Spending Christmas in South America may well be something you haven’t considered before. When the festive season rolls around, people tend to fall into three camps. You’re either the kind of person who leans into it, disappearing off to a snowy chalet, or you run from the cold and grab a sunbed on a sandy strip instead.
If you’re in the smaller third group, you hanker for culture and customs, be they traditional or otherwise. Christmas in South America could be exactly what you didn’t know you needed! With a fascinating fusion of cultures, a strong gastronomy scene and varied landscapes, there are countless destinations in South America which promise to make La Navidad really special.
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Do South American Countries Celebrate Christmas?
Christianity was brought to South America in the 17th and 18th centuries by European colonisers. They enforced the religion on the local indigenous people and today, it is still a dominant force across the Americas.
Over 50% of people in each South American country (except Suriname and Uruguay) practice Roman Catholicism. This, combined with the long-lasting indigenous presence around the continent, means that you’ll get to experience a range of fusion celebrations, offering fascinating cultural experiences. This makes South America a great destination to spend Christmas!
6 Amazing South American Destinations for Christmas
1. Buenos Aires, Argentina
When you consider that the 25th of December falls smack bang in the middle of Argentine summer, you may be surprised to read that Buenos Aires is one of the most festive cities in South America.
While you won’t see snow here, this doesn’t stop Argentinians from getting into the holiday spirit! Christmas trees pop up in every city square and shopping centre – it’s even common to see artificial snow – setting the scene for the countdown to the big day.
There is a huge emphasis placed on family but unlike in the US, Christmas presents are exchanged on Christmas Eve (Noche Buena). It is also not uncommon for Argentinians to enjoy a holiday asado in their gardens on Noche Buena if the weather plays ball!
Expect to see the streets pretty much empty during the Christmas and New Year period, with people holing themselves up in their houses or escaping to popular coastal destinations. If you’re visiting the city over Christmas and don’t have family ties, why not indulge in a cultural experience instead?
At Madero Tango, they host a Christmas masquerade ball which offers a first-class opportunity to experience this popular South American dance in its place of origin. Enjoy a sit-down meal, witness a breathtaking tango performance and watch the fireworks over the river.
2. Lima, Peru
Christmas in Lima is a cosy affair. Traditionally, Peruvian families head to church for the Misa de Gallo (Rooster Mass) service which begins around 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve.
After Mass, the Peruvians enjoy a hearty Christmas dinner. The traditional dish will vary depending on where in the country you are, but it could be roast turkey, pork or chicken. As well as this, there will likely be rice, tamales and of course, exotic Peruvian fruit!
A staple food that you will everywhere across the country is ‘panetón’, which you may know as panettone. Weirdly, this Italian Christmas cake cum bread is a staple across the whole of Latin America during the holidays.
Christmas Eve celebrations are topped off with a big firework display at midnight, where people will toast each other before turning in. The big day itself is a more subdued affair, with people opting to spend time with their families instead.
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3. Cuenca, Ecuador
The UNESCO recognised city of Cuenca is a popular tourist destination year-round, however, at Christmas time it really comes alive. Time your visit to include the festive period and you’ll be treated to the eight-hour spectacle of the Pase del Niño Viajero (Passage of the Travelling Child) parade.
A strong Christmas tradition in the Andean regions, this parade sees participants carry a statue of Christ as a child through the streets. Cuenca hosts the largest of these celebrations in Latin America with up to 50,000 taking part in the procession and quadruple this number watching streetside.
If you’re lucky enough to attend the procession, you’ll find plenty of typical Ecuadorian snacks and tipples along the route. Chicha (a traditional fermented corn drink consumed in the Ecuadorian Highlands) is handed out for free to the crowds but take this as your warning… it’s mighty strong!
4. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Few know how to party like the Brazilians! Famous for their impressive Carnival celebrations, they also push the boat out come Christmas time. Many of the city’s festivities centre around the 280-foot Christmas tree which stands in the middle of Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon. Known locally as ‘Árvore de Natal da Lagoa’ this tree not only lights up but also comes with sound effects!
You won’t enjoy a snow-filled festive season in the way you may be familiar with at home but you can still experience a ‘White Christmas’ carioca style! Head to one of the city’s beautiful beaches to enjoy sun, sea and sand, all with a Caipirinha in hand!
If you’re in Rio during the festive season, don’t miss the holiday displays, including nativity scenes, throughout the city. As Brazil is a largely Catholic country, Missa do Galo, also known as Midnight Mass is a tradition here. After the Mass, there is a big fireworks display for all to enjoy.
During December, you’ll have the opportunity to try Brazilian food traditionally consumed around Christmas, including Farofa, a type of toasted cassava flour dish, cod, beans, rice and, of course, panettone.
5. Bariloche, Argentina
Going to be in South America for Christmas but craving a more traditional experience? Look no further than the mountain hideaway of Bariloche. Located in Argentine Patagonia, this town is famous for its Swiss architecture and outdoor activities.
For a quintessential festive experience, stay at one of the many Swiss-style chalets. Snowy peaks and forest scenery give the whole place a cosy vibe but there is more than enough to keep you busy when you venture out too. Bariloche is home to Cerro Catedral, the largest ski resort in the whole of South America. It has runs to suit all abilities and December is the best month to enjoy the powder – don’t pass up a day on the slopes!
If you’re missing your European Christmas market tradition, never fear. The Colonia Suiza Christmas Fair takes place just outside Bariloche throughout December and is a great place to pick up gifts for those back home. Artisan handicrafts and festive decorations are just some of the many things on offer here. This is a great opportunity to sample some of the chocolate that the area is famous for too!
6. Medellín, Colombia
While festive cheer might not be the first thing to spring to mind when you think about the former cartel stronghold of Medellín, Colombia’s ‘City of Eternal Spring’ is surprisingly a great place to spend the holidays.
Famous for El Alumbrado, this holiday light display has been voted one of the best in the world by National Geographic. Beginning at the end of November and lasting until early January, this seasonal event showcases millions of lights which make up a sprawling display. 3D figures dance in the air and wrap around the Medellín River.
While you will likely see images of Santa Claus in shopping centres, he does not hold traditional significance here in the way that he does in the US. In Colombia, it is Niño Dios (Baby Jesus) who delivers Christmas gifts to children.
Spending Christmas in South America is bound to be a treat, no matter where you end up. Luminous lights, towering trees and a whole load of festive frolics make for excellent holiday celebrations, sure to get you in the mood for the Christmas season!
Where is your favourite place to spend Christmas in South America? Share it with us in the comments below!