September in Central America is as colorful as any other holiday should be. Weeks before the 15th, the streets, markets, houses, and cars become adorned with hundreds of flags. Cities are dressed in patriotic colors by their citizens. Schools start practicing for the parades and concerts, marching bands can be heard all around town getting ready for the big day when festivities will take place from Guatemala all the way down to Costa Rica. Wearing traditional outfits, eating local dishes, and going out in the streets to have fun are all commonplace practices shared across Centroamérica.
How did this holiday start? To learn this we have to go back in time, almost 200 years ago, before our independence was proclaimed.
A Brief History of Central America’s Independence
September 15, 1821 was an important day for Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Through a relatively peaceful process, these nations claimed their independence from the Spanish government impulsed by the political chaos caused by Napoleon Bonaparte’s attack on Spain in the year 1808. On November 5, 1811, the first revolts occurred in El Salvador, and the rest of the countries mentioned followed suit. A meeting between colonial authorities, renown locals, and religious leaders culminated on September 15 with the termination of Spain’s dominion over the Central American isthmus (Panama was not included and had their independence a few years later). Some historians argue that Central America’s independence is often glossed over, and that the subject is much more complex in nature, so if you’re interested in the historical aspect of Central America’s independence, I encourage you to research and ask Centroamericanos to tell you their stories – most of us will gladly share what we know!
Now, almost two hundred years later, people all over Central America celebrate our independence with joy and pride on the 15th, each country having similarities as well as carrying unique flair to their celebrations. I’ve researched and talked to natives of each country to learn the different ways we commemorate our nations and share them with you so you can know what to expect if you’re visiting!
A torch across five countries
Every year, there’s a tradition in Central America where the people carry a torch from Guatemala to Costa Rica in a relay marathon, passing through El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. The torch is a symbol of the messengers who rode on horseback spreading the news of independence across all five nations. The ‘flame of independence’ is lit at a monument in Guatemala City called El Obelisco almost a week before independence day, reaching Costa Rica’s old capital, Cartago, on the 15th. This tradition has been done over 50 times to this day. The first time the torch traveled through the 5 countries was in 1959!
Differences between countries
In Guatemala, the torches are central to our celebration. Not only does the Central American torch leave El Obelisco 6 days before the 15th, but we also do torch runs all across the country. On the days prior to independence day, the plaza at El Obelisco is filled with marching bands, food stands, merchants, and people carrying a vibrant livelihood that is then taken all over the country in the form of torches lit by Guatemalan citizens. From small towns to groups of friends and even businesses, these torches are taken to many hometowns in celebration of our free nation. So if you have to go to work on the days before independence day, be sure to leave extra early, because the streets will be filled with groups of people running about with torches in their hands!
Some places like Petén, a lush jungle with ancient ruins in the north side of Guatemala, are far away from the city. What happens if I live in Petén? You might ask. There’s no way a group of people would be willing to run almost 500 kilometers for a torch, so many different hub spots in the country serve as lighting beacons for torches. My dad used to run with the torch back in the day with his coworkers. They would run together and finally get to their office to have lunch there. Since my dad worked in the city and making such a short a relay run between El Obelisco and his office didn’t make much sense, they traveled to Antigua, a neighboring town, and ran from there to the city.
In El Salvador, it’s not unusual for the first section of the celebratory parades to have flags from the other four countries that share the independence date, each flag with its own dedicated car. “They signify how we are all connected as one, as centroamericanos,” as my El Salvadoran friend, who lives in Guatemala, said. He tells me that “In El Salvador, we have a strong sense of identity; we get along well and have very little conflict between one another. My family makes fun of me when I visit, saying my accent has changed, but as you can hear my accent is not Guatemalan. Yet, we have a strong cultural identity and a necessity to preserve what we are.” His accent really wasn’t Guatemalan, if I’m being honest, and his insight was a good indicator of how much he appreciates his homeland.
Independence day in El Salvador starts with parades orchestrated by schools across the country as well as a military parade. They all converge at the national gymnasium, where the president greets the students and the military puts on a show with parachutes and planes flying overhead.
Honduras is very similar to El Salvador; school and military parades are planned and inaugurated with 21 cannonballs shot by the military at 6:00 a.m., signifying the start of the festivities. That’s one loud way to wake up if you ask me! Honduras also has a beauty pageant aspect to its parades, with the palillonas. These are girls dressed in fantasy military uniforms, sporting batons that they wave around, and the best ones often end up featured in the newspaper the next day.
