Nothing brings West Indians together like partying and celebrating their culture. Here are 15 islands that you can visit to experience what Carnival is like in the Caribbean.
Carnival showcases some of the best aspects of Caribbean culture. The music, dance, history, and vibrancy of West Indians are all evident during Carnival season. Although carnival originally began in Europe, from Catholic traditions, just like almost every other tradition, West Indians transformed the European carnival and made it their own. The first “Caribbean Carnival” took place in Trinidad and Tobago and featured raunchy carnival costumes, music, steel bands and drums, dancing in the street, and other activities that have been linked to African culture. From Trinidad, Caribbean carnival quickly spread to other islands and has been adopted as an annual event that brings people from all over the world to celebrate the island’s culture. Here are some of the islands that one can experience Carnival in the Caribbean.
What started as a way for slaves to celebrate with their own version of European masquerade balls has turned into one of the Caribbean’s biggest annual parties. Carnival in Trinidad takes place on the Monday and Tuesday directly before Ash Wednesday, usually in March, and revelers from all over the world line the streets decked out in the most flamboyant costumes, cover their bodies with oil, grease, chocolate, and mud as part of the sacred traditions, and dance nonstop to the music of steel drum bands. Port of Spain is the epicenter of all things Carnival in of Trinidad, but similar parties take place in various cities in Trinidad and Tobago.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines
Even though St. Vincent is one of the Caribbean’s smaller islands, the country has a huge appetite for Carnival. Vincy Mas, as it’s called in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, was traditionally celebrated a few days before Lent, but today, it has become a summer celebration, beginning in June and culminating in early July. Vincy Mas has all the typical elements of a Caribbean Carnival—vibrant costumes, street dances, calypso and street band music—as well as the unique J’Ouvert and Mardi Gras parade that takes place on the last two days of Carnival with bands, dancing, and music.
Martinique’s Carnival is a unique celebration of French and African culture that lasts for five days, beginning just before Lent (usually at the end of February or the beginning of March). There are costumes, singing, dancing, and music, as well as a Carnival King or Vaval, a mannequin made from paper, reeds, or wood that’s carried through the festival’s parades. An elected Carnival Queen is required to sit beside the Vaval until it is burned in a massive bonfire on the last day of Carnival.
Initially celebrated during Lent, Saint Lucian Carnival is a month-long summer celebration of sexy costumes, music, and the island’s culture. The celebrations start in June with a host of parties and events such as steel band competitions, pageants, and a Junior Carnival, but most revelers and spectators look forward to the last two days of Carnival, in mid-July, when the two-day costumes parade and Road March competition take place. Both women and men come scantily dressed in costumes with jewels, beads, and feathers and dance to plenty of soca, reggae, and calypso music.
Crop Over began in Barbados in the 1700s as a huge celebration that marked the end of a successful sugar cane harvest. After the decline of the sugar cane industry, the festival was revived and transformed into what we now know as Crop Over—one of the Caribbean’s most popular celebrations, due in part to annual celebrity sightings like Bajan-singer, Rihanna. The festival begins every May (or June, it varies) and runs until the first Monday in August when it culminates in The Grand Kadooment parade. During the weeks leading up to the finale, events such as Bridgetown’s massive craft and food market, competitions to determine the festival’s King and Queen, Kiddies Kadooment, and other competitions are held.
Grenada, the island of spice in the Caribbean, celebrates its very own “Spice Mas” Carnival every August. Spice Mas, while fun and entertaining with pageants, J’ouvert and a Monday Night Mas, also has deep-rooted and spiritual elements that are linked to the island’s colonial history. From the ShortKnee masquerade, a unique fusion of French and African culture, to the “Vieux corp” carnival gowns, Grenadians have managed to make their Carnival a distinctive and captivating experience. If you do happen to make it to the streets of St. George’s for Spice Mas, don’t be frightened if you see masqueraders covered in black oil, horns, and chains riding in the street. This portrayal is called “Jab Jab”, which is a long-time Grenadan-African slave tradition.
From New Year’s Day to the first week in March, Aruba offers its biggest cultural celebration. Local dressmakers turn out the best costumes for parade days as well as the annual carnival queen competition and pageants. Locals look forward to the Lighting Parade, a nighttime parade held in February that light up the streets. The weeks in between, Aruba has many street parades, locally called “jump-ups,” that lead up to the major parade in early March. The Grand Parade, as it is called, is held over two days, first in San Nicolas and then in the capital city, Oranjestad; it’s the largest and longest carnival parade held on the ABC islands. At the end of the celebrations, King Momo, a life-size effigy of the spirit of Aruba’s Carnival, is burnt to signal the end of the season.
