Semana Santa & Other Cultural Events
Costa Rica is much more than just beautiful beaches and breathtaking tropical landscapes. Once here, you can explore the culture, different traditions and festivities its citizens celebrate. During the past few years several local government entities have sponsored massive cultural events to attract locals and travelers, and create positive atmosphere of multicultural exchange. Knowing about semana santa, other cultural events and Costa Rica’s holidays will give you a great head start.
Semana Santa, or Easter Holy Week, is a major Catholic holiday celebrated all over the world and Costa Rica is no exception. Traditions run deep during this special week, and everyone enjoys their much anticipated time off work.
If you come to Costa Rica for a family vacation just before Easter, you will witness a week-long celebration consisting of parades, religious processions & mini-festivals during ‘Semana Santa’. The processions are held in every city, but the one in San José is the best to see since it usually involves the cast of the National Theater Company and has a big production team featuring various bands and professional musicians.
The actual holiday during this week is celebrated on the Thursday and Friday before Easter Sunday. Most Costa Ricans have at least those two days off, however, schools and many others enjoy taking the entire week off to spend time with their families and friends.
During this festive week, many Ticos head for the beaches to enjoy some sun and relaxation. If they aren’t at the beach, they’re relaxing at home, making traditional food to share with loved ones. Since many religious followers fast during this week (or at least on Good Friday), they make wonderful homemade tamales and enjoy more seafood than usual.
Things to remember
Banks and businesses will be closed Thursday and Friday, and public transportation is limited. In the tourism industry, everything runs as normal since this is a very popular time for people to visit Costa Rica.
Throughout most of the country, alcohol is not sold from midnight on Ash Wednesday until midnight on Good Friday. It is actually against the law to sell or serve alcohol on Thursday and Friday during this week, so most Ticos make sure to stock up during the week, before all the liquor is locked up. If you don’t buy before then, it will be hard to find stores willing to sell it to you, especially if you’re vacationing in a less touristy area.
In 2013, the state has started allowing some cantons (counties) to make their own decision about selling alcohol, so we might see this tradition fade away soon. But in the meantime, if you are traveling to Costa Rica during Semana Santa, you should keep this in mind and don’t be surprised if you aren’t able to order your favorite cocktail or beer with dinner during those two days.
Costa Rica’s Other Cultural Events
The main art event in Costa Rica is the FIA+FNA: ‘Festival de las Artes’ or Festival of the Arts, a two-week celebration, annually alternating between its international and national edition. It’s filled with art shows, dance & acting performances, and massive concerts. The festival was hosted in San Jose since it was founded, but recently the Ministry of Culture decided it was time to take it to another level, so now they tour different locations around the country. This festival usually takes place at the end of the dry season, in the late March or April.
‘Día de la Virgen de los Ángeles’–Virgen de los Angeles Day takes place on the August 2nd, when the whole country celebrates Costa Rica’s patron saint, also known as ‘la Negrita’. The statue of the Black Virgin—believed to be indigenous representation of Virgin Mary—was found in the early 17th Century in Costa Rica’s former capital, Cartago. According to local folklore, the statue kept miraculously reappearing at the same site where it was originally found, so the locals decided to build a shrine on the very same spot, and it has remained there until the present day. The Virgin is displayed at the main altar of the Nuestra Señora de los Angeles Basilica in Cartago. Nearly two million Costa Ricans walk the 13.6 miles from San Jose downtown to the Cathedral each year, in order to honor the legend of the Virgin Mary. Prior to the celebration you will see thousands of pilgrims walking from all corners of the country to get to Cartago.
Independence Day is celebrated on September 15th. Unlike other countries in the region where armies perform pompous parades, Costa Rica celebrates its declaration of independence from Spain by organizing student parades. School children dress up in the national attire and go out to the main streets with colorful homemade faroles—lanterns. The celebration actually begins on the 14th as everyone awaits the ‘freedom torch’ that is brought in all the way from Guatemala by various runners; this signifies the voice of the independence brought from Guatemala in 1821. Promptly at 6pm people pour out onto the streets, where the entire country sings the national anthem followed by the students’ faroles parade and fireworks.
The ‘Festival de la Luz’ was first held in 1996 when the municipality of San Jose organized the first parade of theme-decorated floats and the best bands in the country. This parade navigates downtown San Jose on the major avenue in early December. The steady rise in the quality of the national Festival of Light has made this parade an essential celebration of the holiday season. School bands play Christmas carols and the parade is followed by spectacular fireworks.
Costa Rica Holidays
Many of Costa Rica’s holidays are based on the Catholic religion. On most of these official holidays (dias feriados), banks, public offices, and many businesses are closed. Here is a listing of the most important official holidays that are celebrated in Costa Rica:
- January 1st – New Year’s Day
- March 19th – St Joseph’s Day, patron saint of San Jose and San Jose province
- March or April – Easter/Semana Santa. Most businesses (except tour companies/tourist industry) shut down Thursday and Good Friday and don’t resume as usual until Saturday before Easter Sunday. You cannot buy alcohol on Thursday or Friday during this week.
- April 11th – Juan Santamaria Day celebrating the national hero, Juan Santamaria who fought against the American invader, William Walker, in 1856
- May 1st – Labor Day (Dia de los trabajadores)
- June – Father’s Day is on the third Sunday of June each year
- July 25th – Guanacaste Day which celebrates the annexation of Guanacaste from Nicaragua in 1824.
- August 2nd – Virgen de los Angeles Day. Patron saint of Costa Rica.
- August 15th – Mother’s Day
- September 15th – Independence day, celebrating Costa Rica’s independence from Spain in 1821
- October 12th – Columbus Day/Dia de la Raza
- November 2nd– All Souls Day
- December 8th – Day of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary
- December 25th – Christmas