Why you should care
Because the best partyers plan ahead.
This story was originally published in 2014. Festival dates will have changed.
Last year, Lainie Liberti and her teenager decided to fly down to Latin America and see the real Peru. Be careful what you ask for. Just to reach the site for the Qoylllur Rit’i festival, the Californian single mom and her son had to hire a guide and begin the journey uphill into the Andes. Six hours — and many meters — later, the two reached a mountainous peak and found a valley below full of Andean peasants setting up tents for the annual three-day extravaganza.
In the end, thousands would attend to watch a sea of colorful religious processions of pilgrims in traditional garb of feathers and streamers, some carrying blocks of ice from nearby glaciers thought to possess medicinal qualities. In keeping with Incan astrology, hundreds watched the sunrise over the surrounding mountains, the event’s touchstone event. Liberti says she left in awe, after a “life-altering experience.”
For many travelers, it’s one of the best reasons to come to Latin America: the bevy of cultural festivals that range from the rowdy to the mystical. Some of the activities can be pricey — or as Brazilians say, “salty” — and many are hard to reach, deep in the Amazon or far into the foggy highlands of Guatemala. But as many as 100,000 experience-seekers come to these celebrations, which include everything from “flying pole dancers” to loinclothed triathlon racers. Below, our guide to some of the more unique and memorable events in 2015 that deserve a special shout-out, far from the madding crowds of Carnaval:
Jan. 30 – Feb. 14: Tau’a Rapa Nui Pa’ari in Rapa Nui National Park, Easter Island, Chile. A scantily clad (read: loinclothed) men’s triathlon anchors this two-week summertime cultural festival in its 40th year of celebrating the Tapati people. Portions of the festivities include eel fishing and a paddle race across a volcanic lagoon in a canoe weighed down by 55 pounds of bananas.
June 15–17: Qoyllur Rit’i in Mahuayani, Peru. The so-called Snow Star Festival is a syncretized religious festival linking Catholic and indigenous histories into a folkloric pop-up tent party in a remote Andean valley. A bit like a high-altitude, cultural Burning Man in this sense, the whole event is timed with the lunar cycle. It attracts tens of thousands of Andean pilgrims each year.
June 26: Parintins Folk Festival in Parintins, Brazil. Also known as Boi Bumbá, this cultural festival in the heart of the Amazon is something between a folkloric play and Carnaval, all mixed into one, centered on the legend of two rival oxen. Spectators receive scores, so bring your game face.
Dec. 14-21: La Fiesta de Santo Tomás in Chichicastenango, Guatemala. Flying pole dancers, anyone? At this religious festival in the cloudy hills of Chi-Chi, the town’s 100,000 K’iche’ Maya indigenous people host a celebration for their town’s patron saint, Saint Thomas. The highlight of the eight days is the Palo Voador, when acrobats summit the tops of 100-foot wooden poles, tie ropes around their ankles and then swing upside down at high speeds. Dizzying, dazzling.
Dec. 23: La Noche de Rábanos (The Night of the Radishes) in Oaxaca, Mexico. So you think you can carve a radish? Well, check out this 118-year-old festival for a reality check. We’re talking intricately carved, 6-pound, 20-inch monster radishes here. Imagine it as a Mayan 4-H fair, only Christmas themed, in the Zócalo and with radishes.