The week leading up to Easter Sunday is known as Semana Santa in Costa Rica. It is one of the country’s most important religious holidays. Many residents have the entire week off from work, schools, banks and stores are closed, and Thursday and Friday are government mandated holidays so that families may spend time together. This year, Holy Week is longer than normal due to the fact that April 11th, also a government-mandated holiday, Dia de Juan Santamaria, falls on the Friday before Semana Santa, allowing for an extra-long holiday week. Juan Santamaria Day is named after a young solider named Juan Santamaria who defended his country and aided in an essential battle against the US filibuster, William Walker, who wanted to take over and conquer Central America.
Holy Week is celebrated the 14th-20th of April this year, and no matter how you spend the holiday, you’re sure to witness a variety of religious traditions – and an unforgettable aspect of Costa Rican culture. More than 75% of the country is Catholic, and another 16% are Protestant Christians. For many, Holy Week is a time of worship, reflection and, finally, celebration of Christ’s resurrection. Catholics are expected to relax, avoiding labor during this week. Therefore, Easter Week preparations begin well in advance, as families make special dishes and ready their homes for the coming celebrations, or plan out their beach vacations.
Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday are Holy Week’s most important days, and every town’s Catholic Church organizes festivities on these holidays. Dramatic religious parades wind through every town, reenacting Jesus’ journey through Jerusalem, the crucifixion, and His eventual resurrection. Parade participants dress up to perform key roles, including Roman soldiers, the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Saint Joseph. They often sing and carry incense. Two of the most famous processions take place in Tres Rios near Cartago, home of the main Catholic church of the country, where live actors are used in place of effigies, and in San Joaquin de Flores in Heredia . Be forewarned that these parades are somber and the details can be quite gruesome as they are meant to evoke strong emotions in attendees.
Conservative Catholics refrain from eating meat during Lent (the period between Ash Wednesday and Easter), so traditional Holy Week cuisine revolves around seafood. Chiverre squash also plays a prominent role in the week’s gastronomic offerings, appearing as sweet jelly, filling for turnovers, and jams. Other specialties vary by regions; for example, families in Guanacaste spend weeks gathering wild mangos for marmalade and other sweet treats.
Those who don’t participate in religious celebrations often take the week to travel, usually to the beach, which has been growing ever-more popular among Costa Ricans. (If I had a week off work, I, too, would head to the beach!) Easter Week sees the country’s busiest traffic and most crowded beaches, and tourists will find that most hotels are booked months in advance. This year we have two different groups of Costa Rican families staying with us in our luxury villa rentals. Villa Mango and Villa Feliz are both sharing their comfortable and ocean-view spaces with families who wanted to enjoy the beach, but be able to indulge in quality time together without the crowded buzz of a hotel during this busy week. After checking in with them yesterday on how their vacation is going, all were happy and enjoying having their own private pool, magnificent ocean-view and a barbeque grill to cook their fresh seafood on. Not a bad sacrifice for lent! As the Costa Rican Easter Week traditions continue to blossom, perhaps a new trend will be in vacation rentals stays during this time. It sure seems like the perfect blend between reflecting together and vacationing in style!