Opulent masks adorned with thousands of sequins, rhythmic tunes ranging from Calypso to Samba and copious amounts of spray foam are but a few of the elements you will find at the various Carnivals in Latin America. Read on to find the 10 best celebrations to add to your cultural bucket list.
Heralding from Belgium, Carnival for me has always been a celebration where kids dress up and adults have another excuse for a party. Truth be told, there the festivities have never been very alluring to me. That all changed when I got a chance to partake in the wonderous Carnival of Oruro in Bolivia where celebrations are steeped in many centuries of tradition, and the handmade costumes display a level of dedication and skill rarely found today.
After a little digging, it soon became clear to me that Latin America has a wealth of places to celebrate Carnival, each one a reflection of their rich cultural identity and – oftentimes – complicated past. To avoid being overly text-laden, I have divided the list into eight Carnivals in South America and two in Latin America (Dominican Republic and Mexico).
Why is Carnival in Latin America worth partaking in?
Before I start to convince you of anything, let’s take a step back and look at the history of Carnival for a minute. The Catholic festival of Carnaval is set to end on Fat Tuesday or exactly 40 days before Easter, traditionally known as the Lent Period. During these 40 days, devout Catholics abstain from eating red meat. The word Carnival is derived from the Latin “carne levare” or “to take away meat”.
When Spanish settlers arrived in Latin America, they observed locals partaking in rituals they deemed “pagan” i.e. not according to their Catholic faith. Many of these traditions involved worshipping Pachamama (mother earth). In an attempt to maintain their culture, the indigenous population continued performing their rituals under the guise of Catholicism and so a hybrid form of Carnival was born.
Many of the traditional dances performed during the Carnival parades stem from pre-colonial times. Characters of the dancers vary from country to country, consistently reflecting historical moments or characters that were of great importance (African Slaves, 18th-century bourgeois ladies, Incas,…). There is a whole lot more going on than mere drunken debauchery (though that of course is part of the fun!).
Top 10 Carnivals in Latin America
Truth be told, choosing a mere 10 carnival celebrations to write about was hard. The more digging I did, the clearer it became that virtually every country in Latin America has its own version of Carnival. Perhaps one day I will expand this post to contain celebrations in all 33 countries.
For now, I have tried opted to choose festivities that are not only diverse in their origins and celebrations but also in the budget required. Rio de Janeiro is by far the most expensive Carnival in all of Latin America, while the unknown Uruguan Carnival in Montevideo might just be the most authentic and budget-friendly.
TIP: Make sure to book your bus tickets in advance as public transportation tends to fill up quickly during Carnival. I always book via Busbud as they offer the best easy-to-navigate website.
8 CARNIVALS IN SOUTH AMERICA
1. Gualeguaychú Carnival (Argentina)
Main Events: Every Saturday of the month January and the three official Carnival days
Where to stay: Find hotels in Gualeguaychú
Carnival in Argentina is not widely celebrated as it is in other parts of South America. The festivities are in fact limited to the northeastern province of Entre Ríos and more specifically the city of Gualeguaychú where celebrations have been held since the 19th century.
If you are looking for a more affordable version of the Rio de Janeiro Carnival, you might want to consider heading down to Argentina. Each Saturday of the month of January and the three official days of Carnival, the city of Gualeguaychú holds Carnival parades. The festivities take place in the Corsódromo, a building specifically built for Carnival parades.
During the parade, rhinestone and feather-clad groups of dancers perform to the tunes of rhythmic samba music. The procession is accompanied by 12 larger-than-life floats each measuring up to 17 meters in length and height and a whopping 8 meters wide. Dancers are part of one of five official comparsas (or groups) of which only three may perform on a yearly basis.
To ascertain which groups may dance, a competition is held amongst the five groups. Entrance to the Corsódromo is not free, book your tickets (and accommodation) well in advance as this is a very popular festival amongst local tourists. Expect to pay between 350 and 450 Argentine pesos for a ticket.
TIP: After celebrating Carnival, make your way down to Patagonia as this is the very best time of the year to visit this wonderful part of Argentina.
