Love a party? Traditional festivals are a fantastic way to rub shoulders with locals, get a glimpse of customs and traditions and get stuck into some serious celebrations. They’re well worth factoring into your trip – here’s where to go in 2018.
Paro Tschechu – Bhutan
Bhutan’s calendar is jam-packed with Tshechus, traditional Buddhist festivals that take place throughout the year. Tschechus celebrate important Buddhist deities, and they’re also big social and family occasions, where the Bhutanese pass on spiritual beliefs and values.
Literally translated as “day 10”, Tshechus are traditionally four days of dancing, music and a big party atmosphere. For visitors, it’s a fantastic way to immerse yourself in the local culture.
The Paro Tshechu is a real favourite, held annually in the Paro Dzongkhag district in March or April, which is a brilliant time to visit weather-wise. Monks pray and meditate for weeks to prepare for the Tshechus, and perform mystical masked dances said to invoke enlightenment. Locals dress up in their finest and dance for days, and the festival ends with the unveiling of the sacred thangka, a beautiful, embroidered silk painting. The monks display the thangka before dawn, so it’s not damaged by sunlight, but it’s worth setting your alarm before – laying eyes on the thangka is said to cleanse you of your sins.
La Tirana Festival – Chile
Chileans love a fiesta. If you’re visiting this slice of South America, it’s worth seeing if you can fit in a Chilean party experience. Our pick? La Tirana Festival is one of Chile’s most important cultural festivals. The little town of La Tirana in northern Chile explodes with visitors come mid-July. It’s a concentrated dose of the country’s calendar; Catholic traditions, indigenous culture, knock-out food and a whole lot of dancing.
The Fiesta honours the Virgin of Carmen, the patron saint of Chile, and is said to expel the demons from La Tirana. Huge arts, gastronomic, music and dancing displays are held day and night for a week, and locals and tourists pour in to watch the fearsome, masked Diablada (dance of the devils), observe mass and munch on empanadas.
Situated in the country’s north, La Tirana is a couple of hours from Santiago and is close to the country’s Atacama desert, or you could even combine it with a visit to neighbouring Argentina…
The Cosquin Folk Festival – Argentina
Sticking with South America, Argentina rivals its neighbour for a calendar chock-full of fiestas. From traditional Carnival and Catholic processions to beer and tango dancing, the country likes an opportunity to celebrate.
The Cosquin Folk Festival is one of the biggest of its kind in Latin America, taking over the city of Cosquin for half of January each year. It’s a brilliant chance to experience Argentina’s folklore music, culture and traditions, with music and dance performances from some of the country’s much-loved performances taking place in the Prospera Molina main square. The unique folklore of individual regions are represented, so you’ll get the chance to learn your chacarera from your chamame, snack on street food and soak up the infectious atmosphere.
Inti Raymi (Sun Festival) – Peru
The Inti Raymi (sun festival) is the Incan celebration of winter solstice, which in Peru falls on 24th of June. It’s one of the most important celebrations in Incan culture, seeing in the New Year and celebrating the sun god, Inti, with nine days of dancing, processions, costumes and sharing good food. Its roots are admittedly gory, centring around the bloody sacrifice of llamas, but today, the ritual is purely symbolic, and the llama population thrives. Expect folk dances, marches and traditional Peruvian music.
The setting is suitably mystic, taking place in the Inca heartland of Cusco and focussed on the ancient stone fortress of Sacsayhuaman. We can arrange a trip to Cusco for anyone keen to see more of this Incan heartland, but make sure you book well in advance if you’re planning on visiting the festive – it’s one of Peru’s most famous, and rooms fill up fast.
Carnival (Carnaval) – Brazil
Are you sensing a theme yet? Another South American superstar on our list is Brazil, with a fiesta synonymous with its capital – Rio Carnival. The biggest Carnival on the planet, Rio pulls in millions of visitors each February or March, in the run-up to Lent. Traditionally, Carnival celebrations are all about excess before the pious sacrifices of Lent, and Brazilians take this tradition seriously. Expect a whirlwind week of parades, samba in the streets, thrumming drum beats and competitively outrageous costumes.
After you’ve had your fill of the main parades, it’s well worth hunting out some blocos – free street parties organised by individual suburbs that fill the city throughout Carnival. They’re full on dusk-to-dawn affairs, with free-flowing food and drink and some, like Banda de Ipanema, spilling out onto the beaches. Costumes are expected to go all-out. Unsurprisingly, Carnival is peak time for Rio, so book early.
Holi – India
India is another country that thrives on celebrations, and one of the best-known is Holi. This ancient Hindu festival a two-day affair in March, celebrating the victory of good over evil, the end of winter and the arrival of spring, and is a time for family, friends, forgiveness and a lot of dancing.
Nicknamed the ‘festival of colours’, it’s an upbeat and carefree few days of chucking coloured powder and water around, dancing in the streets and a few water guns and sprinklers for good measure. Holi is celebrated enthusiastically across the country, and the festivals in the north are said to be the best, with Vrindavan and Mathura hosting the biggest. The festival kicks off with the Holika Dahan, a large bonfire, and the colours start flying the day after. Don’t wear anything you’re too attached to.
Gion Matsuri – Japan
Japan has an estimated 300,000 Matsuri (traditional festivals) crammed into its calendar year. They often have traditional and religious roots, and have evolved into huge, often month-long affairs that the Japanese take seriously – and everyone is welcome.
Gion Matsuri is one of Japan’s biggest and brightest, taking place in Kyoto pretty much throughout the whole of July. It’s part ancient religious tradition, part full-throttle street party, once a way to pray for deliverance from the plague. The scale of the festival is staggering, with crowds turning out in a riot of colour to watch the parades and party in the streets.
The Matsuri centres on two massive, traditional parades, filled in with a lot of street food and beer in colourful yukata robes. The floats in the parades are nothing short of spectacular. These ‘mobile art museums’ can top 25 metres in height and all beautifully crafted by Kyoto’s finest, showcasing Japanese art and culture at its best.
Which festivals have made your must-visit list? Which ones rocked your socks off?