Carnival wasn’t born in the Caribbean; the tradition of throwing one last big bash before the solemn season of Lent dates back to early Christian Europe. However, each Caribbean nation has put its unique spin on this sunny celebration marked by elaborate and colorful costume parades, the naming of a Carnival king and queen, and plenty of dancing, potent drinks and great food. Here are eight carnivals you don’t want to miss.
Trinidad and Tobago Carnival
Trinidad Carnival mas bands perform in a road march — Photo courtesy of Kip1234
Even among Caribbean islands that are fiercely proud of their carnival celebrations, many will say that the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival — the oldest in the Caribbean — is the biggest and best. An island-wide party that rivals Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Rio Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, this carnival is counted in months, not days, with preparations for the next year’s celebration beginning almost before the parades of the current year end.
Visitors and locals alike can join in the fun of soca, calypso and steel-pan concerts and competitions, a children’s parade and a late-night j’ouvert parade. Marchers, slathered in paint, mud and chocolate, dance through the streets of Port of Spain, followed by trucks alternatively blasting music and serving up rum drinks. And this is only a warm-up to the main event, with two days of “mas bands” taking part in a miles-long road march to a pounding tropical beat. It’s a party that only ends when Lent begins and the revelers retreat to the beaches to sleep it off.
Crop Over, Barbados
Barbados’ Crop Over is held every August — Photo courtesy of isitsharp, Getty Images
Not every Caribbean carnival takes place during Lent. Barbados’ Crop Over, for example, originated as a harvest festival and is celebrated in August, making it a great option if you want to experience all of the classic carnival traditions but can’t pull off a midwinter getaway. A traditional delivery of the last of the season’s sugarcane marks the beginning of a festival season that includes Cohobblopot, a kick-off carnival where bands showcase their fiery costumes and tunes. Festivities reach their peak on Grand Kadooment Day, Barbados’ version of a carnival parade that ends with a dip in the cool waters of the Caribbean.
A participant in the j’ouvert march at Grenada’s Spicemas — Photo courtesy of Arthur Daniels
Another summertime carnival, Spicemas, in Grenada, kicks off on the sister island of Carriacou with a regatta, before migrating to the mother island for a celebration of Grenada’s African, French, British and Caribbean cultures. The j’ouvert march features thousands of drum-beating “jab jab” performers and a masquerade parade, among many other festivities.
Vincy Mas, St. Vincent
St. Vincent is one of the least touristy destinations in the Caribbean, making its carnival one of the most authentic celebrations to experience. Two months of parties, or “fetes,” in June and July culminate in raucous, kerchief-waving costume parades. Vincy Mas season also includes the Miss St. Vincent competition and satellite celebrations on the islands of Bequia, Mustique and Union Island.
St. Lucia is best known for its spectacular scenery and posh resorts, but the year-round, weekly jump-up — a street party of music, food and dancing — in Gros Islets shows that this island knows how to party too. No surprise, then, that all of St. Lucia comes out to celebrate carnival in July. The fact that the original St. Lucia Carnival parades ended at the home of Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott illustrates that this truly is a carnival for people from all walks of life, locals and visitors.
Bonaire may be the smallest of the Dutch Caribbean “ABC islands” (Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao), but its annual carnival is a big-time event. The Lenten festival traditionally starts with a parade in Rincon, the oldest village on the island, and then continues with parties in the capital of Kralendijk and the costumed Marcha di Despedida road march. In addition to the usual calypso and soca, you’ll hear plenty of tumba, the island’s indigenous music that blends African roots with influences of merengue and Latin jazz.
San Pedro Carnaval, Belize
Not every place in the Caribbean is an island. There are nations in Central and South America that touch the Caribbean Sea and share a similar culture, as demonstrated during the annual San Pedro Carnival in Belize. Held in San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, this three-day party includes masquerade balls, beach parties, parades and the burning of an effigy of Don Juan Carnaval, symbolizing the purging of sins before Lent begins.
Toronto’s Caribana is a mas gathering of the Caribbean diaspora — Photo courtesy of geniebird, Getty Images
The Caribbean’s “coolest” Carnival isn’t in the islands at all, but in the Great White North. Every July, the city of Toronto embraces the spirit of carnival with Caribana, which claims to be the largest cultural celebration in North America and a mas gathering of the Caribbean diaspora. Caribana attracts more than a million people annually for a weeklong party that includes steel-pan band performances and a masquerade parade with tens of thousands of marchers.