The biggest parties around the world are about to kick off, because it is time for Carnival. While in some places people have been celebrating in preparation for months now, festivities begin in earnest this coming weekend and culminate on Fat Tuesday, February 12, though many continue the partying afterward, too. A number of destinations in Latin America go all-out to celebrate Carnival, with multiple generations coming out for the merrymaking. In many places, the Monday and Tuesday of Carnival also are designated as national holidays.
From Trinidad to Brazil, Carnival is the year’s most anticipated event for locals, and scores of tourists also are drawn to the destinations to celebrate alongside them. Each place has its own, history, culture and customs incorporated into the festivities, which make it one of the most interesting – not to mention fun – times to visit. Here is where to go, what to do and what to know for Carnival in Latin America. If you don’t make it this year, there always is next year!
1. Carnaval: Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Simply put, Carnival in Rio is legendary. International tourists and Brazilians alike know it is the place to be to experience holiday, and celebrating Carnival in Rio is on many people’s bucket lists. The city and its residents go all out to host and organize the event at one of Brazil’s most exciting and beautiful beachside cities.
Hit the blocos
People party in and take over the streets during Carnival in Rio. While it might seem like there is no organization to the joyous chaos, the street parties (called blocos) are in fact strategized events, and hundreds taking place every Carnival season. Neighborhoods or cultural organizations put them on, and you’ll get live music, dancing, a moving party and a fun crowd, because most people use them as an excuse to congregate in one spot and party. Find a blocos schedule online (such as here), or just follow the music.
Don a costume
Halloween is not the holiday it is in the U.S. elsewhere around the world. Instead, Carnival is when many people break out their impressive, absurd and entertaining costumes. Have fun with what you wear when you head out during the day, because a lot of other people will be, too.
See the Sambadrómo shows
The biggest, most exciting events of Carnival are the Rio Carnival Samba Parades, and there really is no grander show in the world. Samba schools spend all year preparing for the events, practicing the music and moves and creating their detailed, larger-than-life floats and costumes. The combination competition-shows take place in Rio’s Sambadrómo. Grab your tickets as early as possible, because they sell out quickly.
2. Carnaval: Salvador de Bahia
Salvador de Bahía, Brazil
Carnival in Salvador de Bahía is perhaps less widely known internationally as compared with Rio, but organizers claim it is the largest Carnival gathering in the world. Also, Brazilians will be the first to tell you it is where Brazil’s “real” Carnival happens, though it also is known for being a little rougher around the edges as compared with Rio.
Take in the music
Salvador is beloved for the effervescent energy of its people and music, and the Brazilian Carnival’s classic music originates in this northeastern coastal city. Axé and samba-reggae are the two main genres, and the music, dancing and celebrations of Carnival in Salvador have heavy Afro influences. Many of the region’s residents claim African heritage, and Carnival in Salvador is the perfect way to learn about and enjoy Afro-Brazilian culture.
Follow the famous
As compared with the blocos in Rio, Salvador blocos are much grander events and feture big-name artists. Top musicians, including drummers and singers, will headline blocos. People crowd the streets and follow the float for a free, thrilling outdoor concert from some of their favorite musicians. Claudia Leite, Olodum and Daniela Mercury all are top musicians performing.
Carnival in Salvador might just be the biggest party in the world, and it gets crazy. Distance yourself a little from the thick crowds and pay for an abadá, which grants you entry into the cordoned-off area closer to the musical talent. You also get a special t-shirt (the “abadá”) for the bloco, which doubles as a cool souvenir.
3. Carnaval: Port of Spain
Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago
It is said people in Trinidad spend all year preparing for Carnival, and when it is not happening they are talking about it, whether reminiscing about last year’s revelry or planning for the next installment. Everyone on the island comes out to celebrate, and while there are smaller parties across the island, Port of Spain is the capital.
Jump in the parade
Locals are all-inclusive about Carnival celebrations, and tourists can participate in the parade of “mas” bands, which include elaborate, bejeweled costumes. If you would rather have the costume without strutting down the route, you can buy them directly from the band camps. Another option to really get hands-on with the festivities: Wear old clothes or a costume and participate in J’Ouvert or “Dirty Mas,” which takes place late Sunday before Fat Tuesday and involves people spreading clay mud and paint on each other.
Attend the parties
Carnival parties are a critical part of the event calendar, and here they are called fêtes. You can get all dressed up to attend, and you have your pick of many. One of the chicest events on the island is the Hyatt Regency Trinidad’s annual LIME Fête, with proceeds going toward charity, live entertainment, tasty Caribbean eats and a waterfront setting. You can find out more information about many of the parties here.
See the steel drum competition
The steel drum, a classic Caribbean instrument, can be heard all over Trinidad and Tobago come Carnival time. Rounds of the annual steelband competition, called the National Panorama Competition, begin long before Carnival, but close on the Saturday of Carnival weekend.
4. Carnaval: Barranquilla
Barranquilla’s Carnival celebration is one of the most interesting and diverse in the world. In fact, UNESCO has given its seal of approval to the annual event, dubbing it a World Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. If you want a big dose of culture with your Carnival carousing, Barranquilla puts on a good show.
Dance to all different beats
It wouldn’t be a Colombian celebration without salsa music and dancing, but Carnival in Barranquilla also features other traditional and beloved music genres. Musical styles like cumbia, mapalé, which is African-influenced, and chandé (folklore), among many others are played throughout Carnival. All are slightly different but entirely Colombian, and you can hear them during Barranquilla’s festivities.
Learn about folklore
Barranquilla’s major Carnival parade, which takes place on the Saturday before Fat Tuesday, is the crowning event of Carnival and makes it clear why the city’s celebration is worthy of UNESCO’s title and upholds it. Elaborate floats pass by for hours during the parade, costumed revelers walk and troupes perform local folklore dances. Carnival celebrations here are rooted in the 1800s, with traditions still alive in today’s parades.
Know your costumes
You likely will see a few types of costumes regularly during Carnival celebrations. One of the common character costumes is La Marimonda, which involve masks with long noses, hoods and brightly colored pants and tops. These costumes originated in Baranquilla. You also will catch some royalty – every Carnival has a king and queen. The king is King Momo, and he is a major figure in the celebrations. The queen, who is chosen at the end of one celebration for the following year, oversees events like the parade and the symbolic burial of Joselito Carvajal, who as legend has it, is a man who represents the Carnival spirit and passes away after the four days of Carnival partying.
5. Carnaval: Dominican Republic
Carnaval Domenicano is widely celebrated across the country, where some of the largest Carnival celebrations in the region take place, so no matter where you are in the country over the holiday you can expect a good time.
See the National Parade
Santa Domingo’s Carnival parade is the biggest in the country and across Latin America. Groups from all over the country travel to the capital to partake, so it presents a fascinating cross-section of all the different costumes and traditions from the island.
Visit different towns
Each local town or city has its own interpretation of Carnival and way of celebrating the holiday. Try to plan to visit a few different places to get different tastes of what the celebration in the Dominican Republic is like. Many festivities have a close local connection, too, because community groups and families that band together often are the parade and party organizers.
Learn the characters
Dominicans craft and wear elaborate costumes, including masks, which make the parades very visually entertaining. The celebration is considered a topsy-turvy event, so interesting figures appear. One of the most popular costumes is a limping devil, called Diablo cojuelo. Carnival has strong religious ties, and this representation is a satire of the devil. Other traditional figures who appear in Dominican Carnival festivities are a grim reaper figure and Roba la gallina that involves a men wearing dresses and pokes fun at how people historically stole chickens.