes, such as: Te llevas amargos anocheceres para regalarnos dulces amaneceres (Take away bitter nights and bring us sweet mornings).
At midnight the figures – many filled with firecrackers – are burned in an impressive and chaotic display. This is a joyous and humorous celebration: many men dress up as ‘widows’ of the año viejos and ask for a donation for the dying doll. After the ceremonial burning, families gather together to eat and celebrate throughout the night.
According to Ecuadorian writer Juana Córdova Pozo, “This tradition is a powerful feature of our culture. For us, it is an important act of renewal. It helps us to partly erase the past, both the good and bad. We are leaving things behind that must be left behind.” She adds, “For many, the fire is a symbolic element that has the ability to scare off evil – which we literally see vanishing in the smoke.”San Juan Bautista, Puerto Rico
The annual Festival of Saint John the Baptist, known by Puerto Ricans as La Noche de San Juan, takes place on the 24th of June – the birthday of John the Baptist – with celebrations beginning the evening before.
The festival originated in Europe. However, Puerto Ricans take a special interest in the holiday because, long ago, San Juan Bautista was chosen as the island’s patron saint. Ponce de Leon, the first governor of Puerto Rico, originally named the island San Juan, a name which was later transferred to the capital city.
Puerto Ricans from all over the island celebrate La Noche de San Juan, but the largest crowds come to the beaches of the capital. People bring food and drink and light bonfires along the beaches – there are fireworks and people dance to music from the bands playing nearby.
John the Baptist was a prophet who foretold the coming of the Messiah, personified as Jesus, whom he later baptised. The story goes that, on the eve of his birthday, the waters are blessed with powers to ward off evil, heal, and cleanse sins. On the beaches of San Juan, Puerto Ricans walk backwards into the ocean and count down the seconds to midnight. At the stroke of midnight they throw themselves backward into the water. Most participants throw themselves backwards into the water three times as tradition suggests that this brings good fortune and health; others choose their own lucky numbers.
Festivities continue on the 24th with street processions, feasting, and more partying on the beach.
Lavagem do Bonfim, Bahia, Brazil
This festival takes place on the second Thursday of every January, and has done since 1754. It is a huge celebration for the Catholic and Candomblé faiths together, as Nosso Senhor do Bonfim (our lord of good endings) is associated with both the Candomblé deity Oxalá and with Jesus Christ.
On the morning of the festival, people gather at the famous Church of Conceição da Praia in Salvador de Bahia to begin the 8km walk to the church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim. The procession is led by Bahians dressed in white with colourful sacred beads, and carrying elongated white vases filled with flowers and perfumed water on their heads or in their arms.
These are followed by the Filhos de Gandhy (sons of Gandhi), an afro-Brazilian parade inspired by the principles of non-violence and peace of Mahatma Gandhi. Behind them come a procession of horse-drawn carriages, government officials, musicians, natives, people of the Candomblé faith, Catholics and tourists, also dressed almost exclusively in white. The colour is significant as it is associated with Oxalá, the most important deity in the Yoruba religion, from Africa, which has an important influence on Candomblé.
At the church, barefoot Bahians wash the steps, in a symbolic gesture of purification. Originally, the inside of the church was also cleansed. Flowers are then placed on the steps while the hymn of the Senhor do Bonfim is sung.
After the ritual, the crowd disperses to visit the many stalls set up around the church where they eat typical Bahian food such as acarajé – deep fried balls of black-eyed peas. There is non-stop drumming and as everyone dances, eats and drinks, they are blessed by holy water poured onto their heads and hands from the Bahian vases.
These are The Indy’s top 5 festivals, but do let us know your own favourites in the comments section below.