Over more than three decades of work and travel in Latin America, this is one of my least favorite times of the year. That’s partly because, as I’m usually in South America from late October or early November, I’m anticipating a spring return home in time for the baseball season, but also because Semana Santa (“Holy Week”) holidays present an obstacle to updating guidebooks – many offices and services are closed, and high hotel occupancy rates make things more expensive, at least for a few days.
It’s also because the whole Holy Week story is such a grim and morbid tale even when, as in Guatemala (which I used to cover for Moon Handbooks), it can also be an extremely colorful event. That’s one reason why secular Uruguay, which does not officially recognize Holy Week is such a breath of fresh air – there, ever since 1919, it’s been Semana de Turismo (Tourism Week) . To be sure, there are plenty of churches in the country (such as Colonia's Iglesia Matriz, above), but President José Mujica put things in perspective the other week when he and his wife Lucía Topolansky declined to travel to Rome for the appointment of the new Pope Francis.
According to Topolansky, as quoted by Buenos Aires Económico, “We are not believers,” though Mujica’s vice-president Danilo Astori did travel to Italy. Continuing on the theme, Topolansky emphasized that “Uruguay is an absolutely secular country…In that we are different from the rest of Latin America. We hold a great respect, there is freedom of religion... Since the vice-president is a believer, the president thought it more appropriate for him to travel.” In another interview, Mujica added that the only things he had in common with the new Pope were “tango and mate,” the bitter herbal tea that both Argentines and Uruguayans sip in prodigious quantities (as suggested in the photograph above, from the Buenos Aires suburb of Tigre).
In exactly two weeks – Tuesday, April 9 at 7:30 p.m., to be precise – I will offer a digital slide presentation on Chile in the Los Altos Library (13 S. San Antonio Road, Los Altos 94024, tel. 650/948-7683). Coverage will also include the Chilean Pacific Islands of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and Juan Fernández (Robinson Crusoe), as well as southernmost Argentina (Tierra del Fuego and the vicinity of El Calafate) that appear in the book. I will also be available to answer questions about Argentina and Buenos Aires. The presentation is free of charge, but books will be available for purchase.