Category Archives: Central America and Mexico

Christmas Traditions in Latin America

When Christmas time comes along in Latin America, it’s pretty impressive just how similar (and how dissimilar) a number of countries choose to spend their holidays commemorating the birth of baby Jesus.

You’ll find that the traditions often held by families and friends hold a deeply religious significance. What’s more is that throughout Latin America there’s little nuances that distinguish each country’s traditions from the next. Read on below to find out how they differ in our guide to Christmas Traditions throughout Latin America.

Argentina & Uruguay
With a number of historical and cultural influences dousing each of these countries in a smorgasbord of traditions, Argentina and Uruguay tend to consolidate and celebrate their holidays with Christmas trees and the nativity scene. Religious folk (specifically catholic and christian) attend church on the 25th and spend this time of the year (summer for them) getting together with close friends and family outside to host get-togethers and relish the good weather while preparing bountiful meals grilled over the barbecue. Sweet bread and apple cider often accompany these gatherings.

Christmas Day, Bariloche. Photo by: Paul Burnett

Christmas Day, Bariloche. Photo by: Paul Burnett

Bolivia
Bolivians celebrate their Christmas in a more deeply religious way, often putting up their nativity scene (pesebre) in their homes with a level of dedication and meticulousness unparalleled in other places. Churches too often put up a larger and more elaborate nativity right outside their doors. At midnight on christmas eve, the mass of the Rooster (La Misa del Gallo) is held and a large christmas meal is served afterwards at the household of each family. A traditional beverage served during this time is “cola de mono,” similar to eggnog.

Festive Frolics @ the Salt Flats. Photo by: Ewar Woowar

Festive Frolics @ the Salt Flats. Photo by: Ewar Woowar

Brazil
As a South American country we have included Brazil although its national language is Portuguese. Northern Brazilians, like Mexicans, enjoy a version of the folk play Los Pastores (The Shepherds). In the Brazilian version, there are shepherdesses rather than shepherds and a gypsy who attempts to kidnap the Christ Child. Friends and family members may also take part in these plays. People make a special meal and decorate their houses. Many go to church to attend services in line with family tradition. Christmas picnics and banquets are also common. Special items and usual holiday recipes are tried along with the cakes and wines.

Christmas chorus in Curitiba, Brazil. Photo by: Marcusrg

Christmas chorus in Curitiba, Brazil. Photo by: Marcusrg

Chile
Chileans like to bring in a figure similar to that of Santa Claus into their Christmas celebrations, known as the Viejo Pascuero (Old Christmas Man). He, like Santa Claus, wishes everyone a Merry Christmas and New Years, but as chimneys are rather scarce in the warmer climate of Chile, he simply comes in through the window instead. The nativity scene is also set up in the household as well, and midnight (on christmas eve) is followed by a bountiful meal that includes cazuela de ave (chicken cazuela) – a soup made of potatoes, onions and corn on the cob. This is followed with desert in the form of pan the pascua (fruit bread).

Colombia
The Christmas traditions start on December 7, with families lighting a candle in honor of the Virgin Mary. Following this day, churches commemorate the day of immaculate conception. What’s nifty about all this is that households typically end up lighting upwards of around 100 candles on the curb or sidewalk area in front of their house. Adding to this dazzling display of flaming lights are Christmas lights that decorate the trees and lampposts throughout the city.

December 16th sees Colombian families setting up and decorating their Christmas trees and nativity scene; gathering around said decorations throughout the days leading up to the 25th with prayers and carols (Novena de Aguinaldos).

Christmas eve has families getting together to eat and spend time together, with typical Colombian dishes such as ajiaco (a loaded and heavy chicken/potato soup) and natilla (corn based dessert) and bunuelos. Following this, the family waits until midnight to exchange presents and words of affection.

Christmas at Parque 93, Bogota. Photo by: Christopher Kirk

Christmas at Parque 93, Bogota. Photo by: Christopher Kirk

Cuba
While Christmas was considered somewhat of an oddity for some time (if anything, it was completely avoided after Cuba declared itself an atheist nation in 1962), the tradition itself has experienced somewhat of a resurrection in the past decade . Following the visit of Pope John Paul II, Christmas was reinstated as a national holiday and brought with it large following, including religious congregations that are now held in Havana’s Revolution Square. Cubans tend to head to mass at midnight, with the church bells announcing the transition from Christmas eve into Christmas day. Bountiful meals are served at households for family and friends following this.

