2021 UPDATE: This year the Government of Montevideo is urging worshippers to avoid congregating on the coast — and to donate to local soup kitchens instead.
It’s Yemanjá Day on February 2. Don’t miss this special festival of the Goddess of the Sea. The best place to watch the celebrations in Uruguay is in Montevideo is Playa Ramirez in the Parque Rodo neighbourhood at sundown.
The celebrations are part of the Umbanda religion which is practiced in Uruguay and Brazil.
Umbanda is a South American religion blending African traditions brought over by enslaved West Africans in the 1800s* with Roman Catholicism and indigenous American beliefs.
Yemanjá (there are multiple spellings but you pronounce it im-an-zh-AA) is one of the Orishas – or manifestations of God– of Umbanda. She is the Queen of the Ocean, the patron saint of fishermen and the survivors of shipwrecks, the feminine principle of creation, and the spirit of moonlight.
So what happens in the Yemanjá festival in Montevideo?
Crowds start to gather in Playa Ramirez around 6pm. They will stay until long after sundown when the drumming and frenetic whirling of the dancing worshippers reaches its height.
Worshippers sit waiting for the sun to go down before they launch their boat into the waves. Later they will dance in a circle, whirling around often until they fall into a trance.
Worshippers – and the curious– dress in full white dresses or skirts. They bow to the Sea Goddess and prostrate themselves on the sand.
They walk into the sea to make offerings, usually piled onto little boats which they set sail, then as a mark of respect they return to the coast without turning their backs until they leave the water completely.
The elegantly lit backdrop of the art-deco Mercosur building after the sun disappears makes the panorama even more surreal.
Most Uruguayans are here as sightseers too
Serious Umbanda worshippers present probably number in the low hundreds.
The majority of people come for the spectacle, though they may take part by sending their own little offering out on the water or getting a ritual “cleansing”.
The regular Uruguayan ladies who had put together the offering pictured right were delighted that I took photos and asked if I liked it. “We come every year,” they said.
[Note: Uruguay is remarkable for being one of the few Latin American nations with a long time separation of church and state.]
Stocking up on gifts and the clean-up
Hundreds of stands spring up selling mementos and offerings. It’s a great opportunity to get some kitsch gifts to take back home – your very own sea goddess in a bottle anyone?
One thing that is kind of depressing about the celebration is the amount of non-biodegradable rubbish left on the beach and swirling in the water.
The local government is trying to build awareness about the need to substitute polystyrene boats for ones made of biodegradable materials, but the uptake is slow.
If you want to rid yourself of your indignation at the wanton littering, join the clean-up which starts 7am the day after.
How to get to Playa Ramirez
- Take any bus or a taxi to Parque Rodo and then walk down to the beach. You will hear the drums.
- Find Playa Ramirez on Google Maps
- Walk along the rambla for about 30 minutes from the centre of Pocitos or 45 minutes from the Ciudad Vieja (Old City)
- Oh, and have great fish and chips at a small stand overlooking the beach while you are there
* 8% of Uruguayans declared they had African roots in the 2011 census.