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What to Expect from a trip during Semana Santa (Holy Week)

Posted by Katie on November 9, 2017
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Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter Sunday, is the busiest time of the year in Costa Rica. This small, tropical country prioritizes festivals and fun, and religious holidays are no exceptions. Semana Santa, or Holy Week, is a national holiday, and the majority of businesses (not including the tourism sector) will close down and give a week of vacation to their employees. The entire country takes to the beaches and a week of music, sun, and drinks follow. This time of year often lines up perfectly with spring break for schools and universities in the United States and Canada. If you find yourself planning a vacation to Costa Rica during Semana Santa, you’re in for the time of your life. Traveling during a festival week will be the experience of a lifetime, but as the cities empty and the beaches fill up, there are certain things you need to take into consideration before your trip. Put a bit of research into planning your trip as it will be more difficult to plan as you go during this week. With the right amount of preparation, this spring break will be one to remember.

Weather

The hot season runs from April to June, but for whatever reason, Semana Santa always proves to be the hottest week of the year. Temperatures may start in the average ranges, from 75 to 88 degrees Fahrenheit, but may peak up to 96 degrees along the Pacific coast during the heat of the week. You’ll have no trouble getting a nice tan during your short vacation, but you’ll need to make sure you’re safe from the sun. Bring your own sunscreen with you from your home country as it can be rather costly in Costa Rica. Prepare by packing baseball hats, sunglasses, re-fillable water bottles, and some good skin cream. Shaded beaches and beach-front bars will be easy to find, so escaping the heat of the day may not be a big issue. Schedule your activities in the mornings and plan on taking some downtime every afternoon.

Lodging and Tours

Semana Santa is a week full of parties, and people from around the world plan a yearly visit. This may mean a more festive atmosphere, but it also means limited vacancies in beachfront hotels. The most important step you’ll take to prepare for your Semana Santa trip will be to book lodging well ahead of time. Hotels and hostels will fill up months before, and you don’t want to miss out on a beach-front room. The earlier you book, the lower your rates will be, as last-minute bookings (which include two weeks before) may be double the price. Your competition doesn’t just include other travelers, but Costa Rican locals from the Central Valley as well. Families and groups of friends will rent lodging starting in January to ensure the best Semana Santa possible, and you’ll want to follow their example.

While you’re booking your lodging, it’s best to book a couple of the tours or activities you’re interested in as well. Tours may not fill up as quickly as hotels, but you want to be sure to get in that jungle excursion or surfing class. Every tour group will fill up at some point, so for the lone traveler, this is the best way to make new friends and explore the country.

Activities

You may hear that everything shuts down in Costa Rica during Semana Santa, but this doesn’t include the tourism or entertainment industries. In fact, as far as entertainment goes, the opposite is true. If you find yourself on the Pacific Coast, every night you’ll run into a beach party, live performance, and musical parade. Parties and outdoor fun will be around every corner, and there is something for every traveler. Families may prefer to go to an open-aired restaurant and enjoy live music and dance, while young spring breakers may take to the beach and party with the local college students. Regardless, the evenings will be fun and eventful. Let your nights go unscheduled and see what opportunities present themselves. While some parties can get crazy during the early morning hours, Semana Santa is still a family holiday and is celebrated communally. Your young family is encouraged to take part in the celebrations with dancing and beach fun, and you’ll find plenty to do for all age groups.

For those looking to escape the crowds, the Caribbean beaches do not celebrate Semana Santa in the same way. You will still find some parades and live music, but you can escape the crowds and find a more relaxing and quiet atmosphere. For those looking to escape the heat of the beaches all together, Semana Santa means almost zero traffic in the mountainous regions, so you can get your choice of hotels, tours, and accommodations.

Transportation

Transportation will be slightly more difficult during Semana Santa. The nation-wide vacations mean a limited bus schedule, and while public buses will still run, the stops will be infrequent. There will be no problem traveling within your city, as local buses and taxis still run, but inter-city travel may be frustrating. During Semana Santa, it’s best not to undertake too much long-distance travel. Book lodging at one or two beaches near each other, and enjoy the holiday the traditional way. For those planning on long-range travel, it may be best to rent a car. Public transportation may not be reliable during this week, especially near the end, and you don’t want to waste any time waiting on buses.

Food and Drink

You’ll be able to find a full menu at every restaurant during this week, but seafood will be featured widely. It is a Catholic tradition to not eat meat during Holy Week, and while this rule isn’t strictly followed, Costa Ricans take advantage of the improved seafood and squash dishes. While you’re on the beach, try some fresh seafood soup and grilled shrimp, you won’t be disappointed.

Alcohol is a big part of the Semana Santa celebration. You’ll beat the heat of the day with a cold beer and enjoy some rum based cocktails with dinner. For those looking for non-alcoholic drinks, you’ll find fresh fruit smoothies and fresh coconut water on every street corner. Finding amazing drinks with local ingredients won’t be a problem during this week. The only difficulty that may arise, however, will be during the Thursday and Friday before Easter. In some cities, these two days fall under “dry law,” meaning alcohol will not be sold in grocery stores and bars will close early. If you are in a city with such laws, make sure to buy a couple bottles of local beer ahead of time and keep them in your hotel fridge to enjoy during these down days.

Tips

  • Semana Santa is a very communal holiday, and for the lone traveler, this may be the best time to plan a vacation. You’ll be invited to outdoor parties and easily join groups of friends for their week of fun.
  • It’s true there are a lot of parties during this week, but a large part of the week is still celebrated with family get-togethers and dinner parties. You are encouraged to bring your whole family to the beach this week to join in the celebration.
  • Costa Rica is one of the safest countries in Latin America, but pick-pocketers always come out of the woodwork during festivals. Be aware of your valuables and travel with only what you need. You don’t want to leave your purse on the beach while you take a dip in the ocean. It’s best to leave your passport and excess money at the hotel.
  • After the sun goes down, be aware of drivers. It may be best to take taxis, as these professional drivers know how to navigate local roads and recognize a dangerous driver. Costa Rica does not always have the culture of electing a designated driver, so you want to be careful heading home.
  • Opportunities will present themselves around every corner of your Semana Santa vacation. Try to schedule any guided tours in the mornings, leave the afternoons for relaxing and trying local food, and keep your evenings open to go with the flow. Some of your most memorable moments will be unplanned during this holiday week.