Mini-feature: Semana Santa in Guatemala
Although Semana Santa (Holy Week) is celebrated all over Central America, nowhere gets more lively – or pricey for travelers – than Antigua, Guatemala. The faithful dress in purple to accompany revered sculptural images from the city’s churches in processions commemorating Christ’s crucifixion. Dense clouds of incense envelop them; the streets are covered in elaborate alfombras (carpets) of colored sawdust and flower petals. The fervor peaks on Good Friday, when processions depart from La Merced church and Iglesia de la Escuela de Cristo. Smaller-scale processions, velaciones (vigils) and other events occur every weekend through Lent.
Día de los Muertos, November
Carnaval, February or March
Semana Santa, March or April
Bolas de Fuego, August
Garifuna Settlement Day, November
The dry season and tourist season are both at their peaks, with great kitesurfing and swimming available in warm Pacific waters. Quetzal-viewing season begins in Costa Rica's Monteverde (through July).
National Baseball Championships, Nicaragua
Stadiums get packed for the finals of Liga Nacional de Beisbol Nicaraguense (Nicaraguan National Baseball League). Catch games at the Estadio Denis Martínez in Managua.
A music festival drawing in top international artists in the underground electronic scene, held over two weeks at multiple venues in and around magical Tulum, Mexico.
Fiesta de Palmares, Costa Rica
Beginning on the second Thursday of each year, Costa Rica's rowdiest fiesta is held in one of its usually sleepy coffee towns. It involves bullfights, topes (horse parades), concerts, carnival rides and a staggering amount of booze.
Panama Jazz Festival
The week-long jazz festival is one of the biggest musical events in Panama, drawing top-caliber international musicians from jazz, blues, salsa and other genres. Held around Panama City; the open-air events are usually free.
It's prime time for surfing both on Pacific and Caribbean swells. Carnaval, a feature of all Central American countries, takes place in February or March.
A big street bash preceding the 40-day penance of Lent, Carnaval is exuberantly celebrated in Mérida, Campeche and Isla Cozumel with parades, music, dancing and lots o' fun.
Festival de Diablos y Congos, Panama
Held two weeks after Carnaval (either in February or March), this festival in Portobelo celebrates rebellious slave ancestors with spirited public dancing, cheeky role-playing and beautiful masks and costumes.
Easter celebrations may take place in March or April. Semana Santa (Holy Week) offers reenactments of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. On Good Friday, religious processions are held across Central America.
Envision, Costa Rica
Costa Rica's version of Burning Man festival, with four days of spoken word, music, yoga, performance art, permaculture and DJs in Uvita in early March (or late February).
Desfile de Bufos, Guatemala
Guatemala City university students take to the streets during the Parade of Fools (held on the Friday before Good Friday) to mock the government and make other political statements.
The tail end of the dry season for most of Central America. In the jungle lowlands of Guatemala, March and April are scorchers; it's the best time to see whale sharks off Honduras or Belize.
Día de Juan Santamaría, Costa Rica
April 11 commemorates Costa Rica's national hero, who died driving William Walker out of Costa Rica in 1856. The week-long national holiday features parades, parties and other celebrations, especially in Santamaría's hometown of Alajuela.
The rainy season is upon the isthmus. May begins a five- to six-month nesting season for both loggerhead and green sea turtles in the Caribbean.
Fería de Cultura de las Flores y las Palmas, El Salvador
In Panchimalco (near San Salvador), this colorful extravaganza stars beauty queens and gauche floral arrangements. It is held in celebration of the Virgin Mary.
Chocolate Festival, Belize
This festival in mid-May in the southernmost region of Belize brings together folks who grow chocolate, sell chocolate and just plain love chocolate. Also showcases the Toledo district’s history and culture.
La Feria de San Isidro, Honduras
Honduras’ largest fiesta takes place in the streets and clubs of La Ceiba, culminating in late May with hundreds of thousands of people attending parades. Costumed dancers and revelers fill the city to bursting.
Palo de Mayo, Nicaragua
Bluefields celebrates fertility with a series of neighborhood block parties, leading to the bright and boisterous carnival on the last Saturday of the month. The closing Tulululu features a midnight romp through the streets, complete with brass band.
