Holy Week in Peru: The Year-Long Party Takes an Interesting Turn

by Sasha Savinov
Cusco Plaza de Armas

After celebrating Carnaval in Brazil, our year-long party took an interesting turn. Our 3rd stop was Holy Week in Peru. Known as Semana Santa in Spanish, this is the busiest travel week in Latin America. Far from the wild parties in Recife, the next leg of the year-long party was about witnessing the special processions in the lead up to Easter. First, we had to make our way from Bolivia back into Peru. Flying from La Paz to Lima would have been the easy way, but we prefer to take the scenic route.

Traveling with Peru Hop

Ever since we heard of the Peru Hop bus, we wanted to give it a try. The idea is simple – you book a ticket between Point A and Point B and have the option of hopping on and off in different destinations. Their most comprehensive trip takes you from Lima to La Paz or vice versa. Since we were already in Bolivia and had to get back to Lima, our choice was easy.

La Paz Loki Hostel

Happy St. Patrick’s Day (in Bolivia)!

As our bus trip was starting in La Paz on March 18th, we decided to bid farewell to our kind hosts (and fellow VIPKID teachers) and moved into a hostel the night before. With it being St. Patrick’s Day, we went with a well-known party hostel that was throwin’ down. The rooftop bar at Loki Hostel was bumping with a live DJ and plenty of thirsty backpackers. I couldn’t say no to a Guinness and Jameson (or two), which made my first day on the bus a rough one. Whoops!

Since we’ve been doing the digital nomad thing, we mostly stay in Airbnb places these days. Doing so comes with its pros and cons. Sure, it’s nice to have privacy and your own kitchen, but we always find ourselves missing the social vibe of hostels. We decided to take some time off from teaching for this leg of the journey and just enjoy staying in hostels instead. Returning to the fun-filled atmosphere of hostels definitely helped make it feel more like a year-long party.

La Paz to Cusco

The first big leg of our journey was from La Paz to Cusco. One of the best things about Peru Hop is that you get to visit plenty of awesome places in between. We were able to take a tour of the beautiful Isla del Sol in the middle of Lake Titicaca and crash for a night in Puno rather than sit on a bus for over a day.

Machu Picchu Jungle Trek

We made it to Machu Picchu!

It would have been nice to linger at Lake Titicaca, but we had to keep our party moving. Before the festivities started, though, we wanted to check off a major bucket-list item – Machu Picchu! We did an epic 4-day jungle trek that included biking, hiking, and zip-lining our way to one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

We’ll have more detailed reports on our trip with Peru Hop and our Machu Picchu jungle-trek soon. For now, let’s get on to see what Holy Week in Peru is all about.

An Intro to Holy Week in Peru

I can’t stress enough how big of a deal this week is in Peru and Latin America at large. When the Spanish arrived, they not only conquered Peru militarily but also sought to convert the indigenous people to Christianity. They built churches atop Inca temples, including in the Incan capital of Cusco. The country is now about 81% Catholic, making Holy Week in Peru a very important time.

Arequipa Easter

Holy Week in Peru is huge.

Nearly the entire country seems to be on the move, as everyone wants to travel over the long holiday. This is a very busy travel period, so if you plan on going anywhere in Peru you should definitely book things in advance. Thankfully, Peru Hop notified us and other passengers well in advance of the need to lock down accommodation ahead of time.

All throughout the week, there are different processions and unique traditions. One of the most important processions takes place in Cusco on the Monday before Easter. We made sure to end our Machu Picchu trek a few days before to give us time to recuperate and see a bit of the city.

Procession of El Señor de los Temblores

One of the biggest events in Cusco is the procession of El Señor de los Temblores (The Lord of the Earthquakes). This is a statue of the crucifixion of Jesus that is actually the patron saint of Cusco. People here believe that this statue saved the city from destruction in an earthquake way back in 1650. Every year, the city hosts a massive procession where the statue is taken out of the cathedral and paraded through the streets.

Holy Week in Peru

Inside the cathedral in Cusco as the procession starts.

The image of El Señor de los Temblores is known all across Peru, and many people travel here at least once to see the procession. Interestingly enough, the black color of the statue is not original. It’s due to the buildup of soot from all the lamps and candles that they use in the procession.

A large crowd gathers inside the cathedral in the afternoon for a small service. Then, a group of about 30 men carry the statue out of the church as people shower it in red ñuk’chu flowers. These are seen all throughout the procession, as spectators toss bunches of the flowers as the statue passes by.

Lord of the Earthquakes

The procession begins as the statue leaves the church.

 

Cusco Easter Procession

So glad I flew my drone there!

