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Caribbean carnivals: eight iconic events and when to go

From the ‘mother of all carnivals’ in Trinidad to those on the lesser-known islands, carnival in the Caribbean offers a rare immersive experience beyond the beaches and rainforests, all while preserving traditions for generations to come.

Saint Lucia's annual carnival is the tiny island’s biggest cultural event. 

Photograph by Alamy
By Lebawit Girma
Published 8 Jul 2022, 15:00 BST

Come play ah mas! The call of carnival rings year-round in the Caribbean. Beyond the lure of flamboyant costumes and dancing in the streets, carnival is the region’s most significant cultural event. 

Its early origins are often credited to the pre-Lenten Mardi Gras debauchery and masquerade balls that European Catholics brought to Trinidad (and other Caribbean destinations) in colonial times. But the enslaved West Africans also kept their traditional masquerading rituals, which they performed in their spaces, and tapped into drumming and rebellious chants to mock the colonial masters, as a form of defiance. Over the years, an evolved form of masquerade or ‘mas’ took shape, and when slavery was abolished, it spilled onto the streets — the precursor to the modern-day carnival.

While the multiple carnivals in the region bear similarities, each destination’s event features distinct traditions, from food to music and craftsmanship. What they have in common, however, is that carnival symbolises independence while at the same time honouring their ancestors’ resistance amid suffering.

“It’s a celebration of who we are,” explains Maria Blackman, marketing communications manager at the Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority. “It’s been a hard two years without this fellowship.”

Social impact aside, carnival contributes a whopping $124bn (£102bn) a year to the economies of the Caribbean and Latin America. “It also gives the artists — the costume makers, the musicians, the performers — a chance to put their work on display.”    

Below, we explore five of the region’s most iconic carnivals, and recommend three of the more lesser known to discover.

The annual celebration in Trinidad is widely dubbed 'the mother of all carnivals'.

Photograph by Alamy

1. Trinidad Carnival     

16-23 February 2023

Trinidad, birthplace of carnival, drew more than 35,000 overseas visitors in 2019. “People can actually purchase a costume and join in the parade in Trinidad,” says travel expert Esha Herbert-Davis of Trinidad Carnival Packages. “The entire country is immersed in it.”

Masqueraders gather at the key parades of J’ouvert — their mud, oil or paint covered bodies dance in the streets from 4am Monday until sunrise — followed by Carnival Monday and culminating in Carnival Tuesday or ‘Pretty Mas’ when all the feather, glitter and jewelled costumes emerge.

Carnival King and Queen, and Panorama, a steel pan band competition held in the instrument’s birthplace, are as popular as the ‘fetes’ or themed parties that make Trinidad a carnival trendsetter. But it’s also about tradition — marking the start of the carnival is the re-enactment of the Canboulay riots of 1881, when emancipated slaves were celebrating freedom and the British failed in their attempt to ban their carnival celebrations.

Finally, fuelling up on local foods — doubles, bake and shark, roti, pelau and pineapple chow — really adds to the Trinidadian cultural experience.

2. Antigua Carnival     

23 July to 2 Aug 2022  

Antigua Carnival has grown in popularity since its official launch in 1957, following years of informal celebrations. More than 80 organised fetes take place prior to the final carnival parade weekend, but visitors should ask about ‘pan yaad hopping’ meet ups, when locals go to watch steel pan players practice at home on weekend evenings — these events often turn into parties. 

At ‘T-Shirt mas’ on Saturday, revellers parade in elaborate swimsuits or casual cut-off outfits. “All the characters come out for J’ouvert,” explains Antigua Tourism’s Blackman, citing the painted and powdered-down bodies and men disguised in women’s wigs who parade past midnight on Carnival Monday until daybreak. Starting in 2022, the J’ouvert route will showcase local cuisine: fried fish, conch water, goat water, souse and bakes. 

Another distinct feature of carnival on Antigua are the iron bands that join in the parades. Cowbells, car rims and any other piece of iron locals can get their hands are used to create infectious beats for the crowd.

Sister island Barbuda’s Caribana festival takes place in June. 

3. Saint Lucia Carnival  

7-19 July 2022

Saint Lucia Carnival became official in 1947 and packs a significant punch as this small island’s biggest cultural event. Centred in Castries, season festivities include boat ride parties and soca fetes that sell out quickly — Escape and U4RIA are among the most popular.

