People in Central America know how to party. Celebrations here often last long into the night, and through the week as well. The best festivals in Central America are some of the most colorful and joyful in the world.
COVID-19 means that these festivals are likely to be cancelled in 2021. Hopefully they will be back before too long.
1. Day Of The Dead, Mexico
The Mexican festival is the most recognizable on this list and has spread across the world thanks. It’s a celebration of life and death and is the Mexican version of Halloween. The festival dates back to Aztec times. The Aztecs believed that death was simply part of the cycle of life. They thought the dead should be celebrated rather than mourned.
Day of the Dead is celebrated across Mexico but the best-known celebration takes place on Island Janitzio. The indigenous people here have their own ceremonies and perform their prayers and incantations all night. This is where Mexicans go to celebrate but it has become slightly overrun with tourists in recent years.
For a more authentic experience the town of Mixquic hosts a weeklong festival including readings, parades, and vigils. This is a solemn occasion and the people come together to grieve as one.
2. Semana Santa, Guatemala
Semana Santa is the Holy Week celebration in Guatemala. Holy week is the week at the end of Lent that finishes with Easter Sunday. This celebration was bought to Guatemala by the Spanish colonialists. Their influence can be seen in the architecture but also in this festival.
The Semana Santa week starts on Palm Sunday and there are events throughout the week. The highlights start on Good Friday, with street parades and processions. The sentencing of Christ is reenacted in traditional costumes. Huge floats with ancient relics are walked through the streets. These show scenes such as Christ carrying his cross and the last supper.
Alfombras are colorful carpets made from either sawdust or grass. These are placed on the cobbled streets for the procession to march over. Hours of work and weeks of planning goes into the design. The amount of time and effort that goes into something to be destroyed is a reminder that neither life nor death is permanent.
3. Carnaval, Panama
When Carnaval arrives in Panama, the whole country shuts and everyone heads to the countryside. The exact date depends on Ash Wednesday, Carnaval takes place from the Friday through to Tuesday.
This is the biggest party of the year. It arrives in the middle of the dry season and the weather always seems to be hot and sunny. Huge water trucks with fire hoses spray the revelers and keep people from overheating.
The biggest party is in Las Tablas. The town swells from 10,000 to 200,000 people. The beers flow non-stop from the morning through to the very early hours. Parade floats are driven through the crowd featuring the Carnaval queens and bands playing music. Each neighborhood has their own float and queen and they compete with each other. They also compete to see who has the best firework display. Health and safety is not a consideration.
For a more laid back Carnaval smaller towns are the best option. Parita is more traditional and on a much smaller scale. Another option is Penonome where you can enjoy the Carnaval without being packed in like Sardines.
4. Lobsterfest, Belize
The Lobster Festival in Belize starts each year on June 15th and marks the start of the Lobster Season. It’s a time when the community comes together to celebrate, and basically have a good time.
June is a perfect time to visit Belize. It’s outside of the high season so prices are lower. There are also fewer tourists. This is the time of year when Belize really comes alive. Most of the countries festivals and parties take part during the summer months, when the schools are on holiday.
Parties take place across Belize. Lobsters are cooked in all manner of ways and the ice cold beers and rum cocktails flow freely. There are even lobster themed beauty pageants. Being in Belize, everything is done outside in the fresh air.
Each town has it’s own way of celebrating the event. Ambergris Caye is the biggest and loudest party. The festivities run for 10 days which ends in a huge block party. There are discounts and promotions on throughout the 10 days. Placencia is more laid back but everything is relative. One of the most scenic towns in Belize, you can find lots of arts and craft stalls alongside the BBQs.
5. La Purisima, Nicaragua
Nicaragua’s favorite festival takes place on 7th December to celebrate the Immaculate Conception. Children go door to door and are given sweets and the question “what is the cause of so much happiness?” is asked by all. The answer is “The conception of Mary”.
There are parades and fireworks on the streets. Altars to Mary are put up in people’s homes. This is a national celebration and each town has its own traditions. In the city of Leon, locals build a giant puppet that is paraded through the street with a marching band.
La Purisima has traditionally been a strong uniting force in the local communities. Everyone would band together to pay for fireworks, prepare food and ensure the children were well looked after. Although it’s a religious festival, the church doesn’t have as much of an influence on La Purisima. It remains a festival of the people.
6. Festival del Cristo Negro, Panama
At some point during the 17th Century a life size statue of a black Christ carrying a cross, washed up at Portabelo, Panama. According to local folklore, it had been onboard a Spanish ship sailing for South America. Some say the ship was wrecked and the statue was carried to shore.
Others say the statue was aboard a ship in the Portabelo harbor. Severe storms had dogged the ship all the way across the Atlantic. Every time the ship tried to leave, another storm would appear, and force a retreat back to the harbor. The sailors became convinced that the statue was bringing them bad luck and threw it overboard. They ship left Portabelo the next day.
The statue was gratefully received in Panama which was suffering from a plague at the time. The people saw the Cristo Negro as a sign from God. Perhaps there was something in this, because the plague soon subsided.
Today the Cristo Negro is housed in the Inglesia de San Filipe close to Colon. Each year there is a festival on the 21st October celebrating the miracles associated with the statue. People walk from across Panama to make the pilgrimage here. The Cristo Negro has become the patron saint of criminals. Each year criminals make the trip here to ask for forgiveness.
7. Fiesta de Palmares, Costa Rica
The remote town of Palmares in Costa Rica becomes the party capital of the country each January. This is a comparatively modern festival but has gained a big following. Huge amounts of beer and rum are needed for the one million or so revelers who arrive every year. It has been estimated that Oktoberfest in Germany is the only rival in terms of beer consumed.
At the heart of the festival is a horse parade known as a Tope. Thousands of horses are groomed and dressed for the occasion. Riders also put on their best clothes. While some are restrained, others will perform handstands and other acrobatic feats on horseback.
One of the main highlights of the event is watching local dare devils get into the bullring and try their luck ‘bullfighting’. These amateurs don’t have weapons and have often been drinking all day. The bull invariably comes out on top.