From ancient spear-throwing battles to hedonistic carnivals, there are some celebrations and events that really are worth experiencing first-hand. Don’t just take our word for it: check out seven of our favourite, most interesting festivals from around the world…
Rio Carnival, Brazil – February/March
The most famous carnival in the world is held on the streets of Rio de Janeiro every year for four days before Lent, in either late February or early March. Two million people hit the streets every day for the biggest carnival on earth – one that dates all the way back to 1823.
Samba schools dance between enormous floats, the upbeat rhythm provided by the drums. Images of Brazilian women dressed in their dazzling carnival costumes have come to be representative of Rio and Brazil in general.
TIP: Hotels fill up very quickly for this time of year, so don’t delay in booking.
Pasola, Indonesia – March
Pasola is unique to the island of Sumba, which is about an hour’s flight east of Bali. This festival happens three times a year, between January and March, under the first two full moons of the year and when the nyale sea-worms head to the shore to mate.
Pasola is a spear-throwing contest where two warrior teams go head-to-head on horseback – although blunted spears are now enforced, it’s still a brutal event. The festival began as a blood offering to the land, in order to ensure a fruitful crop for the following season.
TIP: If you travel for Pasola, you’ll have to be flexible with your time. A good base for your stay on Sumba is Nihiwatu.
Semana Santa, Guatemala – Easter
The cobbled streets of the colonial city are covered with elaborate alfombras: dyed sand and sawdust arranged in bright patterns, combined with flowers and pine needles to create intricate carpets. People work throughout the night ensuring the streets are ready for the festivities the following morning, which involve crucifixion re-enactments and huge processions.
TIP: Get up very early (pre-dawn) to see the alfombras before they get trampled by the processions throughout the day.
Songkran, Thailand – April
The Buddhist festival of Songkran is held in honour of Thai New Year, during Thailand‘s hottest period of the year: what better excuse for a country-wide water fight?
Armed with water guns and hoses, the Thai people hit the streets. Talc is thrown into the air and sometimes the water is turned into a paste with chalk, which is used to smear on other people’s faces for good luck – needless to say, don’t wear your best clothes and keep your camera in a waterproof case, or don’t bring it out onto the street at all. No one gets off the hook during Songkran, so your best bet is just to get thoroughly involved.
TIP: Although you might expect Bangkok to be the heart of the action during Songkran, it’s actually remarkably quiet: this is the longest holiday for Thais, so many return home, leaving the capital oddly quiet – although Khao San Road will be busy as ever. Chiang Mai is also a great place to celebrate Songkran.
Knysna Oyster Festival, South Africa – July
There’s a big cycling tour and a half marathon, plus many events throughout the week, including a drift dive navigation challenge, a wine festival, an oyster shucking competition and a photography exhibition. Needless to say, oysters are plentiful throughout the ten-day festival, served in a variety of forms and involved in plenty of events, such as oyster recipe challenges. This is a really popular event, attracting many locals and tourists, so book your accommodation months in advance.
TIP: Want to add a touch of adrenalin to your trip to Knysna? The Bloukrans Bridge bungee jump – the highest in the world – is conveniently (or inconveniently) close!
Hermanus Whale Festival, South Africa – September/October
Hermanus is one of the most famous whale-watching sites in the world, not least because you can easily spot these massive mammals from the land. The Hermanus Whale Festival celebrates these amazing creatures, particularly the southern right whales, which are most prevalent along this coast.
Alongside opportunities to watch whales breaching, either from the shore or from a boat, there’s also food, music and sporting events.
TIP: September is peak whale-watching season in Hermanus, so regardless of the festival, it’s the best time to visit. Want to avoid the crowds? Head to the coast earlier in the month.
Día de Muertos, Mexico – November
During the first two days of November, Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) is celebrated throughout Mexico – where it’s a public holiday – as a festival to commemorate the dead.
Alters – ofrendas – are constructed to honour the dead, with sugar skulls, candles, marigolds (a flower used to decorate graves and which Aztecs crushed and used to blow into the faces of sacrificial victims to calm them), food and drink.
TIP: Head to Oaxaca for Día de Muertos for the comparsa after dark: a procession with a carnival-like atmosphere, dancing and music.