Christmas Day, Cuba. Photo by: Ingmar Zahorsky

Christmas Day, Cuba. Photo by: Ingmar Zahorsky

Ecuador
Ecuador celebrates the holidays with the usual fare of family, food, Christmas trees, lights and nativity scenes. In fact, in the capital, you’ll find that up on El Panecillo (a substantial hill visible throughout the city) the statue of the Virgin Mary has her own gigantic, glowing nativity scene at her feet and is a sight to behold from a distance at night. Families tend to gather on Christmas Eve for food and drink. At midnight they exchange gifts and words of affection. Attending mass during this time is also quite common.

El Panecillo, Quito. Photo by:  Adn Montalvo Estrada

El Panecillo, Quito. Photo by: Adn Montalvo Estrada

The indigenous have a show of color and fine threads as they dress in their finest and ride brightly colored llamas down to the ranches where their employers live. Typically, they’ll bring gifts of fruit and produce with them, which they then lay down in front of the nativity scene which is set up out by the farmhouse. Children are the ones that typically give words or songs to the holy infant, asking for blessings for their family and future. Following this, festivities ensue with singing and dancing outside. The owner of the farm also gives gifts to his employees and their families, along with a big feast.

Christmas Decorations at the base of El Panecillo

Christmas Decorations at the base of El Panecillo

El Salvador
El Salvador is fond of intimate gatherings focused on family and friends. You’ll find that families, in their entirety, go to church together at this time. Following this, they’ll head back to the house and have a huge meal throughout the evening up until midnight, at which point presents are exchanged. One distinguishing feature about this tradition is that, throughout the weeks following up to Christmas, you’ll find that the nativity scene in homes lack the baby. It isn’t until midnight on Christmas Eve that families finally take out baby Jesus and put him in the manger, symbolizing that Christ is now born.

Plaza de las Naciones Unidas. Photo by:  Edwin Merches

Plaza de las Naciones Unidas. Photo by: Edwin Merches

Mexico
La Posada, as it’s known in Mexico, is a religious procession that focuses on the search for shelter by Joseph and Mary, and is usually performed as a reenactment by children or adults. The groups typically go from house to house carrying images of Mary and Joesph. During this season, market stalls pop up all around the city known as “puestos” that house all kinds of foodstuffs and flowers. Flowers specifically (the poinsettia in particular) seem to replace the concept of Santa Claus here, as their brilliant red-star shaped petals are found nearly everywhere.

Children receive gifts on Christmas Day, and are also (sometimes) blindfolded and given a swing at a pinata. Once successfully broken, the children scramble to reap the sweets and small toys that fall out. Should the children behave extra good during the holiday season, they’ll also receive a bonus present on the 6th of January from the three wise men.

Christmas at Zocalo Square, Mexico City. Photo by: Juan Carlos

Christmas at Zocalo Square, Mexico City. Photo by: Juan Carlos

Peru
Nativity scenes in Peru are typically made by Quechua Indians, and you’ll find a number of these beautiful, wood-carved figures throughout the country (should you get a chance to step into someone’s home). Following midnight on Christmas Eve, dinners are held back at home which feature tamales among a number of other delights. On Christmas day, the streets come alive with religious processions commemorating the Virgin Mary, her statue of which is transported throughout the streets.

Venezuela
Aside from attending the usual mass on Christmas Eve and the exchange of presents on Christmas day, Venezuela has a distinct tradition held on January 6th.

On this day, when the children awaken, they will discover gifts by their bedside, What’s more is that the children will know that the Magi and their camels have been at home, for when they look themselves in the mirror and see a black smudge on their cheek they then know that Balthazar, King of the Ethiopians, has kissed them while they slept.

Latin America leads the way in preparing for Global Warming

A strange sense of irony might befall many when you consider that it’s the poorer and smaller countries (compared to the likes of North America and Europe) that are taking proactive measures to prepare for global warming.

“Invention is the mother of necessity,” seems to be the motto that Latin America is taking on, while up north and across the Atlantic many developed nations are caught up in the ongoing political debate over whether or not Global Warming is even an actual phenomenon. What blindness has befallen them!

What makes Latin America more vehement in its pursuit (casting any notion of doubt into the wind) over preparations for global warming is the fact that the entire region has been victim to a countless number of disasters due to climate. And things are only getting worse as time goes on.

