Celebrations for Semana Santa or Holy Week takes place all across Peru. But no other city captures the spotlight quite like the small and generally sleepy hillside town of Ayacucho.
Ayacucho holds prominence within the history of Peru, being the location where the gruesome Battle of Ayacucho was held. At the event, pro-independence troops defeated the Spanish army and helped lead the country to independence. Despite the significance of this bit of Peruvian history, this little town still sits quietly on the sidelines until this major celebration every year.
But when this 10-day festival does arrive, it brings in the biiiggg crowds! Ayacucho does make the perfect backdrop for the celebrations though. The town has an overwhelming abundance of churches, 33 to be exact – one for each of Jesus’ lives. Mix that in with descriptive colonial architecture, and it’s the perfect formula for a charming landscape.
While celebrations start days before, the real fun begins on the Good Friday. That’s when the holiday turns from solemn and mournful to a more celebratory atmosphere. Visitors, predominately local tourists, swell the narrow and hilly cobblestone streets. Vendors selling everything from perfectly dipped candy apples to multi-coloured steaming refreshments transform this sleepy town into circus-level excitement.
There really aren’t any town-wide activities scheduled for this day. Many guests just wander the avenues, taking in all the spectacles. Gearing up for the big events lined up later in the weekend.
While the atmosphere remains predominantly calm and family-friendly on Good Friday, the party turns up several notches on Holy Saturday. By 10am, the beers are joyously flowing and the main square is fully vibrating from the parades and various marching bands. Crowds swarm into the main square and the dancing will continue non-stop until the evening.
One of the main events on Holy Saturday is the running of the bulls, known locally as jalatoro. Similar to the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, bulls are let out to run through the town streets, led loosely by Moricuchos (local cowboys). Rumours have it this year is actually the last year they will be practicing this tradition though. A combination of safety (because every year people are sent to the hospital after incurring injuries from this event) and pressure from animal rights organizations are making officials rethink this part of the festival.
As the afternoon sun rises and descends, people flow to and from the main square. Younger festival-goers will attempt to build the tallest human ladder, while others simply lounge around and soak in the atmosphere around the square.
Don’t be surprised to see trucks arriving in the square with food and refreshments for festival-goers. Or the fire fighting team cooling the crowd down by spraying them with gallons of water! It’s a town-wide celebration and everyone is happy to play their part to ensure the festival progresses joyously.
The party does slow down by night time on Holy Saturday, but it never really ends. The town stays half-awake until the religious rites begin at 5am on Easter Sunday. The climax of the entire festival. As dawn creeps into the town, the resurrected Christ is carried out of the main cathedral on a giant white pyramid float, adorned with candles. People parade the pyramid float around the town. Singing, chanting and ringing bells, all while fireworks ignite in the background. A fitting end to a highly atmospheric festival.
Especially for Semana Santa, almost all the bus companies will provide service to Ayacucho. Book your transports early though, especially when planning on arriving the Thursday or Friday before Semana Santa.
If possible, the most economical way I found is to join a tour group. I found a tour group offering a 4 day, 3 nights package. It included transportation, accommodation and activities to nearby sites. The entire package ended up costing me less than a round-trip bus ticket!