Because it’s a summer festival, soca artists from Trinidad, Barbados, Grenada and other neighbouring destinations often perform at Lucian Carnival, as it’s affectionately known, which means more value for your money without the huge crowds. 

“That’s one event I’ll always attend because we don’t want to lose that part of carnival,” says Kelly Fontenelle, a Lucian native and co-founder of Travel Advisors Selling the Caribbean, about the Junior Panorama steel pan competition. Artist competitions Calypso Monarch and Soca Monarch are local favourites as well.

There’s more time to wind down and immerse yourself in island life in between events in St Lucia thanks to the small island commute — including a ‘Las Lap Mas’ on Tuesday evening.

Barbados's Crop Over Festival symbolises the end of the harvesting season.

Photograph by Alamy

4. Crop Over Festival, Barbados     

22 July to 2 August 2022 (usually starts in June)

Dating back to 1687, when Barbados was the world’s largest sugar producer, Crop Over Festival symbolises the end of the harvesting season. It’s also one of the longest-running carnival seasons in the region.

The ‘sweetest summer festival’, as locals call it, kicks off with the Delivery of the Last Canes — a ceremony marking the end of the sugar cane harvest season with an elaborate show, from skits to costumed dances and calypso music concerts.

Pic-O-De Crop is a calypso artist competition where new talent aims for the Calypso Monarch title and prizes. The Junior Calypso Monarch is where culture is passed down to future generations. Shoppers on carnival weekend should head to the Bridgetown Market Street Fair, which features local foods, crafts and live performers.

As with most Caribbean islands, carnival Monday and Tuesday parades — Fore Day Morning or J’ouvert, and the Grand Kadooment parade — are the highlight of Crop Over. Grand Kadooment launches from the national stadium; expect the most glamorous masqueraders to take over the streets, including celebrities such as Bajan-born Rihanna. 

5. Spicemas, Grenada

8-9 Aug 2022

Named after the island’s bounty of spices, Spicemas kicks off a season of celebration that lasts from late April through to the second Monday and Tuesday in August.

There’s nothing quite like the sight of the Grenadian Jab Jabs — masqueraders whose glistening black oiled-bodies take over the J’ouvert morning parade. They wear helmets with devil horns and drag chains from their bodies, while a smoked herring might protrude from their red painted lips. They lunge and move in jubilance, as a satire of the devilish colonial master but also as a symbol of strength and freedom.    

Bacchanal Friday or Soca Monarch, and Pantastic Saturday also rank among Spicemas’ most attended events. But Monday Night Mas stands out, with masqueraders showing up at dusk to celebrate with glowing paraphernalia, from sticks to hats and lights. Carnival Tuesday is for the fancy costumed Parade of the Bands. After a couple days’ rest, there’s a last lap parade on Saturday along St George’s picturesque waterfront.

Three lesser-known carnivals to check out

 

1. Kayak Mas, Carriacou    

February, Pre-Lent

Carriacou’s carnival, known as Kayak Mas, launches on the weekend preceding Lent and offers a smaller, off-the-beaten track experience than big sister island Grenada. Its unique feature is the Shakespeare Mas — when costumed participants in masks and long robes face their opponent and take turns reciting Shakespeare verses. Forgetting the verse earns the loser whips, as spectators look on from the sidelines.

2. Carnaval Dominicano, Dominican Republic

Every Sunday in February to the first Sunday of March

Among the oldest yet least-known traditions, the Dominican Republic hosts Carnaval Dominicano every Sunday in February in each of its 31 provinces. The highlight is the national parade on the first Sunday in March, when more than 170 costumed bands from around the country descend on the capital, Santo Domingo, showcasing the country’s startling diversity, from the Taino influenced north coast to the African-influenced southwest in a vibrant parade on the seafront boulevard.

3. Vincy Mas, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines

24 June to 5 July 2022                                          

Island hopping while enjoying carnival is one of Vincy Mas’ distinct advantages. Highlights on this southernmost eastern Caribbean island include the Soca Monarch artist competition, Junior Pan Fest, and Mardi Gras Parade of the Bands on Tuesday in downtown Kingstown. J’ouvert on Union Island or on Bequia in The Grenadines is a good excuse to relax on those pristine beaches.

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