The procession begins with a trip around Cusco’s main square, the Plaza de Armas. When I saw a few drones already filming, I figured I’d launch mine and give it a shot. No one seemed to mind – not even the police officers standing right beside me. The clips turned out pretty great, and I used a few in a short video introducing the procession:

It’s both a somber and a festive occasion at the same time. While the men walk through the town with the statue, families gather along the route to see it come by. Vendors sell plenty of snacks, pictures of the statue, and the flowers. This is a major holiday in Cusco, so the whole town comes out to experience it.

Cusco Easter

A very festive occasion.

After lunch and a quick trip to our place to recharge some batteries, we headed back out to the main square. In just a few hours, the crowd multiplied in size. It was shoulder-to-shoulder in the square with very little room to breathe. Thankfully there just so happens to be a craft brewery with a view right onto the square.

Easter in Cusco

The crowd got a lot bigger at night…

While we could have left Cusco a bit earlier to have more time in other stops, I’m glad we planned our trip around this procession. The idea of the year-long party was to include a mix of events – music festivals, sporting events, and traditional holidays. It was an impressive procession and a great insight into Peruvian culture.

Passion of the Christ Reenactment in Arequipa

From Cusco, we boarded an overnight bus to Arequipa. With just a few days in the city, we didn’t plan to do much but explore the town a bit and relax. On a free walking tour, we noticed a large crowd gathered in the square. Our guide informed us that there was a reenactment of the Passion of the Christ. It’s a tradition here on Maundy Thursday and a big part of Holy Week in Peru.

Arequipa Good Friday

Jesus is our tour guide’s homie.

Not satisfied with the view on the ground, he took us up to a restaurant’s roof to get a better view. As a matter of fact, his friend was playing Jesus. This gave him a great chance at cracking a bad joke – “Now I can get into Heaven for sure, because I’m friends with Jesus!”

We finished our tour and eventually headed back to the square. By the time we got back, it was nearing the end of the day-long event. This was no PG-rated version of the story, either. There was screaming, plenty of fake blood, and a full-on crucifixion. I couldn’t help but think about the difference between me learning this story and how the Peruvian kids in attendance were learning it. Seeing it right in front of your eyes is much different than having it read to you.

Holy Week in Peru

Anyway, a crucifixion isn’t great for a year-long party, so let’s move on.

Even though it was Maundy Thursday, the streets of Arequipa were still bustling. There was a big night market with tons of delicious street food. Naturally, we pulled up a stool and ordered up some delicious fried chicken concoction.

From there, we hit a local bar based on the recommendation of our guide. They had a live, local band kicking out the tunes! It was refreshing to be the only gringos in the room, seeing as how we were firmly on the tourist trail in Peru.

Holy Week in Peru

Learning how to make Pisco Sours.

Thanks to our participation in the tour earlier, we were given free shots of Pisco at the bar. Pisco is made by distilling fermented grape juice, and it’s described as a brandy. It’s most famously consumed in a Pisco Sour cocktail, but you can drink it any way you like. After the shots, we tried a few Chilcanos – Pisco with ginger ale and lemon. They’re deliciously refreshing and dangerously strong at the same time. This ensured yet another hangover on our trip across Peru. Whoops again.

Easter in Huacachina

Our Holy Week in Peru ended on Easter Sunday in the desert oasis of Huacachina. We arrived super late due to a bus issue, but we still had a full day there to enjoy it. We stayed at the awesome Desert Nights Eco-Camp, which was our first ever experience glamping. Easter Sunday was spent with beers in the swim-up bar, a dune buggy and sand-boarding tour, and pizza with some new travel friends.

We’ll have much more on the Peru Hop bus trip coming up in another post, including more information on the tours and hostels we chose.

Huacachina

Enjoying a beer at the swim-up bar.

At first, I was a bit apprehensive about traveling during Holy Week in Peru. You always hear about how busy it is and how crowded the popular spots are. The way our trip worked out, though, it just made sense. We had to get from Bolivia to Lima and needed to finally visit Machu Picchu. While some places were definitely crowded, we’re so happy with our choice to tough it out and travel Peru during this time.

Being able to see the procession of the Lord of the Earthquakes in Cusco and the reenactment of the Passion in Arequipa were both incredible experiences. It was a nice break from the madness that started the year-long party and reminded us to also focus on cultural events as we continue our planning.

If you have any ideas for interesting festivals or cultural events in the second half of the year, please leave a comment and let us know. The year-long party is only planned through August, so we need a few good ideas!

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Arequipa Peru | Cusco Peru | Peru culture | travel Peru

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Disclaimer: Peru Hop sponsored a portion of our trip in exchange for a review. The opinions expressed are strictly our own, and we would never recommend a product or service if we really didn’t think it was a good one. We had an amazing trip with them and would pay for a return trip no questions asked.

Arequipa Peru | Cusco Peru | Peru culture | travel Peru
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