El Salvador is the smallest and most dense country in Central America. It has quite a number of public holidays mostly due to festivals. Several festivals happen in El Salvador throughout the year. Most of the festivals are celebrated by colorful displays and carnival-like parades which are very popular in the country. These festivals are usually held in memory of an important person or event or in celebration of patrons. Due to the country’s catholic background, most festivals are religious. But this does not affect the fun as art and the rich culture of El Salvador are also displayed during the course of the festivals. Good food, music, artwork, religion and history are often displayed to the fullest during the period of the festivals. Most of these festivals happen in every city in the country while some are indigenous to specific states or cities. A couple of these festivals are celebrated rather in the capital, San Salvador than other places. These three festivals listed below are the most popular festivals in El Salvador. Although there are others, you do not want to miss these three for anything in the world.
Holy Week (April)
Holy Week is the biggest holiday on the Central American calendar. It is referred to as Semana Santa by Spanish speaking communities, and celebrated in grand style in Latin America. It is a religious festival which occurs around the Easter period. Usually, it begins at the week before Easter (Palm Sunday) and runs through Easter Sunday. The Easter period marks the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the major patron of the country.
The festival starts on Good Friday with two carnival-like processions. The first one is held in the morning to represent Jesus’ walk to Golgotha while the other is held in the evening after ‘alfrombras’ have been made by teenagers. Alfrombras are pictures of the events which happened around the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ made on the floors of streets using colorful salt and sawdust. People walk on these pictures during the procession. Candles, which represent light, wooden representations of what happened around the time of Christ’s death (stations of the cross) as well as images of Christ on the cross are also carried during the procession. The second procession is in celebration of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. On Saturday, a Vigil mass is held and fire is kept burning in hope that Christ will rise again. The festival ends on Easter Sunday which is known as Pascua with a procession and mass to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
During lent (the Holy month of Catholics) known as Cuaresma in Spanish, people fast, pray, give alms and avoid foods that contain blood such as meat. Seafood such as fish and prawns are consumed instead. While in El Salvador, you can try seafood soups, hot corn-flour tortillas and French toast served with honey called Torejas made in El Salvador. After the mass on Sunday, a feast is usually held in some homes. During this feast, one is allowed to eat meat as Easter Sunday marks the end of lent.
This festival is celebrated in many cities in El Salvador, but Izalco and Sonsonate celebrate it in exceptional ways. In Izalco, a town south of San Salvador, the procession begins at the 16th century Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion Church. At the church, images of religious icons are lifted in a cloud of incense. The streets of Sonsonate, El Salvador’s fourth most important city, are adorned with flower carpets and colorful saw dust during the festival. In addition to the procession, there are also performance arts performed by the locals. This makes it a religious festival with a little bit of culture.
You do not need to have a religious background to enjoy this festival. You can join the teenagers in making the Alfrombras on Good Friday. On Sunday after the mass, you can visit the beaches and surf spots El Salvador is known for. So, if you are thinking of how to spend your next Easter holiday, the Holy Week festival in El Salvador should be on top of your list.
August Festivals (August)
August festival, also known as Fiestas Agostinas, is one of the festivals people from different parts of the world look forward to every year. This festival dates back to 1525, when San Salvador was founded. San Salvador means Holy Savior. The August festival is definitely one of the most popular festivals in El Salvador. The festival of El Salvador, which is the celebration of the patron saint of San Salvador, The Divino Salvador del Mundo (the divine savior of the world), kicks off the Fiestas Agostinas in San Salvador. In celebration of the festival, religious processions, sport events like soccer tournaments, parades, good food like the traditional Pupusa (thick handmade corn flour or rice flour tortillas stuffed with cheese), major concerts, open air parties, street dancers and floats, a beauty contest, a large fair and an art exhibition are observed. Religious activities take place in front of the national cathedral. The most notable religious activity is La Bajada meaning the descent. This involves the lowering of a sculpted image of Jesus Christ that has been paraded through the streets into a wooden shell. After lowering it into the shell, the purple robe used to adorn the image is removed and the sculpted image emerges in a white robe. This activity is a representation of the transfiguration of Jesus Christ. Fiestas Agostinas is rounded off by the feast of the transfiguration of Jesus Christ which happens in homes or in groups outside the home.
It happens in summer which is the wet season in El Salvador. Fiestas Agostinas usually happens in the first week of August, from August 1st to August 6th in every city in the country. It is usually biggest in San Salvador. During the period of the festival, a marching band wakes the city up by 4am. Activities for the day kick off immediately after the marching band. This event packed one week will definitely be fun-filled and should be missed by nobody at all. If you are looking for an opportunity to experience and enjoy El Salvador culture to the fullest, book a ticket to El Salvador this August to attend this festival and you will not regret your decision.
Balls of Fire Festival (August 31)
Balls of Fire Festival or Las Bolas del Fuego, is a traditional festival indigenous to the people of Nejapa. Nejapa is a small town north of San Salvador. This festival happens every year in late August, usually August 31st.
This festival, which came to be ninety years ago, is in celebration of the eruption of the nearby Volcán El Playan in 1922. The eruption of the volcano destroyed Nejapa. Nejapa’s Legend has it that when this historic eruption occurred causing lava to rain on the land, San Jeronimo, Nejapa’s patron saint, fought back just enough for locals to evacuate the land.
Fire throwing is a major activity in this festival. It is similar to snowball fighting with balls of Fire. This involves young men throwing flaming kerosene-soaked balls of rag and wire at each other and the audience. The young men wear costumes which consists of thick clothes with skeleton painting and gardening gloves. The costumes are soaked in water to prevent getting burned. Their faces are covered with war paint or covered with masks during the fire throwing. There are stories that go around that San Jeronimo fought and defeated the devil with fire balls from the volcano after the eruption. So young men divide themselves into groups of good and evil in imitation of the fight between San Jeronimo and the demon. The fight has no winner or loser. In some cases, spectators are allowed to hold balls of Fire. It has been described by tourists as an up-close view of an organized riot. At the end of the fire throwing event, people dance around bonfires on the streets till dawn. If you are a lover of colorful displays, bonfires and adventure, this festival is for you. Unlike others, this festival holds for just one day but the experience is unforgettable.
If you cannot wait to visit El Salvador and especially one of its great festivals, go to the German website Backpackertrail to find out more travel tips for your next adventure to El Salvador.
List of other major festivals
January: New year, Sugarcane festival.
February: Festival Permanente Arte y Cultura de Suchitoto (International Festival of Cultural events, music, theatre film and arts).
March: Holy Week (Semana Santa), Fiesta de San Jose (San Jose festival).
April: Holy Week continues. Easter.
May: Panchimalco Flower and Palm festival, popularly known as Palm festival.
June: No notable festival.
July: July Festival (Fiesta Julias), Copa Quiksilver (Quiksilver cup).
August: August festival (Fiesta Agostinas), Balls of Fire Festival (Las Bolas del Fuego), Fiestas patronales (celebration of patrons).
September: Independence Day (Dia de la Independencia).
October: Balm festival.
November: San Miguel carnival, All Saints Day, All Souls Day, National festival of Pupusa (Festival Nacional de la Pupusa), Queen of the Peace Day (Dia de la Reina de la Paz), Straw festival.