Latin America is home to all manner of big-draw events throughout the year, from natural phenomena to folk festivals and carnivals, which make great hooks for visits.
What: Nature’s greatest show on Earth
Where: South Georgia
Why: In spring, remote South Georgia’s wildlife numbers rocket as the island becomes home to the densest population of birdlife in the world. Highlights include the albatross and four species of penguin, along with half the world’s population of southern elephant seals. Plus, as the operator Swoop Antarctica notes, the light conditions make it an excellent time for photographers.
What: Cartagena International Music Festival and Hay Festival Cartagena
Where: Cartagena de Indias, Colombia
When: IMF 4-12 January 2020; Hay 30 January to 2 February
Why: While savouring Cartagena’s Caribbean colonial splendour is a year-round delight, January offers a duo of unmissable cultural events. First, the IMF sees the walled city throng with a packed programme of concerts of classical and traditional music that reflect its Latin and European roots, then Hay Festival’s arrival signals a programme of talks, music and other performances.
See: cartagenamusicfestival.com; hayfestival.com/cartagena/home
What: Migrating whales and monarch butterflies
Where: Western Mexico
When: Late January to early April
Why: Visitors can witness grey whales mass in their Pacific breeding grounds off the Baja Peninsular and swim with whale sharks in the nearby Sea of Cortez. Then, over at the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, they can observe the millions of monarchs that call it home from November to March, having migrated south for the winter. All three activities feature on Steppes Travel’s 14-day Monarch Butterflies and Grey Whales (from £5,995pp; steppestravel.com).
What: Fiesta de la Virgen de la Candelaria (Virgin of Candelaria Feast)
Where: Various, hotspots include Puno, Peru
When: First two weeks of February, peaking on 2 February
Why: One of LatAm’s chief religious folk festivals, the lively celebrations reach their zenith in the Peruvian town of Puno, by Lake Titicaca, which transforms into a riot of fantastical masks, colourful costumes and dancing. Bolivia’s celebrations also centre on the lake, at Copacabana.
What: Rio Carnival
Where: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
When: 21-26 February 2020
Why: For decades, Rio’s swinging carnival has been luring masses of international visitors to the hotly contested samba school parades that play out in its Sambodrome, many huddled together in the Number 9 ‘tourist sector’ rather than mingling with the partying carioca locals. Outside, the lively ‘bloco’ street parties keep the revellers entertained and carnival balls are held at venues such as Scala Rio, with the Belmond Copacabana Palace hotel’s feted Magic Ball one of the hottest tickets.
What: Barranquilla Carnaval
Where: Barranquilla, Colombia
When: 22-25 February (the four days before Ash Wednesday)
Why: The Caribbean coastal city isn’t normally a big draw for tourists, but its four-day carnival brings visitors from far and wide with its cumbia and mapalé music vibes and Battle of Flowers parade. Visiting Barranquilla also dovetails nicely with stays in nearby Cartagena de Indias and Santa Marta, or trips into Tayrona National Park with its dreamy beaches and ‘lost city’.
What: Bahian Carnival
Where: Salvador and around the state of Bahia, Brazil
When: 20-26 February
Why: With pre- and post-carnival events stretching out over six days of partying, Salvador’s carnival claims to be the biggest street party in the world. While visitors can pay to watch the action from ‘camarote’ party boxes, the focus is much more on taking part, as tourists mingle with revellers partying hard to up-tempo axé music in the cordoned-off ‘bloco’ street parties.
What: Fiesta de la Vendimia (Wine Harvest Festival)
Where: Mendoza, Argentina
When: 1-9 March
Why: Put simply, Vendimia is one of the world’s largest and most entertaining wine festivals. Having whet locals’ appetites with a series of January and February teaser events, it erupts in March with a spectacular celebration of food and wine backed by gaucho displays and a pivotal concert at the Greek Theatre, culminating in a beauty pageant and fireworks display.
What: Mayan solstice celebrations
Where: Chichén Itzá, Yucatan Peninsular, Mexico
When: Spring Equinox (20 March 2020) and Autumn Equinox (23 September)
Why: The ancient Mayans constructed the site at Chichén Itzá to help mark the Spring and Autumn Equinox, sacred days in their calendar and planting schedule. As the sun dips around these dates, shadows create the illusion of a giant snake crawling down the Kukulkan step pyramid, known as El Castillo, till it meets the oversize serpent’s head at the bottom.
What: Semana Santa (Holy Week)
Where: Throughout Latin America
When: 5-11 April 2020
Why: One of the best, most photogenic locations to experience Semana Santa is Antigua in Guatemala where large, vibrant alfombra ‘carpets’ of coloured sawdust and flowers stretch out along its streets — their intricate artistry destined to be dashed by processions. Another good location to see these Easter carpets is Ouro Preto in Brazil, with Cusco (Peru) and Quito (Ecuador) among the other notable locations that mark Holy Week with events worth checking out.
What: Inti Raymi (Festival of the Sun)
Where: Cusco, Peru
When: 24 June
Why: This pre-Hispanic festival offers a fascinating insight into the belief systems of the Inca, who used it to celebrate the winter solstice and honour their sun god. The processions from Cusco lead to the nearby Sacsayhuamán ruins and culminate in a llama sacrifice. Other notable Andean locations to experience Inti Raymi in include northwest Argentina and Otavalo in Ecuador where Inti Raymi celebrations segue into the fiestas of San Pablo and San Juan, creating a celebration that runs until 29 June.
Top sporting events in 2019
• 7 July: Copa America football finals at Rio’s Maracanã Stadium (copaamerica.com).
• 27 Oct and 17 Nov: F1 Grand Prix dates in Mexico City and Sao Paulo (formula1.com).
• Nov—Dec: 126th Argentine Open Polo Tournament in Buenos Aires (aapolo.com).