survival guide to semana santa in popayan

Growing up in the UK, Easter was all about chocolate eggs and days off school. Most of us were completely unaware that the rest of the world was celebrating something else entirely.

Here in Colombia, where more than eighty percent of the population class themselves as Catholic, it is of little surprise that Jesus Christ means substantially more than the Easter bunny and that Semana Santa (Holy Week) shuts down almost every town in the country, with parades in even the smallest pueblo. 

Survival Guide to Semana Santa in Popayan

The country's largest Easter celebrations, held yearly in the beautiful town of Popayan, are actually the second largest in the world, and even for those not of a religious disposition, are definitely worth checking out.

Here is our 'survival guide' to making the most out of your time in Popayan.

#1 book your accommodation early

We're more a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants sort of couple, but even we booked our hostel a month in advance. This is a huge event in the average Colombian's calendar and thousands arrive for at least a few days.

 There are a number of backpacker hostels in Popayan, but they do get full quickly. It is also worth noting that the prices go up by around 25-50% during the entire Holy Week, so prepare for this in your budget.


#2 you only need to see one night parade

We saw a few, and they were all VERY similar. Given that they are all held relatively late at night (they start around 9 or 10 p.m. and have been known to continue until the early morning), don't stay up for several days expecting something incredible and unique each evening and then miss the more fun day-time activities.

survival guide to semana santa in popayan


#3 don't expect to find carnival in popayan

Easter celebrations and parades are very sombre here. After having spent Semana Santa 2014 in a beach town in Belize, replete with bikini contests and a lot of rum, the celebrations in Colombia couldn't have been more different.

The parades take place in near silence and noisy spectators would draw a lot of attention to themselves.


#4 for a good spot, get to the parades early

The streets are absolutely packed for the night parades making it nearly impossible to get a decent position if you arrive too late; these Colombians come prepared and determined to get the best spot!

survival guide to semana santa in popayan

The only time we lucked out was when we got the starting time wrong. This meant we arrived more than 90 minutes early to find an empty spot under a perpetually dripping pipe.

If you want a REALLY great spot you may need to arrive 2 hours before the scheduled start.


#5 take a waterproof with you

There is very little cover lining the streets and Popayan gets a lot of rain at this time of year. The last thing you want when you've patiently turned up hours early to scout out your spot is being forced to make an early exit because you're getting soaked. An umbrella would be a bonus!


#6 colombians can be pushy - stand your ground

Catholicism is taken pretty seriously here, and so too apparently are poor quality cameraphone pictures. We both found ourselves shoved left and right by people behind us keen to take a shot or grainy video of the action.

survival guide to semana santa in popayan

If you're serious about hanging on to your spot, you'll need to shove back! 


#7 buy your bus ticket out early

The vast majority of people coming here use public transport.

This means that if you also need to catch a bus to your next destination on the Sunday or Monday, you're much better off getting your ticket at least the day before, or you may face a long wait in the station. 


#8 grab a paper guide to the day events - they are often hidden away

One of the best things we saw during our time in Popayan was some traditional dance and bands during the afternoon, but it was by pure chance that we came across it. In fact, Popayan turns into a pretty lively town during the day with plenty of stalls, free concerts and street performances. 

survival guide to semana santa in popayan

There are a number of pamphlets available from hostels with scheduled performances - make sure you get one or you may miss something you would really enjoy.


#9 locate your parade exit route

The parades follow a set circular route around the main church.

Make sure you are sitting/standing on one of the outside roads as you will not be able to cross into or through the parade to leave. Otherwise, you may have to stay in the crowd for the duration - and these things are known to go on for hours!


#10 be street-smart

During the daytime, the streets are overflowing with people, be sure to keep an eye on your valuables as it is a pickpocket's dream!

survival guide to semana santa in popayan

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