Nicaraguans are very organized and meticulous when it comes to celebrating their independence. We all decorate our streets as soon as September starts and celebrate for three days until the 15th. Nicaraguans go a step further, and schedule events all throughout the month in order to celebrate their independence! Ceremonies begin on the first of September with an inauguration that features politicians, ambassadors, and students in tandem with the marching bands that are reminiscent of these celebrations. The following days are ceremonies dedicated to the torch that has been traveling all the way from Guatemala, which Nicaraguans pass on to Costa Rica on the 13th. The next day, there is an event held to commemorate and give medals to the best students and teachers in the country, followed by marching bands from schools, the military, and even the police! Aside from the common practices across Central America, Nicaraguans have the tradition of reading the Declaration of Independence on all schools on the 15th.
Just like the torch travels through all five countries and arrives at Cartago, we finally arrive at Costa Rica, where the celebration begins with the receiving of the torch. Costa Ricans pride themselves on their pacifist beliefs, having no military forces to speak of. After 1915, the military presence in their parades started to fade away, until the abolishment of the army removed them altogether. This altered the focus of the independence day celebrations, moving it more towards the youth. The evening before the 15th, there is an event called Desfile de Faroles, or Lantern Parade, where kids from all over Costa Rica build glowing lanterns with recycled materials. They decorate the lanterns with patriotic symbols and enjoy the warm light of their artistic expression while enjoying the local food.
All these different ways to express freedom sure make me want to go follow the torch across all five countries! It’d be great to experience what is not just a celebration of our past, but a unifying act that connects us and our history. It’s very interesting to see how the differences in celebration are influenced by who we are and where we come from. The torch leaves from Guatemala, so we center our festivities around the act of lighting and carrying the torch. In Costa Rica, the celebration centers around receiving the torch.
So, in a way, Independence Day in Centroamérica is a series of parades, shows, and traditions led by a single flame traveling both in the torch and in the hearts of the citizens of Centroamérica.
You can also connect with Centroamericanos by learning to speak Spanish. We always have something nice to share, and it’s a pleasure to show other nations what we’re all about. Get a free class at Homeschool Spanish Academy today!Read More
Central America is one of the most vibrant and diverse areas in the world to visit. While you’re challenging yourself to learn more Spanish, we hope that you’re dreaming of where it can take you! Combine your love of the language with a passion for exploration and you may find yourself on one of the best vacations imaginable. To help you out, we have compiled a list of some of the top travel destinations for you to investigate and to enjoy! Buen viaje!
Ambergris Caye is the largest island off the coast of the mainland of Belize. It has a little bit of everything to suit everyone’s taste, whether you are traveling alone, in a big group, or with family. Enjoy water activities like scuba diving, snorkeling, sailing, and parasailing. Then head to the jungle for hiking, zip lining, or simple nature walks. You will also find here the western hemisphere’s longest-running coral reef system that is full of underwater wildlife. Take advantage of all the natural beauty when visiting this gorgeous place!
How Safe Is It?
While traveling it is important to take safety into account and use common sense. This island is considered safe with some reported instances of theft (of passports or credit cards), burglary, and sexual harassment toward lone women. Always keep your personal items in a secure location and try not to flash expensive items while out in public.
The great majority of island dwellers speak English, but you will also hear Spanish and Creole, the local mestizo dialect. More than 80% of locals speak Spanish, so feel free to use it as you travel along!
The long, skinny island of Roatan sits atop the beautiful and ancient Mesoamerican barrier reef. Imagine soft sandy beaches, palm trees swaying with a light breeze, and crystal waters. This island has what you’re looking for, whether it be absolute luxury or simple budget travel and lodging. You will definitely want to get into the water however you can, so join a glass-bottom boat tour, rent a kayak, or charter a fishing trip! Once you’re ready to come back to land, plan a trip to the art or underwater museums, visit the iguana conservatory, go bicycling, or gather a group for mini-golf. The options for fun and entertainment are truly endless.
How Safe Is it?
While safer than mainland Honduras, we advise you to enjoy your travel experience more so on the west end of the island. Take greater precautions while visiting the east end of the island which is less developed and less populated.
Although most islanders speak English, a big group of mainland Hondurans finds their way there for work. This means that even though English is the most commonly-spoken language on this island, there are plenty of opportunities to use your Spanish. Keep in mind that the English you will hear is a unique dialect of the region and might not be what you’re expecting!
This little town in Costa Rica, often simply called “La Fortuna,” is 10 kilometers away from one of the most popular and powerful volcanoes in the country: Arenal Volcano. Until 2010, it was the most active volcano in all of Costa Rica. With more than a million visitors per year, this area provides plenty of entertainment for all types of tourists. You will find amazing spas that take advantage of the natural thermal waters from Arenal and various hot springs to enjoy. Go sightseeing at the miraculously tall waterfall, La Fortuna Catarata, that towers upward of 70 meters. For more adventure and physical activity, try horseback riding, canoeing, fishing, hiking or jump onto a canopy tour!