June to November is hurricane season, though big weather events are sporadic and hard to predict. Forty days after Easter, Corpus Christi features colorful celebrations throughout the region, held in May or June.
Festival Corpus Christi, Panama
One of the most popular and elaborate of the region's Corpus Christi celebrations takes place in La Villa de Los Santos and lasts two weeks. Highlights include costume parades, fabulous drag queens and dancers in devil costumes.
A celebration of the world's favorite crustacean, along with libations galore. Takes place in San Pedro in mid-June, in Placencia in the last week of June, and then Caye Caulker in early July.
Though it's the middle of rainy season, the weather is relatively dry on the Caribbean side; Belize can be uncomfortably hot. It's off-peak for visitors and hotels offer better rates.
Rabin Ajau, Guatemala
Guatemala’s most impressive indigenous festival, this folkloric gathering takes place in Cobán in late July or early August.
Breeding humpback whales can be observed in the Pacific. And though rainy season continues, in between showers there's still plenty of sunshine to be had.
Festival del Invierno, El Salvador
For the Winter Festival, hip, lefty students flood the small mountain town of Perquín and party like the war has just ended.
Costa Maya Festival, Belize
This massive festival may be held in San Pedro, Belize, but it draws participants from all over Central America. The streets come alive with music, parades, dancing and drinking. The bodybuilding contest is a bonus.
Bolas de Fuego, El Salvador
Local scallywags paint their faces like devils and throw fireballs at each other – just a bit of (potentially harmful) fun. Held on August 31 in Nejapa.
Though it's peak hurricane season further north, rains let up around Panama City and Costa Rica's Caribbean side is less wet than the Pacific. Flooding in Honduras is possible.
Costa Rican Independence
Action centers on a relay race that passes a 'Freedom Torch' from Guatemala to Costa Rica. The torch arrives at Cartago in the evening of September 14, when the nation breaks into the national anthem.
September Celebrations, Belize
Two weeks of patriotic celebrations across Belize City include the Belize Carnaval, wherein Belizeans don colorful costumes and dance to Caribbean beats. The party begins on the country's National Day and culminates on Independence Day.
Festival de la Mejorana, Panama
Panama's largest folk festival, held in Guararé, showcases music and dance by the country's many indigenous and ethnic groups, along with visiting performers from around Latin America.
In most of the region, October 12 is Día de la Raza (Columbus Day) – a dubious legacy nonetheless celebrated by every high-school brass band. Loggerhead turtles nest on the Pacific coast from now through March.
Fería de Isla Tigre, Panama
Indigenous Guna people converge on Isla Tigre for three days of tireless traditional dancing. It's visually engaging and fully authentic. Held in mid-October, with a three-day fair featuring art shows and canoe races.
Noche de Agüizotes, Nicaragua
This spooky festival, held on the last Friday in October in Masaya, brings to life characters from horror stories of the colonial period with elaborate costumes. Keep an eye out for the headless priest.
Seasonal rains have tapered off in most of the region, except for Honduras' north coast, where flooding can occur through February. In Panama, the whole country celebrates multiple independence-related holidays.
Día de Todos los Santos, Guatemala
In Santiago Sacatepéquez and Sumpango, just outside Antigua, celebrations include the flying of huge kites, while in the tiny highlands town of Todos Santos Cuchumatán, November 1 is celebrated with drunken horse races through town.
Día de los Muertos, Mexico
On November 1 and 2, families build altars in their homes and visit graveyards to commune with their beloved dead, taking garlands and gifts. Theme park Xcaret in the Riviera Maya arranges beautiful altars.
Garifuna Settlement Day, Belize
On November 19, this holiday celebrates the arrival of the first Garifuna people to Belize by boat. The best spots to partake in the three Ds – dancing, drinking and drumming – are Dangriga and Hopkins.
December and January are the coolest months on the Pacific coast, from Nicaragua to the jungle lowlands of Guatemala. The Christmas holidays disrupt the region's work schedule – cities empty out and beaches are full.
Las Fiestas de Zapote, Costa Rica
For one week, this celebration embraces all things Costa Rican – from rodeos to fried food, bullfights to carnival rides, and a whole lot of drinking. It takes place in Zapote, southeast of San José.