Peru festivals are colourful displays of the country’s history, culture, and fierce loyalty to tradition. If you’re travelling to Peru, attending one of these festivals or celebrations might be the highlight of your trip.
From festivals with origins stretching back thousands of years, to Catholic celebrations introduced by Spanish colonists, Peru’s festivals have diverse influences. However, they all have one important thing in common: Each one brims with exultant dancing and singing, as well as a huge amount of pride in Peruvian culture.
If you’re volunteering in Latin America, seeing one of these events is an essential experience. And as with any cultural or religious festival, ensure that you are participating as respectfully as possible – especially as a visitor.
Here are eight festivals and holidays in Peru to add to your Peru bucket list.
1) Semana Santa
Semana Santa, which translates as Holy Week, is Peru’s Easter extravaganza. Jubilant celebrations are held in the week leading up to Easter Sunday. The “fiesta” takes place all over the country, but Cusco and Ayacucho are famed for their particularly elaborate events.
The festival combines elements of Catholic religious rites with customs unique to the Andes. Colourful processions, folk dancing displays, traditional feasts, local music concerts, and constant street events will keep you busy all week.
Carnaval (or Carnival) is the week of celebrations leading up to Lent, usually held in February. This festival is rooted in Catholic traditions brought to Peru by the Spanish.
It’s celebrated widely in Latin America and Peru is no exception. The party is country-wide, but Cusco is central to the action. Carnaval festivities here are unique, as Andean and Catholic traditions have been tied together.
Highlights of the eclectic parades that swirl through the town are the distinct outfits and dances.
People often spray water and foam on each other in the crowds, a tradition that dates back to the seventeenth century. If you go to Carnaval in Cusco, take your water balloons and get ready to be immersed in a riot of colour and water fights.
3) Inti Raymi
Inti Raymi is the most important date in Cusco’s events calendar. For more than 500 years, the festival has marked a celebration of Inti Raymi, the sun king, and Pachamama, the Earth mother.
It also celebrates the winter solstice, or the shortest day of the year. It takes place on June 24 each year. When the Incas ruled, nobles and priests of the empire would gather in Cusco, along with thousands of people from the wider Inca Empire. Celebrations started at dawn and went into the night, with singing, dancing, and llama sacrifice.
Today’s celebrations still carry elements of the historic festival, with the Sapa Inca, or Inca emperor, opening the festival by praising the sun god in front of Qorikancha, the Inca sun temple in the town centre.
The royal entourage then parades through Cusco’s Plaza de Armas, and later in the day, the festival culminates in the ritual sacrifice of a llama at the Saqsaywaman citadel.
4) La Virgen de la Candelaria
This festival takes place in Puno on the days around Candlemas, in early February.
It’s the most important festival in the region around Lake Titicaca and celebrates the Virgen Candelaria, the patron saint of Puno.
The roots of the “fiesta de la Candelaria” can be traced back to Andean celebrations of Pachamama. Honouring the Earth mother was believed to help with good weather and crops.
After the arrival of the Spanish, celebrations merged with Catholic traditions. Puno overflows with performers during the festival, with thousands of dancers and musicians come from across the region.
The masks and costumes worn by performers are fantastic expressions of cultural pride. Keep an eye out for the spectacular Diablada, or “dance of the devil” masks.
Food is serious business in Peru, and the Mistura festival is the best way to explore the country’s gastronomic delights. Held in early September each year, the fair takes place in Lima.
Culinary experts and street vendors from all corners of the country converge on the capital, bringing regional delicacies with them. All the major geographical areas are represented, and every vendor displays the same pride in Peruvian cuisine.
This could be your chance to sample specialties like cuy, papa a la huancaína or lomo saltado. Lively music and dance performances, as well as a large market where you can stock up on local produce, complete the festival.
6) La Vendimia
La Vendimia is Peru’s festival for wine lovers. The festival celebrates both wine and pisco (a type of brandy) in the second week of March each year. It takes place in Ica, the centre of traditional Peruvian wine country.
The festival only began in 1958, and shines a light on Peru’s wine and pisco production. Attending this festival could be your chance to sample delicious wines and pisco brandies from different makers and learn more about the wine industry in Peru.
During the celebrations, you’ll see your fair share of dancing, fireworks, and even traditional grape stomping. Eat, drink, and be merry!
7) Virgen del Carmen
Virgen del Carmen is one of the most extraordinary events in Peru. Held every year in July in the small town of Paucartambo, a town four hours from Cusco, this festival dates back to the thirteenth century.
The festival springs from the story of a young woman who was on her way to Paucartambo many years ago when she came across a head on the ground.
The bodiless head spoke to the young woman and said its name was Carmen. The head granted wishes and made miracles happen in the village, so residents still celebrate her as their patron saint all these years later.
During the festival, locals of the town carry an image of Carmen through the streets, chasing away demons and blessing onlookers. Dancers in masks leap onto rooftops and the procession culminates in the cemetery, where people can pay homage to the dead.
Peru’s festival dedicated to Mother Earth, Pachamama Raymi, takes place in the first week of August every year. Celebrations unfold in Cusco, the former Inca capital. People give tributes to Pachamama to show thanks for the bounty of crops that support their communities.
On the first day of August, farmers halt work on their land and prepare offerings as a sign of respect to Pachamama. The first plate of food from the feast they prepare is given to Pachamama and any other offerings are buried in the ground.
In Cusco, the festival involves traditional Peruvian music and games.
Basing yourself in Peru for a week or more as you contribute to a sustainable volunteering program will help you understand Peruvian culture better, and increase your chances of catching one of these incredible events.
GVI’s volunteer projects in and around Cusco give you the chance to travel deeper into the former Inca capital. Double up on your cultural immersion and take in both volunteer work and traditional festivals while in Peru.
Take a look through more of our volunteering opportunities in Latin America to find award-winning programs and maybe the adventure of a lifetime.