Hopefully the sea level won’t rise up to where those clouds currently are… that would suck.

global_warming

“In places where the climate seems to be a growing threat to human lives, resources and urban infrastructure, local officials have been working with scientists, conducting assessments and examining which new measures may best prepare them for the future.“

An MIT survey shows that:

  • 95% of major cities in Latin America are planning for climate change.
  • 59% of such cities in the United States are planning for climate change.

In the end it seems that only those countries and cities pressed by the forces of nature are the ones that are actively seeking countermeasures to the growing phenomenon, even if they truly are (comparatively) not the biggest or wealthiest countries to be doing so.

Here’s to hoping that the rest of the world wakes up to Latin America’s wiser bit of activity and preparation; otherwise it may very well be that Latin America becomes the “Noah’s Ark” of the world as they’re the only ones prepared for the potential onslaught of natural disasters that we, as humans, are ultimately responsible for having procured.

Via MIT News: http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2012/cities-climate-change-preparedness-survey-0605.html

Guatemalan volcano erupts, forces thousands to flee

A volcano in southern Guatemala erupted violently this week in what is said to be its biggest eruption since 1999. On Thursday morning (September 13th), the Volcán del Fuego, which sits 31 miles south-west of the capital Guatemala City, began propelling huge clouds of ash over 3 kilometers (2 miles) high. It also spewed rivers of hot lava and gases for over 600 meters (2000 feet). Ash clouds were said to have spread for 80 kilometers (50 miles) south and south-east of the volcano, leaving the area in almost total darkness and forcing the evacuation of several nearby villages. Around 33,000 people were ordered to evacuate, though some chose to stay in their homes. By late Thursday, the eruptions were said to be dying down, and officials were hoping that evacuees would soon be able to return to their communities. No deaths or serious injuries have been reported, but several people have had to be treated for respiratory and eye problems.

Volcan de Fuego erupts (Volcán de Fuego haciendo erupción, septiembre 13, 2012 by Rudy A. Girón

This is by no means the first time the 3,763 meter (12,346 foot) volcano (whose name translates as Volcano of Fire) has erupted. It is in an almost constant active state, usually emitting smoke on a daily basis, and has already erupted five times this year, though this month’s eruption is said to be the largest in over a decade. It is one of the most active volcanoes in Central America.

 

BREAKING NEWS: 7.6 Earthquake Rattles Costa Rica

Today at 8:42 a.m. local time (14:42 UTC), a 7.6 earthquake hit the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. The epicenter was Nicoya Península in Guanacaste Province, 80 kilometers (50 mi) from Liberia.

 

Preliminary reports cite electrical outrages and highway damage. The cell phone network has collapsed.  Thus far, two people have been reported missing.

 

It was also strongly felt in San José and other parts of Costa Rica, as well as in Nicaragua and Panama.

 

A tsunami alert is still in effect for Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama. The warning was issued initially for the Pacific Ocean basin, as far north as Mexico and south to Chile, and for the Caribbean.

The Cartagena-Colón Ferry Returns

After 16 years, ferry service between Cartagena, Colombia, and Colón, Panamá, has resumed. This service, which will begin May 10, now will give travelers the most economical way to travel between South and Central America.

 

For a short time in the mid-1990s, travelers could rely on the Crucero Express to safely shuttle them from Central America to South America. At the time, it was a god-send: Just a few years earlier, it became prohibitively dangerous to walk the Darien Gap, the jungle between the two countries, and most backpackers could not afford the airfare between Panama and Colombia. The only other choice was to find a way to Puerto Obaldía, the last Caribbean Coast town in Panama, then take the chalupas (twin-engine speedboats) down the coast to Turbo. In that decade, though, that trip was not without its adventures. But suddenly, without reason, the Crucero Express ceased operations in November 1996.

 

Now the Greek-staffed Nissos Rodos will be making the trip. Service begins May 10, 2012. The passenger-cargo ferry has a capacity for 1,484 passengers, 500 autos and 2,000 meters of cargo space, with the capacity to haul 175 shipping containers. The ship will sail from Cartagena, Colombia, on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday, and from Colón, Panamá, on Monday, Thursday and Saturday. It will leave port at 6 a.m. and arrive at approximately 6 p.m.

 

Passengers have the choice of traveling in reserved seat ($99-119), dormitory ($209) or private cabin ($598-678). Reservations must be made at least 48 hours in advance, with payment.

