Costa Rica Vacation: Easter vs Semana Santa

 You’re going to celebrate Easter on April 1st . We’re going to experience Semana Santa the last week in March. Both celebrate the resurrection of Christ, but that’s where the similarities end. Easter is a holiday. Semana Santa is a cultural phenomena that lasts an entire week. We thought you might be interested in learning more.

 In Costa Rica, Semana Santa (Holy Week) is a week of vacation. It has its own special foods, its own special tv shows, special rules, in Guanacaste it has lots of ancient native beliefs mixed in with Christian traditions, and everybody who has any means at all within their reach goes to the beach. What? You don’t associate Easter with trips to the beach? You’re obviously not from Costa Rica.

 Semana Santa starts rather unobtrusively on Monday. Schools are closed, but banks and most businesses are still open. Tuesday is pretty much the same. Grandmothers and their helpers here in the province of Guanacaste are busy preparing special foods that are mostly unique corn-based delicacies of indigenous descent, and sweet pudding-type treats made from fruit, sugar cane, and milk. The uncles are out back chopping down a coyol palm and cutting a hole in the trunk to collect palm wine, or “vino de coyol.” Harvested fresh, this is a sweet and pithy juice. Left to ferment, it is an instant hangover in a glass.

 You didn’t interpret “religious festival week” to mean “no alcohol” did you? Oh, good.

 By Wednesday, something is clearly going on. Fewer businesses are open. There’s no place to park at supermarkets which are crowded with people buying special Semana Santa beach supplies: soda crackers, canned tuna and sardines, coca cola, ice, rum, and lots of beer. There’s no place to park at the beach, either. Every car has their windows down and the music playing. Every available twig’s width of shade (because in Semana Santa there is not a leaf left on a tree) has a 3-generation family with picnic blankets, coolers and a few beach chairs parked under it. Maybe a few hammocks to string up somewhere so the babies can take naps.

 It’s festive. It’s lively. It’s overwhelming. It’s about to begin.

 On Thursday, the country, except for supermarkets and their delivery trucks, comes to a screaming halt. Even normal television programming is suspended and replace by days of Bible story-based films from the 1970s. And into the mix of local Costa Ricans from down the road, with Grandma, Aunt Maria and baby Jose, descends an astonishing influx of Costa Ricans from San Jose. This is a whole different population. They’re paler, more affluent, have fancier cars, louder stereos, funny accents, they forgot to bring trash bags again this year, and the young masculine segment of the population loves a bottle of rum and a good fight. It’s interesting.

 But not over. It’s only Thursday morning. The planes carrying the droves of foreigners who have spent big bucks on this peak week are just now beginning to circle the Liberia airport. They have no idea. They think they’re coming to a peaceful getaway. They do not expect to spend hours stuck in traffic in the middle of Tamarindo because the beer delivery truck is blocking traffic one way, the coke delivery truck is blocking traffic the other way, and some genius from San Jose tried to wedge his car through the middle and is now stuck. But hey. It’s Semana Santa. Anything is possible.

 Speaking of beer delivery, this is a novelty; a recent byproduct of the priority Costa Rica gives to Tourism as its major source of income. Until very recently, the sale of alcoholic beverages was strictly forbidden in all of Costa Rica on Thursday and Friday of Semana Santa. It is still forbidden in much of the country, but that is no longer the case in tourist-focused areas like Tamarindo. So, yes. At least the truck blocking the traffic is bringing the beer we all need by now.

 Costa Ricans old enough to carry a driver’s license remember not only when the whole country when dry for 2 days on Thursday and Friday, they remember when no stores would have been open anyway. They remember that on Holy Thursday and Friday there was no bus service in Costa Rica.

 Costa Ricans with children old enough to hold a driver’s license remember when it was highly frowned upon to use transportation of any type including a bicycle on Thursday and Friday. In those days, custom forbade people from going off into the forests to collect fruit and especially forbade them from climbing trees. They believed that evil-intentioned dwarves roamed the forest during the holiest days of Holy Week, and could take you away with them if they caught you. A person who climbed a tree might grow a tail and become a monkey-person. You laugh now and shake your head, but it wasn’t a joke and it wasn’t a bit funny.

 So back to lucky us in modern times, when we can climb a trees, purchase groceries and go to a bar in Semana Santa if we darn well please. But that’s where your purchase power stops. Groceries and souvenirs.

 Vacation rental managers like us have a special challenge in Semana Santa because not only are our homes filled with the most privileged clients (as in those choosing to pay the highest prices), but zero supply or service companies are open. No light bulbs for sale. No water heaters, toilet flush valves, air conditioner capacitors, coffee makers, universal remote controls, beach towels, hinges, blender jars, no way to replace a damaged window pane, no pillows, no new tanks of propane for the stove or bbq, and no locksmiths so for the love of God do not lose the key! We try to think of everything ahead of time but of course we never do. If the internet company needs to do a reset on their end to restore a service, we can call them on Monday along with everybody else.

 It’s amazing. It’s frenetic. It’s Semana Santa in Guanacaste. Pura vida!

 Friday is like Thursday, and Saturday is like Friday with one small exception. Folklore (think the dwarves in the forest) hold that on Holy Saturday, it always rains. I will interject an editorial comment here to counter that it does not always rain on Holy Saturday, but I can say that in my 23 Semana Santas, it has rained a surprising number of times. So just to be safe, stay out of the forest. And alcohol is now legal again, although it’s been flowing freely here at the beach the whole time, so the rest of the country tries to catch up with us.

 And on Sunday, Easter Sunday, the day for pretty dresses and bunnies and bonnets, pastel-painted eggs, ham, chocolate, lilies and maybe a mimosa, the party is over. A bleary, sandy, sunburned caravan of hangovers rumbles out of town toward San Jose or wherever they came from. On Monday, it’s back to work. Everybody in Guanacaste breathes a sigh of relief. The beach breathes a sigh of relief. Anybody with a conscience grabs a trash bag and pitches in.

 That’s Semana Santa, and this is what we do. See ya on the other side of it


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