The ancient Inca capital’s atmospheric Easter celebrations rival Seville’s robed cavalcade
NEED TO KNOW
LOCATION Cusco is located 685 miles (1,100 km) southeast of the Peruvian capital, Lima, and 11,000 ft (3,400 m) above sea level
WHEN Cusco’s Semana Santa celebrations take place in the week before Easter
VISITORS PER YEAR
Forget the gigantic floats and hooded penitents for which Seville’s Semana Santa is famous. Picture instead the streets of Cusco, filled with hundreds of diminutive Andean devotees dressed in vibrant fabrics, the women with long black plaits cascading from saucer-like red hats, hailing the city’s protector, a black Christ. It’s a colorful, charming scene.
Unlike Seville, where Good Friday is the focus of the festival, Holy Monday is the highlight in Cusco.
At dawn in the city’s cathedral, servidores (servants) prepare a figure of Christ on the cross for the main procession. They replace his crown of thorns with a garland of ñucchu flowers, comb his hair, anoint him with perfume, and dress him up in jewels, while small choirs, known as chayñas or jilgueras, sing out in Quechua, the language of the Inca.
At 3pm, church bells announce Christ’s departure from the cathedral, the city’s colonial shrine, which is built on top of Inca foundations.
The enormous effigy is then paraded through the streets, just as the mummies of Inca rulers were centuries ago. Legend has it that in 1650, when the sacred relic was first borne through the town, it brought to an end a devastating earthquake, and ever since then the figure has been known as El Señor de los Temblores (Lord of the Earthquakes).
Cusco is unshakably Andean in its devotion, with a liberal dash of Catholicism. Crimson ñucchu flowers, once an offering to the Inca gods but now symbolizing the blood of a Christian divinity, rain down on the procession from balconies, and fiery garlands flank the dark Christ on his swaying silver dais. Tapestries of colored petals depicting sacred icons pave the streets, and firecrackers herald the Christ figure’s approach. At 7pm the bells ring out again and devotees fall to their knees in the Plaza de Armas, the city’s main square, as El Señor returns to the cathedral, gracefully bowing three times before retreating and closing the door on another year.
Thousands of pilgrims from remote mountain villages flock to Cusco for this vibrant, stirring event, which continues for the rest of Holy Week with smaller religious processions, ceremonies, and reenactments from the Bible. Local food looms large at this time. Stalls dispensing sweet empanadas and corn bread invade the Plaza de Armas, and on Holy Thursday, families traditionally gather to share 12 dishes – representing the 12 apostles – of potatoes, seafood, tarwi (Andean lupine) and llullucha (algae).
THE BUILD-UP With its melding of Christianity, paganism, and pleasure, Semana Santa in Seville is both a solemn and cheerily raucous spectacle. Penitents in long robes and conical hoods trail behind hefty floats that are held aloft by the faithful, while brass bands sound a mournful lament. Spectators pray and push and pull for the best position as the effigies pass by. Later, they gather in bars and restaurants to tuck into tapas and bull’s-tail stew.
THE LETDOWN An estimated one million people visit Seville during Semana Santa, and as a result price-gouging in the city is rampant.
The narrow streets get incredibly crowded, and spending 10–12 hours at a time on your feet, caught up in processions, isn’t unusual. It’s noisy, busy, and tiring, and everyone is forcibly vying for the best view.
GOING ANYWAY? Pick up a leaflet specifying the departure times and the routes of the pasos (processions), and then stake out your vantage point early. Navigating the streets at this time can be painfully slow, so be patient and not pushy. Book your hotel well ahead of your trip.
Be sure to wear comfortable shoes.
Getting There and Around
Aeropuerto Alejandro Velasco Astete is 3 miles (5 km) from the center of Cusco. Only use official taxis to travel from here to the city. Walking is the best way to get around Cusco itself.
Where to Eat
Cusco has an excellent range of places to eat, from casual cafés to upmarket restaurants. La Cicciolina has a laid-back tapas bar and upscale dining room.
Where to Stay
Try the cozy and traditional Casa Andina Private Collection.
70°F (21°C) during Semana Santa.
Budget per Day for Two
US$120 including food, accommodations, and transportation.