Semana Santa in Cusco: An insider’s perspective

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Heidy Aspilcueta is the Operations Manager at LAFL, where her job is to ensure that every client’s vacation to Peru (and anywhere else in South America) goes off without a hitch. She is also a proud Cusco native, born and raised in the extraordinary city where so much of Peru’s history has unfolded and where many clients arrive prior to a trip to Machu Picchu. Today, Heidy has agreed to share her perspective on one of the most spectacular religious celebrations in South America: Semana Santa in Cusco.

Heidy spent her childhood in Cusco and she fondly recalls that the days of the holy week were filled with traditions and rituals that added special significance to this religious event. “I loved Semana Santa,” she says. “We would get days off school and we would enjoy time with the family. It was always nice.” For anyone planning to visit Cusco and Machu Picchu during this time, Heidy says that the Semana Santa celebration “is a good chance to observe our traditions, food and how people express their faith,” and also “how people mix Catholicism and Inca culture.” Here, Heidy is referring to the vivid mixture of beliefs and traditions from the Old and New worlds that is unique to Cusco.

Palm Sunday, Cusco

Semana Santa in Cusco begins with Mass on Palm Sunday. The priests bless bouquets of palm tree leaves and people pack the historic center to see the processions enter the Plaza de Armas.

One example is Santo Lunes (Holy Monday). Other cities in Peru and around the world have Semana Santa processions, but only Cusco has the Procession of El Señor de los Temblores (The Lord of Earthquakes). As we mentioned in last week’s blog on Easter in Peru, this statue of Christ holds great importance for the people of Cusco, and on Monday of Semana Santa, he is feted with great passion and fervor by believers who pack into the Plaza de Armas and crowd every overlooking balcony for a chance to witness the procession.

In this tradition, celebrated in Cusco for more than 200 years, the dark-hued image is dressed in fine clothing and positioned onto a platform adorned with red ñucchu flowers. Dozens of men hoist the platform onto their shoulders and solemnly parade him out of the Cusco Cathedral, around the streets of the historic center, and back to the Plaza de Armas. Throughout the afternoon, the tolling bells of the Cathedral sound in symphony with those of the adjacent Compañía de Jesus Church. Heidy says that, ever since she was an infant, it was a tradition for the whole family to go to the blessing of El Señor de los Temblores: “we had a special spot at the plaza where we could see the lord well.”

Señor de los Temblores procession in Cusco

As a sign of veneration, people fling ñucchu flowers at the image as it passes by them. The bright color of the flowers is said to symbolize the blood of Christ.

For Heidy and her family, the other days of Semana Santa were also important. On Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday), people would go to church to celebrate the entrance of Jesus to Israel and to receive bouquets of rosemary and palm tree leafs. On Holy Thursday, Heidy remembers going with her mom to the churches: “If you visit 7 or more, you can make a wish.” Since all the churches are open on this day, travelers can get into any of them without paying the usual tourist admission fee. (Just be sure to be respectful and refrain from taking pictures.)

Also on Thursday, there is the tradition of eating 12 dishes as a way to remember the Last Supper. “All the families get together to cook and have a huge lunch,” says Heidi. “Some people eat just 7 or 8 dishes and others eat more than 12 sometimes, but we use small portions so we can eat as many dishes as possible.” (Brilliant strategy, right?) Because of the Catholic prohibition against eating red meat during Lent, most dishes feature Andean plants, grains, and vegetables abundant in the area, such as potatoes, corn, and squash. Some dishes may include fish or shrimp. And then there are a whole range of delicious desserts such as arroz con leche, mazamorra, apple and peach compotes, empanadas de semana santa, rosquitas, and many more.

Cusco Semana Santa Food festival

Tables full of food are a typical feature of most households’ Semana Santa celebrations. If you’re out to dinner at a restaurant, ask to see if there are any traditional dishes on the menu. Local markets are also a good option if you want to sample typical food.

According to Heidy, Good Friday is a lot quieter than the other days as people are commemorating the death of Christ, though there are still smaller processions in the center. Also in Cusco, people from the countryside come to the city and set up a market to sell medicinal plants, which Heidy describes as a tradition that stems from ancient times. On Friday, Heidy’s family would make a trip to Calca in the Sacred Valley to see the local procession of Santo Sepulcro involving Jesus in a coffin and the mourning Virgin Mary. The townspeople would construct flower carpets on the streets and wear black as a sign of mourning. Back in Cusco, Saturday and Sunday also tend to be quieter and most activity revolves around church services. On these days, she recommends walking around traditional markets like San Pedro to see local products.

As a final note, Heidy reminds travelers that the first part of Holy Week will be very busy and crowded in Cusco, and some churches like the Cusco Cathedral will be closed to organized tour groups on Monday. But the latter part of the week is usually quieter and a good time to explore and walk around. On Good Friday, many businesses close their doors, but tourist services, including restaurants and shops as well as discos and bars, remain open.  

If you’re going to travel to Cusco during Semana Santa feel free to ask us for more travel tips in the comments box below. Latin America For Less travel experts are specialists in trips to Peru and other top destinations in South America. Visit our website or contact us to start planning your dream vacation.

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About Author

Anabel has been exploring the length and width of South America since 2010. Ditching preconceptions, settling into the local pace, and embracing the unexpected are the tenets of her philosophy of travel - and life.

2 Comments

  1. Hi,

    I will be in Cusco March 27-30, 2013. I have been worried about museums and ruins being closed during these days as I know Thursday and Friday are religious holidays in Peru.

    Will there be places open on Thursday and Friday?

    Thanks,
    Paige

  2. Hey Paige! Fortunately for travelers, museums and ruins in Cusco remain open during Semana Santa. All tours also operate normally – this is with the exception of the Cusco Cathedral, which is closed to tourists for special Masses on Monday (Señor de los Temblores), Thursday, and Friday. Other churches may also be closed (Iglesia Santo Domingo/Qoricancha is closed on Friday, for example) so check with your hotel concierge beforehand if you are planning to visit.