In Cartagena, reservations may be made with Promised Land Tours (Calle de la Media Luna 10-113, Getsemaní. Tel: 57-5-660-2565, Cel: 57-300-449-1906 / 317-355-1186, E-mail: reservas.promisedlandtours@gmail.com, URL: http://promisedlandtours.webnode.es). The agent in Panama City is Pan American Seaways (Tel: 209-2000 / 380-0900 and via or E-mail: reservas@panaferry.com, URL: www.panaferry.com).

 

Find out more about the Colombia-Panama Border Crossings and Colombia in VIVA’s new Colombia Adventure Guide, available in a variety of e-book applications directly from VIVA, as well as in print format from Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

 

On the Road – Peru: Rains Complicating Travel Plans in Latin America

Another year of the La Niña weather system continues to batter Latin America, complicating travel plans in Peru and other countries.

 

Mexico and Nicaragua are reporting damaging flooding caused by heavy rains. In South America, Colombia is once more experiencing not only flooding, but also landslides, all of which has caused over 700 deaths in recent months. La Paz, Oruro and other places in Bolivia are also suffering, and a state of emergency has been declared in Pando department. It’s even raining in the driest place on the planet: the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. The government there had to close major attractions until it could work on roads. Once more, tourists can get out to the region’s riches.

 

Peru has not been exempt from these damaging rains. Overflowing rivers, crop destruction and other damages are being reported in many parts of the country. The Amazon Basin is affected, from Tingo María in the central jungle down to Puerto Maldonado in the southern jungle. Southern Lima, Áncash and Madre de Dios Departments are under states of emergency, as is Ica, which suffered a 6.2 earthquake on January 30.

 

Archaeologists are concerned of damages to Chan Chan and other ruins along the north coast.

 

Roads in the Huaraz, Cusco, Arequipa and Colca Canyon areas are periodically blocked by landslides. Earlier this week, the border crossing between Peru and Chile had to be closed temporarily after intense rains unearthed anti-personnel mines that had been laid in 1975, during the Pinochet dictatorship.

 

Travelers are advised to keep an eye on the news. You can get to any part of the country, but you might be delayed because of road conditions.

 

Safe Journeys!

 

Lorraine Caputo is one of V!VA’s longest-tenured writers. These days, she’s back on the road, updating our 2012 edition of  V!VA Peru. Check the blog for more of her updates from the road.

 

On the Road : Peru — Viringos

A viringo, or Peruvian Hairless Dog. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

In the ruins of northern Peru inhabits a strange-looking, ugly creature. Some travelers might mistake it for a large rat with long legs; others, a poor, mangy dog.

 

It is neither. These creatures of dark grey, leathery skin and a head tufted with sparse golden hair are the viringo, or hairless Peruvian dog. It was the mascot of the ruling classes of the Moche, Chimú and other nations that lived along these desert coasts. They have been found buried in elites’ tombs, like that of the Lord of Sipán at Huaca Rajada, near Chiclayo. Archaeologists believe they were considered to have special connections with the Underworld and other supernatural powers. Sometimes they were used for meat. They were frequently represented in pottery.

 

The Inca called the Peruvian hairless dog allqu. In Quechua, its name is kaclla, or “hot water bag.” The viringo is one of several breeds of hairless dogs found in the Americas, as well as other parts of the world. International kennel associations only recognize the viringo, Mexico’s xoloitzcuintle (escuintle) and the Chinese crested. Bolivia and Ecuador also have native hairless varieties; that of Guatemala is considered extinct.

 

Viringos not only are hairless, but also virtually toothless. Their thick skin allows them to have a high body temperature (39-42ºC / 102-108ºF) to stay warm in the chill nights. For generations, local humans have used this trait as a medicine. The dogs are placed on parts of a patient’s body that is suffering from arthritis, rheumatism or other malady. It is also said that placing a viringo on the chest helps alleviate asthma.

 

The dogs became very rare. But with the Instituto Nacional de Cultura’s policy of featuring these dogs in the ruins of the former dynasties that revered the viringo, this breed’s prestige has grown. A puppy fetches up to $2,000 in Europe. In 2001, Peru declared the viringo a national heritage treasure.

 

Editor’s note: Lorraine Caputo is one of V!VA’s longest-tenured writers. These days, she’s back on the road in Peru, updating our 2012 edition of V!VA Peru. Check the blog for more of her updates from the road.

Nicaragua's Ortega wins landslide re-election

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, a socialist former guerrilla leader, won a landslide re-election victory.

Ortega had 62.7 percent of the vote with returns in from 86 percent of polling stations in Sunday’s presidential election over conservative radio personality Fabio Gadea.

