The hit movie musical In the Heights, featuring a New York City neighborhood of immigrants, has renewed interest in the history and celebration of Carnival.
However, the best way to join the party is by visiting some of the different countries where it’s been practiced for centuries.
The best spots to experience Carnival in the Caribbean have their own unique flavor and spirit, so plan more than one trip if you can.
To get the full experience, you should start at the root of it all. Carnival began on the island-nation of Trinidad and Tobago in the colonial era, when Catholics from France and Spain brought their Mardi Gras tradition with them. These new settlers joined a strong African community recently freed from slavery, so Carnival evolved into a festival for freedom, too. Soon the party spread to the other islands, but Trinidad’s is the wildest.
The celebration is actually called Crop Over in Barbados to mark the end of sugar cane season. There are almost two months of activities, so it’s worth buying a place to rent out to tourists. Depending on your priorities, you can hear calypso and soca music, attend the flower festival, see (and buy!) historic arts and crafts, sample the rum, and dance your feathers off.
The first Monday in August is Kadooment Day, a great Barbados holiday when everyone celebrates in the streets of Barbados and then goes for a swim at Brandons Beach.
Now for something completely different: Curacao offers a toned-down interpretation of Carnival, somewhat Disney-fied for families. That means you’ll see a lot less skin. The Dutch Island crowns a king and queen of the festival—both adult and teen versions.
Even younger revelers will love the horse parade and the children’s farewell march. One unique event is the burning of Momo, a large doll made of straw that symbolizes bad luck.
From June to mid-July, visitors are treated to steel band competitions and all kinds of sounds, such as reggae, calypso, and soca. The Power and Groovy Monarch contest awards a prize for both up-tempo (power) and more chill (groove) music.
Pageants mix in with these festivities, although locals no longer feel they need an excuse to show off their bikinis, jewels, and beads. It all culminates in the capital cities of Castries with two days of costume parades, including live bands and DJs.
Food lovers adore Grenada for its tradition of supplying spices to the world, particularly nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, and ginger. Their African, British, French, and native heritage influences their Carnival—in short, there’s something for everyone. The Spice Mas festival is held in St. George’s in August, and if you’d like to admire costumes held together with fabric, you’ll admire the “Vieux Corp” gowns.
For travelers who like edgier celebrations, you’ll see masqueraders in “Jab Jab” garb: black oil, horns, and chains. It hearkens back to the island’s slavery past and triumphant freedom.
If you can’t travel during the summer, you can still find places in this constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands where Carnival runs from New Year’s Day to the first week in March. Local dressmakers show their stuff with street parades called “jump ups,” which culminate in a two-day festival. The Grand Parade first struts in San Nicolas then moves the next day to Oranjestad. It’s the largest and longest Carnival parade on the islands.