Carnival in the Dominican Republic is not the typical Carnival celebration, and festivities are rooted in folklore, religion, and history. Instead of calypso and soca, you’ll more likely to hear merengue and bachata. Instead of barely-there costumes with jewels and feathers, you’ll more likely to see traditional Taino costumes and African garments. You’ll also spot a few interesting characters like the hen robber, as well as the Diablos (‘devils”), who wear masks that have long horns and pointed teeth. Parades take place every Sunday in the month of February in all the major cities, with the La Vega Carnival being the most popular.
Jamaican Carnival has gained a reputation for being one of the most popular and most exciting Carnivals in the Caribbean. Bacchanal, as it is called in Jamaica, combines all the traditional aspects of a Caribbean Carnival with Jamaica music, food, and vibrant people. The Bacchanal celebrations take place in Ocho Rios and Kingston and span from March to the end of April, where the final event, “Bacchanal Road March” takes place. Locals and tourists alike cover themselves with oil, glitter, and paint, and head out in their costumes to dance in the street or on brand trucks to the latest soca and dancehall tunes.
Under the theme “Come, Experience Life!,” the tiny island of St. Maarten comes alive during Carnival season in April. International celebrities and musicians are called upon to headline the island’s biggest annual cultural event that encourages people from all over the world to come “play mas.” Carnival in St. Maarten occurs over a 17-day period, filled with parades, music competitions, reggae and soca bands, vibrant costumes, dancing, and plenty of drinks and food. All Carnival festivities on the island are centered around the Carnival Village, the island’s largest arena and the specific location for all things related to Carnival.
In the first week of May, all Bahamians come together in the Bahamas, specifically Nassau, for a weeklong festive celebration. During this week, all the hotels and Airbnbs are practically booked out (so be sure to book in advance) as tourists visit the island to enjoy the food, weather, and culture as well as to take part in the Carnival celebrations. The most popular reggae and soca artists are booked to keep revelers entertained with live music as they make their way through the huge parades. Bahamian Carnival is not to be confused with Junkanoo, which is a street parade with similar elements that takes place in December.
Carnival in Curaçao is held from January to March with several events and parades that make the festivities memorable for everyone, no matter the age. Teen and adult King and Queen competitions, a teen Carnival parade, a children’s parade, and a range of “jump-ups” (what locals refer to as street parades) are all scheduled leading up to the two major events, The Gran Marcha (“The Grand Parade”) and the Marcha di Despedida (“the Farewell March”), which mark the official end of the carnival season.
Carnival in Puerto Rico, officially called Carnaval Ponceño, is an annual weeklong celebration held in the city of Ponce that typically begins the week before Lent (either February or March). During Carnival week, parties and parades are a daily happening, starting with the Parade of the Carnival King and ending with the “Burial of the Sardine” (Entierro de la Sardina) ceremony on the day before Ash Wednesday. Puerto Rico’s culture has major Spanish influence so many of the traditions, ceremonies, and costumes that one will see during Carnaval Ponceño are an ode to Puerto Rico’s Catholic roots.
Mas Domnik, also known as Real Mas, takes place in February on the streets of Roseau in Dominica. The festivities are a combination of French masquerade traditions, African culture, and modern Caribbean cultural elements. Real Mas takes place on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, but preceding the main events are Calypso shows, concerts, village feasts, and festival pageants. On the days of the carnival parades, locals and visitors come out to showcase their colorful attire, painted masks, sensay costumes (a traditional Ghanian garment), painted bodies and dance to the music played by the J’ouvert bands and guests performers.
From the beginning of January to Ash Wednesday, carnival festivities liven up the islands of Guadeloupe, but the major events—the Opening Parade and the Grand Parade, which feature music, bands, and skimpy costumes with matching headwear—are held in the capital city of Basse-Terre. The agenda for the festival includes events such as singing and dancing contests, costumed processions, and a competition to determine the Carnival King and Queen. After the festivities have ended, King Vaval (a symbolic figure for Carnival) is burnt on Ash Wednesday to mark the end of Carnival season.