Ortega has been criticized for first changing the constitution to allow him to run for a third term, and then for lack of transparency in the apparent election victory.

Ortega’s Third Term Unconstitutional?

photo credit jorgemejilla http://www.flickr.com/photos/mejiaperalta/

Daniel Ortega Presidente 2011

The Nicaragua constitution forbids a person from serving as president more than twice, and from succeeding himself or herself. Ortega was ineligible on both counts. But since his second election as president in 2007 (after an earlier stint 1984-90) Ortega succeeded in placing supporters in key posts on the courts and electoral bodies. Last year the Nicaraguan Supreme Court, at Ortega’s behest, ruled that term limits were unconstitutional, clearing the way for the 66-year-old to run again.

2011 Nicaragua Election Transparency

Here’s how the international observer from the European Union characterized the the voting process in a press conference, according to La Prensa:

Even though the presidential elections were civil, they lacked transparency, the European Union’s mission chief Luis Yáñez said. Yáñez said he did not understand why the Supreme Electoral Council put so many “roadblocks, so much opacity, and so many traps in a process that should have been clean and transparent.”

A report by Transparency International and El Grupo Civico Etica y Transparencia concluded

“Gross and systematic violations. Based on the above conclude that the electoral process does not meet the minimum universal requirements”

The Wall Street Journal reports on where this leaves us today:

Mr. Ortega didn’t immediately claim victory. But his close ally, Venezuela’s populist President Hugo Chávez, quickly sent Mr. Ortega his congratulations from Caracas and pledged to continue working closely with the Nicaraguan leader.

In a communiqué issued in Mr. Chávez’s name, the Venezuelan government called Mr. Ortega a great leader in their common cause. “The Bolivarian revolution will continue working next to the popular, Christian, allied and socialist Sandinista revolution,” the communiqué said.

Since 2008, Mr. Ortega has benefited from about $500 million a year in aid—about 7% of Nicaragua’s gross domestic product—given to his government by Venezuela, according to the Nicaraguan Central Bank.

Tsunami Update: Galapagos, Costa Rica, Peru, Chile

Although the tsunami caused by the Japanese earthquake mostly spared Latin America severe damage, it did affect certain locations along Central America and South America’s coasts.

GALAPAGOS

Photo Credit: Flurdy, http://www.flickr.com/photos/flurdy/3990790578/

Waves Pummel the Coast of Galapagos

Although initial reports claimed that there was minimal damage to the islands, they appear to have been one of the hardest-hit areas in Latin America. A tip sent in to Lorraine Caputo reports that many businesses in Puerto Ayora were flooded, including the artisan market, though most have reopened. More distressingly, a number of homes in the Barrio Punta Estrada neighborhood were damaged.  The Ecuadorian government is sending assistance to those impacted by the waves.

COSTA RICA

In Osa harbor, on the southern Pacific coast, several boats were damaged or destroyed by the surging tide.

PERU

At least one person in Peru died as a result of the tsunami. A man trying to watch the tsunamis from the beach resort of San Bartolo, near Lima, fell on the rocks and died. Meanwhile, on the northern coast, a small boat carrying 10 fishermen has been missing since Friday. Finally, the towns of Pisco, Paracas and San Andrés, all devastated by an earthquake and tsunami in 2007, received rather significant flooding on Friday night as a result of the tsunami waves. Video here.

CHILE

215 houses were damaged in Chile early on Saturday morning, the vast majority of them in the settlement of Puerto Viejo, in the northern region of Atacama.

Latin America News Update: March 5th-11th

TSUNAMI UPDATE

While the destruction in Japan appears catastrophic, it appears that Latin America might be spared major damage from the tsunami. While tsunami waves have reached the Mexican coast, they were not large enough to cause serious damage. Countries in Central and South America are bracing for the arrival of the tsunami waves on their Pacific coastlines this evening.

Thanks to Lorraine Caputo for compiling these other stories.

BOLIVIA

Bolivia’s controversial president, Evo Morales, has decided to keep the US Drug Enforcement Agency out of his country.

BRAZIL

A Brazilian judge has reversed a lower court ruling, and it appears work will begin on the enormous Monte Belo dam after all.

COSTA RICA and NICARAGUA

The International Court of Justice has ordered both sides out of a disputed border region.

CUBA

The US government has given permission to airlines to fly charter flights between Cuba and eight additional US cities.

MEXICO

Attempts to ban the screening of a documentary about the corrupt and inefficient Mexican justice system have backfired, as the film has become a major hit in the country.