Is It Safe?
If you plan on traveling between towns (Monteverde to La Fortuna, for example) by bus then you will definitely need to keep an eye on your bags! If you can avoid it, try not to put them in the rack above your seat. Aside from this important detail, traveling around this area is safe if using common sense.
Most locals do not speak English and they will expect that you have brushed up on your Spanish skills before trying to communicate! Check out our Travel Spanish Guide for useful phrases you can practice on your plane ride.
Panama City shines bright as a bustling metropolitan area where international bankers and businessmen wine and dine. Luckily, it is also accessible for the budget traveler if you know where to look and you know how to negotiate taxi fare! After a day or so of cultured exploration, non-stop traffic and crazy city life, take a day trip to the beach on the Carribean or Pacific shore or watch the boats come and go through the famous Panama Canal.
Is It Safe?
In areas like this with a highly concentrated population, it is important to keep a vigilant eye. Beware of service guides who wish to give you a tour. Often they will begin the ‘tour’ without your consent and soon become aggressive when asking for payment. Keep your belongings tucked away in an inaccessible pocket or bag.
Spanish is the national language of Panama, while around 14% of inhabitants speak English. Make sure to practice asking for directions, ordering meals, and checking into hotels or other lodgings. Improve your skills even more by joining one of the various Spanish Schools offered in Panama!
Granada is a calm and relaxing place with plenty of architectural beauty. You will see attractive and colorful colonial buildings everywhere with horse-drawn carriages moving in between. Take a stroll on land or visit Lake Nicaragua and take a boat tour. For even more adventure, climb one of the nearby volcanoes or go hiking in one of the wildlife preserves.
Is It Safe?
In Granada, violent crime is extremely low, and as a traveler, you will only need to worry about pickpockets. Sometimes, due to civil unrest, Nicaragua will close its borders to travelers and so it is necessary to check on its status before planning your vacation.
Very few locals speak English,so Granada is an excellent place to challenge yourself to speak more Spanish. Bring a travel guide along with you in order to have the phrases you need at your fingertips!
In Southwestern Nicaragua, located along the shore of the Pacific Ocean, sits the colorful town of San Juan del Sur. The temperature stays at a fairly warm temperature for most of the year with a bit of cold from November to January. It has several different beaches to choose from that combine perfectly with hot weather. No wonder it is considered a hub for beach parties! Surf the waves, go swimming, sunbathe your heart out, and then go investigate the giant Jesus statue that overlooks the village.
Is It Safe?
San Juan del Sur has grown in popularity over the years, which means that there are more opportunistic types who are attempting to prey on visitors. Again, it’s a place where common sense will keep you out of trouble. Avoid being out at night on your own and keep all of your belongings in a safe spot.
San Juan del Sur is a fantastic place to build your Spanish skills through one of their tailored Spanish school options. From one-time lessons to immersion and community outreach, there is a way for everyone to learn.
Quirigua is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in Guatemala, the heart of the Mayan civilization. This amazing archaeological site has ancient carved monuments that show Mayan mythology and important historical events. Visit one of the many museums that explain more about Mayan history and provide fun small-scale models of what the area looked like long ago.
Is It Safe?
While touring this ancient city, it is necessary to keep items of importance in a safe space. Other than possible theft, there are no other major precautions to take.
While you can get a tour guide to bring the city to life for you in English, you could just as easily ask for a tour in Spanish! Expand your vocabulary through a real-life history lesson! After you visit Quirigua, take a bus to any of these other incredible destinations in Guatemala and head over to Homeschool Spanish Academy for fun and practical Spanish lessons.
La Ruta de las Flores is called la ruta because it is just that: a route. It is a passage of blooming flowers that grow along 20 miles of five main colonial towns and coffee plantations. The best time to go in order to see the blooms is between November and February. There are plenty of other activities to explore along the way including a 7-Waterfall hike in Juyayua, ziplining in Apaneca, and going on a coffee tour in any of the other villages along the route.
Is It Safe?
Exploring this route is traditionally done by chicken bus, where you will need to exercise caution with your personal belongings. Make sure to keep them close to your body and, if possible, avoid leaving them in the rack above the seats.
You will have many chances to use your Spanish! In each of the towns along the route, you will need your skills to order food, talk to locals, find lodging, learn more about the history of the towns, and ask for directions.
Best Trip Ever
Now that you are equipped with all the best travel destinations in Central America, you can start packing. You can practice your Spanish while you explore some of the greatest spots between North and South America. Want the best Spanish learning experience before your trip? Take a class with professional, friendly teachers at Homeschool Spanish Academy for an awesome head start to your travel. Enjoy the best trip of your life and maybe you’ll be able to add even more great destinations to our list!Read More