It may be cold up north, but it’s heating up in the Caribbean: February is the official month of Carnival, the last hurrah before Lent begins. Many islands celebrate the event, but each has its own unique spin. So pack your dancing shoes: These Caribbean islands know how to get into the spirit of February’s bacchanal.
Caribbean Carnival’s big daddy kicks into high gear the moment Christmas is over, and the run-up is as much fun as Carnival proper. Hit the mas camps to check out outrageous costumes and steel-pan bands as they ramp up for their annual battle, Panorama. J’ouvert, or “dirty mas,” at daybreak on Carnival Monday, is a you-only-live-once chance to smear yourself head to toe with paint, mud — even chocolate. It’s the island’s dry season, so there’s no threat to body paint. But be forewarned: between hotels, flights and costumes, it takes six months to plan.
At this multi-day festival, look for traditional characters like La Po Fig (dressed in dried banana leaves) and Neg Gwo Siwo (covered in dark molasses), plus glitzy cross-dressing men who are the brides at Monday’s Burlesque Weddings — and women dress as grooms. Some good news for partying types: Unlike other Caribbean islands, Martinique’s revelry keeps going till sunset on Ash Wednesday.
The costumes don’t quite have the wow of Trinidad‘s, but Carnival on Grenada’s tiny sister isle lets you experience a tradition you won’t find elsewhere: On Fat Tuesday, pairs of masqueraders square off to recite sections of Julius Caesar during”Shakespeare Mas.” Competitors are egged on by a crowd waiting for mistakes: Flubbing your lines earns a blow from your opponent’s stick. (Luckily, the costumes are heavily padded for protection.)
Trade calypso and soca and dance in the streets to merengue and bachata instead. Fantastical papiermâché caretas (masks) are the heart of this island’s Carnival, especially in Santiago and La Vega. But beware the diablos, whose masks have long horns (sometimes from cattle) and pointed teeth. Their traditional role is to “punish” the sinners with a smack on the rear — delivered with a balloon.
Parades swarm the streets of Oranjestad, Aruba’s capital, the day before Ash Wednesday: In fact, Carnival events bring together most of the island’s residents in the four weeks leading up to Carnival, with the Lighting Parade, Children’s Parades and the Pajama Party. The island also burns an effigy of King Momo at midnight to mark the end of Carnival season.
How could you not enjoy a celebration that starts with The Burning of the Bad Mood? In Merida, the region’s capital, parades are raucous but not raunchy: At these family affairs, candies and beads are tossed to the crowd; at the Parade of the Battle of the Flowers, fresh blooms are the missile of choice. The weeklong party ends when “Juan Carnival” is buried, bringing the city back to normal life.