Peru offers some fascinating religious festivities at Easter time, folkloric traditions and celebrations which bear features of Incan and Pre-Incan rituals.
The Holy Week in Peru
Easter decorations, egg hunts, egg painting etc. are not common in Peru. However, you will find several chocolate egg products on supermarket shelves to be bought and given to children on one of the Easter days.
The Semana Santa (the Holy Week) starts on Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday), so the Sunday before Easter Sunday, commemorating Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Believers attend a mass, some with crosses made of palm leaves.
Jueves Santo (Holy Thursday) and Viernes Santo (Good Friday) are public holidays in Peru, so people generally have four free days (with the Saturday and Sunday) which they use to visit their families, travel, sometimes they go to chill on the beaches to enjoy the remains of the spring, before autumn hits hard with strong wind and cold waters.
On Holy Thursday, the priests wash the feet of twelve elders during a special mass commemorating Jesus’ washing the feet of the twelve Apostles. The Last Supper as described in the canonical gospel sis also commemorated; more traditional Peruvian families come together and eat twelve different local dishes, usually six savory and six sweet meals. This, however, is more observed in the communities, not so much anymore in the cities.
The faithful in Peru visit 7 churches on Holy Thursday, representing the 7 Stations of the Cross.
Mourning Jesus’ crucifixion, Good Friday in Peru should supposedly be a quiet day with shops closed and no alcohol drunk. However, this is not observed well and you will find many families reuniting, celebrating, drinking, dancing, sharing jokes. Also some shops may be open. There will be people having great fun firing firecrackers and thus really frustrating street dogs and cats and also breaking the law, as these should not be sold at all according to the Peruvian legislative.
There are Catholic masses and processions all around Peru, starting in the afternoon and lasting until late at night (11 or 12 pm). The processions carry the statue of Jesus (in life size or bigger) lying dead or crucified on the cross (rarely standing in a preaching pose), followed often by the statue of Mother Mary praying. The processions stops at 7 Stations of the Cross (usually private houses or some small businesses, which were designated by the priest and decorated by the owners for the occasion), where the priest reads from the Bible to remind the believers of the suffering Jesus experienced while carrying the cross.
Traditionally on this day, no meat but fish is eaten. The popular dishes for the day are: the famous Chupe de Viernes (Friday Soup), a hearty fish soup, Ceviche, other types of fish soups, Causa de Pescado (layers of mashed potatoes with a layer of mashed fish with mayonnaise in the middle, sometimes decorated on top with salad), and fried fish dishes.
On the other days, including Thursday, many Peruvians normally eat meat – in fact, absence from meat is rare in Peru and fasting even rarer. My husband and I were visiting his Peruvian family (read: about 40 – 50 people, as the closest uncles and aunts and all their children usually tend to get together for the four days) and I was the only one not eating any meat or fish and partially fasting (though I do not have any religious affiliation). I enjoyed a feast instead on the grandmother’s farm, where they grow papaya, avocado, lime, mango, and much more.
Domingo de Resurrección or Pascua (Easter Sunday) is the central day of the Easter festivities in Peru, characterized by overall celebrations in and outside of church. Festivities take place around the country with lots of local food and drinks, music and dancing and here and there even parades.
Easter in Ayacucho
One of the best places to be for Easter is Ayacucho, a city in south-central Peru known for its many colonial churches, folk handicrafts, including intricate wooden dioramas called retablos, and lively Easter Week celebrations. You can get there from Lima (10 hours) or Cusco (13 hours). Ayacucho is also known as the starting point for going to Millpu Turquoise Waters (one of the top Instagram travel images from Peru, a 3-hour-drive) and to reach the stone forest of Pampachiri (5 hours more).
Located in the altitude of 2, 761 m in the Peruvian Andes, Ayacucho holds the most enthusiastic religious celebrations during the Holy Week. Thousands of faithful people as well as tourists visit the city famous for its 33 churches, one for each year of Jesus’ life.
The traditions begin on the Friday of Sorrows, the Friday before Palm Sunday, with a huge procession in honour of “Our Lady of Sorrows”. On Palm Sunday, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem riding on a mule is recreated while thousands of believers along the way wave with palm leaves. Each following day until Easter there is a procession or other religious event. On Wednesday, for example, the meeting of Jesus with his mother is reenacted at Ayacucho’s main square. On Good Friday, after the sunset, there is a candlelight procession accompanied by crowds of faithful, chanting and praying while roaming through the streets of Ayacucho.
On Holy Saturday at 9 am, the bells of the 33 churches announce the resurrection of Jesus. Celebrations begin with food and craft fairs, folklore dances and music, concerts and partying until the dawn of Easter Sunday.
Easter in Cusco
Cusco, similarly, celebrates Easter traditionally. However, the most important day of the celebrations is Lunes Santo (Holy Monday), the Monday after Palm Sunday, when the faithful venerate the statue of Christ on the Cross as El Señor de los Temblores (the Lord of the Earthquakes) and believe their adoration protects them from earthquakes.
The background of this tradition dates back to March 1650, when Cusco was hit badly by a long earthquake with the magnitude of around 7.5. Serious damages affected big parts of central and south Peru then and around 5000 people lost their life.
The citizens of Cusco, to protect the statue of Christ on the Cross, took it out of the Cusco Cathedral to move it somewhere safer. At that moment, the shaking suddenly stopped…
Since that day, each year on Holy Monday after a special mass in the morning, the statue is taken out of Cusco’s cathedral in the afternoon and carried around the center of Cusco in a large procession, accompanied by Quechua singers and a crowd that throws ñucchu flowers along the way.
The statue itself, blackened from centuries of soot of oil lamps and candles, is decorated for the occasion with red ñucchu flowers which in ancient times were used as an offering to the Inca gods Kon and Wiracocha (by the way the Cusco Cathedral was built on the site of their temple), but since Christianization symbolize Jesus’ blood shed for the sinners.
It is known that Inca and Pre-Inca civilizations held similar processions to appease their deities causing earthquakes, and paraded the mummies of their leaders, chiefs and high-priests around town.
Easter in Huaraz
Huaraz, located high in the Peruvian Andes, is another city that attracts many for the Easter festivities. A highlight of the Holy Week in Huaraz is the procession on Good Friday that starts on 02.00 am at the Church of Soledad and reenacts the journey of Jesus of Nazareth crucifixion.
On Easter Sunday, there are two processions, starting from different parts of the town: the one of Jesus and the one of Mary. Both meet at the main square of Huaraz where Jesus’s resurrection from the dead is reenacted and the mother and the son reunite. The Easter celebrations end by fireworks.
Easter in Arequipa
The major celebration in the second largest Peruvian city, also called “the white city” (as the houses in the city centre were made of white volcanic clay), takes place on Easter Sunday. A large image of Judas is burnt symbolically (a tradition brought by the Spanish also to Mexico, Chile, Uruguay, Guatemala or Venezuela) punishing him for his betrayal. The event occurs at Mirador de Yanahuara and serves also to open sarcasm and irony concerning the corrupted national and regional authorities. The day ends with huge fireworks illuminating the second largest city of Peru.
While many countries across the world are cancelling all the precautions concerning Covid, Peru has introduced – as of 1/4/2022 obligatory vaccine of two doses for all above 12 years of age and 3 dosis for all above 18. There are still obligatory masks outside and inside. Many festivities were not held or were adapted to avoid crowds gathering.