Man running towards the camera with fireworks flying from his wooden bull costume.

The Madness of the Festival del Cristo Negro in El Salvador

If you’re lucky enough to be visiting the famous Ruta de las Flores in El Salvador during January, you’re in for a real treat. During this time, the town of Juayua celebrates the annual Festival del Cristo Negro, coming to a climax on the 15th of the month.

La Festival del Cristo Negro

Latin America loves to take celebrations to extremes, often throwing caution to the wind – and Salvadorians are no different. It starts days earlier, as the weekly food festival spills from the weekends into the surrounding days.

The entire centre of town, spreading out from the main square, is buzzing. Food stalls line the streets, lights are strung through the park, and everyone is enjoying the post-new year festivities. By the final day, everyone is celebrating. And by celebrating, I mean drinking. And by drinking, I mean day drinking – heavily.

Thankfully, there is more than enough incredible Salvadorian cuisine going around, full of starch and carbs to soak up all that alcohol. Which is a good thing, because unlike the food festival throughout the rest of the year, the food stalls don’t pack up in the late afternoon. This party goes late.

People on a street at night surrounded by smoke from charcoal grills.
BASKING IN THE CHARCOAL GRILL SMOKE IN JUAYUA

A Colourful Parade

Once the sun goes down, the crowd migrates a couple of blocks through town in anticipation for a grand parade. Though unlike the parades we’re used to back home, the floats here — though ornate and colourful — feature local beauty pageant contestants (at least that’s what we can tell).

And while this sort of thing seemed a little odd, during our most recent visit to El Salvador, we attended the Carnival celebrations in San Miguel, where the entire parade was much the same. I don’t understand it, but I guess that’s how Salvadorians do parades.

Anyway, beautiful women in bright dresses smile and wave, while children toss candy into the crowd. It’s a nice scene, but only a prologue to the second act.

And this is when things get wild.

Colourful parade float during the night with a beauty pageant contestant on top.
Vibrant beauty pageant parade in Juayua

The Running of the Flaming Bulls

Once the parade finishes, a nervous excitement comes over the crowd. People appear to want to be on the front lines of the road while also trying to find shelter of sorts. We’ll soon learn why.

Several men arrive, wearing makeshift wooden and paper bulls over their heads. Anticipation is building now, and parents are keeping their children at arm’s length. Within a few minutes, several others begin lighting fuses attached to the bulls, and we quickly realize that these bulls are covered in fireworks.

Man hunched over with a wooden frame around his upper body. Foreworks shoot from the frame.
This looks completely safe

Once lit, the fireworks begin firing in every direction, and the men run through the streets as people duck for cover, never knowing which way the Roman candles and bottle rockets will fly. As far as we can tell, nobody is hit, though a few fiery balls fly just over our heads.

How and where this strange and wonderful tradition was born, I can’t answer. But I’m happy to live in a world where it does.

Foreworks shoot in different directions from two men in wooden frames.
It’s utter mayhem in every direction

The Grand Finale

Once the bulls tired out, the crowd rearranged themselves for the spectacular fireworks display. First, it was a towering pyrotechnics display at the end of the main street, surrounding a statue of the Cristo Negro, a “Black Jesus” statue from the Juayua Cathedral.

This is followed by roughly twenty minutes of a more traditional display of colourful overhead explosions. The canons launching mere feet away from the crowd.

While the full-blown bedlam of the Festival del Cristo Negro is only once a year, the quiet village of Juayua, in the wonderful Ruta de las Flores, comes to life every single weekend of the year to celebrate the fantastic flavours of Salvadorian cuisine. Easily accessible from the popular tourist trail of Central America, if you happen to be near Juayua in January, this will be a highlight of your trip.

Man running in the street with fireworks shooting from his back.
Black Jesus statue surrounded by bright firework explosions.

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