I was 10 years old when I experienced my first carnival in Notting Hill, home to Europe’s biggest street party. Moving through the many people, I was fascinated by the colourful floats, costumes, and the booming party atmosphere.
However, I was only too aware that the carnival lacked one important component – the heat. The heat from the sun, the people and the atmosphere resonate are the essential ingredients for a proper carnival experience.
When we think of carnival, most people immediately think of the annual event in Rio de Janeiro. Notorious for its over-the-top parades and all-round awesomeness, putting on a spectacular carnival is something the Brazilians do amazingly well.
Impressive carnivals don’t only happen in the Brazilian capital. Many Caribbean countries also celebrate pre-Lent carnivals. Carnivals are the ideal precursor for many Christian nations to have one final colorful, fabulous blow-out before Lent begins.
Colorful carnivals around the world
Trinidad and Tobago
The mammoth celebration descends upon Port-of-Spain on 3 March, and with parties beginning from 4am, sleep is the last thing on revelers’ minds.
The pre-dawn party of J’ouvert – harking back to the French influence – celebrates the island’s darker side. Expect to see plenty of party-goers covered in mud, oil and even chocolate, dressed as devils and demons, partying to the sounds of traditional Soca music.
The main event
Going into Carnival Monday, the dark, brooding characters disappear. Come daylight, the bands descend into the streets to play ‘Pretty Mas’. Carnival has no room for any inhibitions, with revelers performing standard dance moves of ‘jumping up’ and ‘wining’ (gyrating of the hips). Though titled as the ‘warm-up’ to Carnival Tuesday, Monday is sure to satisfy even the most die-hard of party animals.
Carnival Tuesday is the main focus of the event, beginning promptly at 8am. Band members dressed according to their respective band’s theme, anxiously wait for the opportunity to parade their costumes across the stage. Television cameras line up at various judging points, and they announce the winners from the 3 categories once everyone has crossed the stage. With the party lasting around 10 hours, maintain energy reserves with plenty of water, followed by rum, beer and even alcoholic sno cones!
Salvador da Bahia, Brazil
Visitors to the Salvador Carnival will be spellbound by its superb display. Whereas its Rio counterpart is famous on a global scale, the street party in Salvador is much better on so many levels. Revelers in the Rio carnival act as spectators of the show, while in Salvador, the spectators are the show.
Lasting a whole week, the highlight of the Salvador Carnival is the Trio Electrico. This large truck was created especially for this carnival, complete with a powerful sound system. Atop the truck are the bands/singers (sometimes popular Brazilian artists) that entertain the party masses below as it drives slowly through the streets.
Before you go
The organizers advise spectators to buy tickets to enter the roped area surrounding the truck. Private companies called ‘Blocos’ typically organise these structures where each bloco sells a different t-shirt called an ‘Abada’. The abada acts as your entrance ticket, allowing access inside the roped areas, and more importantly into the party.
Expect thousands of party-goers, pulsating Brazilian and African beats, and a chance to find out first-hand what makes the Salvador Carnival the ‘biggest party in the world’.
This small island in the Dutch Caribbean offers a big package when it comes to carnival season. Similarly to Trinidad’s carnival schedule, the festivities begin with the J’ouvert on 1 March at 3am. It culminates with the Grand Parade containing all the colorful pomp and pageantry you’d expect.
The celebrations begin well before the main parade. Events such as a Calypso (traditional music) and a Roadmarch (musical composition) contest takes place. There’s also an election for Carnival Queen and the Children’s Parade. The carnival officially comes to an end with the ‘Burning of King Momo’, a carnival character, on Ash Wednesday.
‘The Real Mas’ in Dominica has been labelled ‘the Caribbean’s most original carnival’. With pageants and calypso filling up the carnival calendar from December, Dominica may be the surprise underdog.
Pageants are big business in Dominica, with not one but 5 different competitions. These include the much sought after title for Carnival Queen, a teenage pageant and even a Mr Caribbean.
One costume that has made a recent return to the Dominica Carnival is the Sensay costume. Originating from West Africa, these costumes are typically made from frayed rope, leaves and other material. Horns and masks complete the look, making it one of the most unique and possibly quite frightening costumes.
The last stop on the carnival train is to the Fleur des Caraibes, in Martinique. Though it follows many traditions of carnival, the Martinique Carnival has a distinctly European flavor, given its French ancestry.
Beginning on 1 March, this 5-day party consists of constant parades, where villages compete to outdo each other in the costume stakes. The streets of Fort-de-France are occupied with colorful props and costumes, and musical groups keep the crowds entertained 24 hours a day.
The carnival also gives party-goers an opportunity to show their traditional masks of the island. The ‘red clay men’ wear masks out of red clay, while the nègs gwo-sirop characters are men completely covered in sugar syrup and charcoal. The second character represents the rebel slaves that came from Africa.
Don’t miss this
The highlight during the final day is King Carnival, where a giant effigy called Vayal looms over the floats. As dusk falls, flames emanate from Vayal’s funeral pyre. Once the flames subside and the dancing ends, revellers chant ‘Vayal, pas quitte nous’ (carnival don’t leave us) and watch Vayal burn in the flames.
Unlike its Caribbean carnival counterparts, the celebrations return 3 weeks later for a 24-hour reprise called Mi-Carême, which translates as mid-Lent. Costumes and parades line the street once more, and plenty of eating, dancing and drinking takes place across the island. If you’re looking for a carnival that’s exhilarating on so many levels, then Martinique could be just the destination for you.
Have you been to any of these carnivals? If not, which one would you like to see?