Easter eggs may be hard to come by in Colombia, but you’ll definitely find plenty to do during Semana Santa. Laura Brown shares a few ideas for those thinking of travelling and looking for something traditional.
With the overwhelming majority of Colombians being Roman Catholic, it’s unsurprising that Easter, and Semana Santa, is one of the most important holidays of the year. Many people take off a couple days’ work to complement the two days of bank holidays (April 13 and 14 this year) to get a full week of well-deserved holiday time. With so many people not working and the religious significance of the holiday, the country is awash with festivities and traditions of different kinds, especially in some of the smaller towns in the countryside.
By far the most famous celebrations over the Easter weekend are in Popayán, Cauca. Their Easter festivities, which have been held since at least 1558, are the second largest of their kind, after those in Seville, Spain.
Popayán, which has been rebuilt after it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1983, is known as the white city because of its whitewashed colonial buildings, and has a number of spectacular churches.
People from all over the region and country flock here for the religious processions held during Holy Week. Tens of thousands of people take part in the parades which include huge wooden statues of religious figures such as Jesus Christ and his disciples. The processions, declared a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, occur throughout the week leading up to Easter, with the biggest and most popular ones on the nights of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.
Thousands of people travel to witness these religious celebrations, so hotel rooms are hard to come by. Reserve early if you want to go.
Another popular destination to experience Colombian religious culture is Mompox. This city, along the banks of the Magdalena River, was once an important trading point during the colonial period due to its proximity to the Caribbean coast where goods such as gold, emeralds, tobacco and slaves were brought in and out of the country.
During Semana Santa, the city hosts parades through the streets with participants carrying images and statues of religious characters to commemorate the death and resurrection of Christ.
Heading south, towards the border with Ecuador, in the department of Nariño is the beautiful Gothic basilica Santuario Nuestra Señora de las Lajas.
The town of Ipiales draws pilgrims and tourists alike from both countries keen to take part in the religious rites brought over by the Spanish during the times of the conquistadors. Although this century-old tradition of the Easter celebration is largely linked to the Catholic church, current interpretations include aspects of indigenous culture such as typical food from the region.
The sanctuary sits impressively in a canyon on the Guáitara River, making it one of the most picturesque sights in the country. Well worth a trip just for snapping photos.
For those staying in Bogotá and looking for something to do closer to the city over Easter, the Salt Cathedral in Zipaquirá is a good option.
This popular tourist attraction just north of the capital is an underground church carved into the walls of a salt mine with the dark tunnels illuminated by different coloured lights creating a magical effect.
The Sunday services at the cathedral attract thousands of worshippers every week, and higher numbers over Semana Santa when processions are particularly popular for those wanting to follow the stations of the cross carved into the salt formations.
The Valle del Cauca city of Buga is another famous destination for pilgrims and religious revellers. Each year, over half a million people descend on the city to take part in the Holy Week celebrations held around the pink structure that is the Basílica del Señor de los Milagros. Buga is also popular for a relaxing holiday due to its proximity to a number of ecotourism attractions such as Lake Calima, Reserva Forestal Alpes and Parque Natural de las Hermosas.
Other top tips for places to visit at this time of year include Cartagena, Tunja and Cali, although several towns hold their own special celebrations so you’re likely to find something happening wherever you spend the holiday.
Remember that lots of people will be travelling, so it is wise to book accommodation and transport in advance to avoid disappointment. Otherwise, you can at least enjoy the tranquillity of Bogotá as a good number of the residents, and thus noise and pollution, will be outside of the city for the week.
By Laura Brown