Today is Palm Sunday, the first day of Easter week, called Semana Santa in Latin America.
Semana Santa is observed with multitudes of processions, special foods like fanesca in the Ecuadorian Andes, and exceptional art exhibits and religious music festivals, all with a synchronization of indigenous and Christian beliefs.
However, not only is this one of the most important religious observances in the region, it is also one of the biggest vacation times. Many families head to the beach or other popular national destinations to enjoy a few days off.
Palm Sunday (Domingo de Ramos)
According to Christian tradition, Palm Sunday marks the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. He was greeted by the people laying palm fronds in the path of him and his donkey.
On this day, large open-air masses are held. Latin American faithful bring ornaments made of palm to be blessed which they then will keep in their homes, to protect their families. Because palma de cera is a threatened species, other species of palm or other plants are now used in many areas.
Processions occur from Holy Wednesday (Miércoles Santo) through Good Friday (Viernes Santo). One of the best I ever witnessed was in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, with several processions each day (and night).
Holy Wednesday (Miércoles Santo)
Quito is now the only city in the world where the arrastre de caudas – a funerary ritual dating from the Roman Empire – is performed on Holy Wednesday. Large black flags with crimson crosses are waved through the nave of the Cathedral and over the black cloth-covered bodies lying on the floor.
Maundy Thursday (Jueves Santo)
Maundy Thursday is the day when tradition says Jesus and his disciples met for their Passover seder – a meal Christians call the Last Supper. This is also the night when Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus to the Roman government.
On this evening, the ritual of is the washing of the feet (usually in a town’s main church) is done, recreating Jesus washing the feet of his disciples before the seder.
Again, processions will wend through narrow cobblestone streets. In Quito, seven churches will be bedecked with beautiful crosses made of flowers. These temples are open during the evening so the faithful may pray.
Good Friday (Viernes Santo)
Good Friday marks the crucifixion of Jesus. This is the major religious observance, with large processions. In some places – like Yanahuara (Peru), effigies of Judas Iscariot are burned.
In several cities, large, colorful carpets made of flowers or sawdust are created on the streets where the processions will pass. You may see these beautiful works of art in Antigua, Comayagua, San Salvador and Ayacucho.
In other places, penitents don hooded robes and walk barefoot, carrying large crosses, wearing barbed-wire crown of thorns and stinging nettle – and perhaps being whipped. Several Mexican towns and Quito practice this tradition.
This same night, processions silently march through the streets, mourning Jesus’ death. In some villages – especially indigenous ones – you may see dancing devils and fire ceremonies.
Holy Saturday (Sábado Santo)
On Saturday, the procession features the Virgen Dolorosa, the Virgin Mary in mourning for her son. Traditionally, after sunset is when new converts to Catholicism are baptized.
Easter Sunday (Domingo de Resurrección)
Easter Sunday is when the resurrection of Christ is celebrated with a high mass in many cathedrals.
Best Places To Experience Semana Santa (in Latin America)
No matter in which country you are at this moment, you’ll find processions from Holy Wednesday through Resurrection (Easter) Sunday. Some of the most sincere ones are in smaller towns or villages. These are some of the places with the biggest, most spectacular Holy Week celebrations in the region:
Mexico – Taxco, San Luis Potosí and Querétaro (traditional ceremonies and on Good Friday, the penitents’ procession); Iztapalapa
Guatemala – Antigua (with floral carpets)
El Salvador – San Salvador (with sawdust carpets)
Honduras – Comayagua (with sawdust carpets)
Nicaragua – Matagalpa, Granada, León
Costa Rica – Heredia, San Rafael de Oreamuno
Venezuela – Tacarigua de Mamporal, Guatire, Villa de Cura
Colombia – Mompox, Popayán (which also opens the vaults of the Museo de Arte Religioso to exhibit its most precious pieces), Pamplona
Ecuador – Quito (with very traditional masses – including the arrastre de caudas, and processions, especially of penitents on Good Friday, as well as a sacred music festival)
Perú – Ayacucho (with floral carpets)
Tips For Travelers
- Because many families head to the beach or other popular national destinations during the holiday, hotel and food prices in those places triple or even quadruple. If you are on a tight budget or looking for peace, for tranquility – avoid these destinations this week!
- As well, because many travel during this time, bus and other transportation prices also dramatically increase across the board – especially in countries like Peru.
- Hotel rooms will be exceptionally scarce – especially in popular vacation destinations and in the towns with the most famous celebrations, like Antigua, Mompox, Popayán and Ayacucho.
- Check on availability of transportation – and whether markets, restaurants and other businesses will be open, especially from Wednesday to Saturday.
- The processions draw a lot of observers – and many pickpockets. Watch your gear in large crowds.
- These are religious observances. Please dress and behave respectfully.
- Practice respectful photography ethics.
- Be prepared for long hours in the sun: use protection (sun screen, hat) and drink plenty of fluids.
- Evenings can be cool; be sure to take along a shawl, sweater or other wrap.
Ciphering Semana Santa
When you’re off travelling, how can you know when Semana Santa – and even Carnaval will be?
It isn’t too difficult. This is how Western Christianity sets the dates for these religious observances:
- Easter (Resurrection) Sunday (Domingo de Resurreción) is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the March equinox (which can occur 20-22 March).
- Palm Sunday (Domingo de Ramos) is the Sunday prior to Easter Sunday.
- The forty days before Palm Sunday is Lent (Cuaresma), which begins on Ash Wednesday (Miércoles de Cenizas).
- Carnaval is fêted in the weeks before Lent begins.
photos and article © Lorraine Caputo