Peru is a country with many traditions stemming from Inca times and the subsequent Spanish conquest. These influences are perfectly represented today in the traditions of Cusco. Despite the different ancient customs, Peru is still a predominately Roman Catholic country, so they take their Christmas festivities seriously. Here is what to expect if you are traveling to Peru and Machu Picchu for Christmas, focusing on history, traditions, celebrations, tour ideas, activities and a jolly good time!
When exactly the first Christmas was celebrated in Peru is open to debate, but Francisco Pizarro arrived in Peru in the 1530s and defeated the Inca Atahualpa on November 16, 1532. It is safe to assume that he and his small band of conquistadors probably celebrated Christmas the following month. Christmas remained one of the top Christian festivals in colonial Peru and independent Peru in the following centuries. Until recently, Christmas in Peru was a highly religious affair, with religious festivals taking place throughout December and ending on the first week of January (beginning with Inmaculada Concepción on December 8 and running through until Epiphany on January 6). Santa Claus first arrived in Lima at the end of the 19th century.
Christmas in modern-day Peru is similar to most other countries because it is an extraordinary time for families to get together and celebrate. Still, December 24 is most commonly celebrated as the primary festive day in Peru, while December 25th is an opportunity to visit family, eat leftovers from the day before, open presents or enjoy a family day out. One of the more common traditions on December 24th is the revelation of Christ. For this event, a tiny baby statue of Jesus is covered with a blanket and then taken out at midnight, symbolizing the birth of Jesus Christ. Another focal point of Christmas decorations in Peruvian homes is the nativity manager. The Nativity scenes are usually intricately carved out of pottery, wood, or stone. Family gifts are spread around the manger instead of the Christmas tree; afterward, the special Christmas dinner is feasted upon at midnight! This is often turkey, pork, chicken, guinea pig or fish, depending on the region (Andes, Coast, Amazon). After dinner, families will often go to Midnight mass. Then later at night, as tradition states, Santa Claus delivers the presents. Still, it is not until the very next day, early in the morning do families open their gifts and enjoy a traditional hot chocolate with paneton, originally from an Italian recipe. This sweet Italian bread with festively colored green and red dried fruits inside is sold en mass and has been hugely popular in Peru since they were introduced about a century ago. January 6 is the Bajada de Reyes, which ties in with Epiphany. Traditionally, the decorations are taken down on this day, and the nativity scene is put away until the following Christmas. In Lima, three mounted police, dressed as the Three Wise Men, ride through the city carrying gifts, which they take to the Municipality of Lima on the Plaza Mayor.
Prepare yourself for a warm Peruvian Christmas this year, with temperatures rising above 30° C on the coast and 22°C in the Andes. This is the perfect opportunity to visit Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, the Colca Canyon, the Amazon Jungle, or the Peruvian Beaches while celebrating Christmas. If you require more information about our tour packages, visit our website or contact us here.
If you visit Cusco during Christmas, you will experience a combination of Andean and Christian traditions, making Cusco a truly unique place to spend the festive season. Every year in Cusco, there is a Christmas Market on the 24th and 25th of December called “Santuranticuy,” a Quechua name that means “sale of the saints.” People around communities around Cusco meet in the Plaza de Armas to sell their goods, crafts, food, and religious artifacts. If you are visiting Cusco during this time of the year, visit the Christmas Market and see all the products on display to support the local artisans.
Every year on December 25 in the Chumbivilcas Province near Cusco, residents fight each other to settle old scores (or to prove who’s the toughest). Copious amounts of alcohol and dancing ensure that the combatants stay on reasonably good terms after the fistfight.
You can also overnight at Machu Picchu during this period by opting for a group or tailor-made private tour. Either enjoy a Christmas trek along the Inca trail to Machu Picchu or spend the night at the Machu Picchu archaeological site or in Aguas Calientes, the entrance town to Machu Picchu.
Alternatively, you can spend Christmas in Lima and enjoy the modern city adorned with Christmas decorations in Miraflores, for example. Better still, why not embark on a more traditional location such as Lake Titicaca, Arequipa or the Colca Canyon? Amazon Christmas Cruises are also available but do bear in mind that at this time of year, Peruvians also travel, so flights, trains and hotels do get booked up in advance, recommending early planning. Christmas on the Coast, with its typical folk dances, is another unique way of enjoying the festivities. In southern Peru, in the province of Cañete, they have danced to welcome baby Jesus, with the minor children dancing “zapateo” and adults playing the musical instruments such as "Quijada de burro" and the Cajon, showcasing a large "Criolla" Afro-Peruvian festivity unique to the area.
Of course, if you’re visiting Peru over the holidays, you’ll have to take home some suitable Christmas souvenirs for friends and family. From the famous Alpaca textiles, perfect for keeping warm during winter, to handmade Christmas tree decorations and other trinkets. Also, tasty treats give your loved ones a taste of Peru; there are many items to choose from!
For most families, Christmas dinner in Peru is usually a large roast turkey, similar to North American and Europe traditions, or perhaps a "lechon" (roast suckling pig). However, like every other holiday in Peru, there are many regional variations in typical food between the cities, coast, highlands and jungle, and Christmas is no exception. Smaller coastal communities may swap fish for turkey. In the Andean highlands, a classic pachamanca (meat, beans and potatoes wrapped in banana leaves and cooked underground) is more common. In the jungle, families often roast a wild chicken. You'll find a few traditional foods all around the country, though. Apple sauce and homemade tamales are on the sides of most plates.
You’ll find people walking around selling fireworks in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Everywhere. They’ll be on the street corner, coming into restaurants, and have little stands all filled with the best and most fun and most dangerous fireworks you can buy! You have to buy as many as possible to participate in a night similar to July 4 in the United States but with religious overtones. No matter where you’ll be, the sky will be alight with magic. An explosion of color across the skies, with every house in Peru firing something off into the atmosphere.
Remember that December 25th is a national holiday in Peru, so many businesses and services will close around midday on the 24th and will not reopen until December 26th.