2. Carnival of Rio de Janeiro (Brazil)
Main Events: Weekend before Lent (Official Parade), the weekend after Lent (Winners Parade)
Where to stay: Find hotels in Rio de Janeiro
Carnival in Rio de Janeiro is the largest Carnival in South America and without a doubt the most notorious. Festivities date back to the 19th century although it was not until the 20th century that Samba was introduced to the Brazilian Carnival, it has since then become a core pillar of the festival.
In fact, the various parades held in Rio differ from those found elsewhere in South America. They are less an expression of long-standing indigenous traditions performed under the guise of a Christian holiday and more a competition between Samba schools and a very good reason to party.
Leading up to the official Carnival week, every weekend in February the streets of Rio are alive with music and festivities. Celebrations take one of two forms: Street parties called “blocos” and the official parade.
Traditionally the official parade is held over two weekends. The first weekend is dedicated to the official competition in which 70 local samba schools compete. While the second weekend the winning Samba school is heralded in with its very own parade.
The competition is taken very seriously; each samba school takes a full year to prepare its costumes, float and performance which takes the form of original songs and a unique theme involving a tribute to local artists or songs about social causes. The Rio Carnival parade takes place in the “Marques de Sapucai”, close to the iconic Maracana Stadium and is a paid event. Tickets need to be bought well in advance.
The street “blocos” consist of a sound truck upon which a band or DJ plays tunes. The truck drive from point A to B with large crowds trailing along, singing and dancing. The “blocos” are free of charge, but they do follow an official schedule. Before attending, make inquiries into the itinerary followed by the trucks.
3. Carnival of Oruro (Bolivia)
Main Events: Weekend before Lent, Saturday before Lent the main parade is held.
Where to stay: Find accommodations in Oruro
The vibrant Carnival of Oruro in Bolivia is my favorite Carnival in Latin America. The beautiful Andean traditions interlaced with Christian Traditions and covered in the most opulent Carnival costumes are a feast for anyone looking to experience a true cultural immersion. This is exactly the reason why the Oruro Carnival received the recognition as Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.
The festivals have the dual goal of venerating the Virgin Mary of the Socavon as well as appeasing the evil spirits roaming the land. Like most of the Carnival celebrations in South America, the highlight of the festivities is a day-long parade in which 50 groups of dancers (roughly 70.000 people) partake in a 4-kilometer-long procession.
Dancers perform one of the fifteen traditional dances and are decked out in a variety of costumes representing good (Archangel Michael) and evil (Devils). It is customary for carnival-goers to spray foam on just about anyone except the dancers. In the past water balloons were also thrown, however this is now illegal.
Tip: If you want to view the parade, it is best to purchase tickets the day beforehand to ensure you have a seat in one of the bleachers lining the parade route.
4. Carnaval Andino Con la Fuerza del Sol (Chile)
Main Events: First or second weekend of Feb (Grande Entrada)
Where to stay: Find a place to stay in Arica
The Carnaval Andino con la Fuerzo del Sol or Andean Carnival with the Strength of the Sun is the third largest Carnival in Latin America. It is held yearly at the beginning of February in the small town of Arica in northern Chile. What sets this particular Carnival aside is the fact it brings together a variety of different participants: Chilean, Peruvian, Bolivian, Afro-descendants and Aymara.
The origins of the Carnaval Andino date back to pre-Columbian times when indigenous communities celebrated the summer solstice as a time of renewal and fertility. With the arrival of the Spanish, Catholic elements were incorporated into the celebrations, resulting in a unique blend of indigenous and Christian traditions.
Throughout the three days of celebrations over 64 dance groups comprising of 16.000 dancers parade along a 2-kilometer long circuit that runs along Avenida Comandante San Martín, San Marcos, Arturo Prat. Paseo 21 de Mayo and Pedro Montt Avenue.
Much like the UNESCO-heritage Carnival in Oruro, the costumes adorned by the dancers represent various mythical and historical figures. They are usually handmade, oftentimes with natural materials such as feathers, leather and wool. Dancers are accompanied by large bands of musicians playing traditional Andean musical instruments (quena, zampoña, and charango) is omnipresent.
TIP: If you can, make sure to add in a trip to Easter Island when you visit Chile!
5. Baranquilla Carnival (Colombia)
Main Events: Four days before Lent – Battle of the Flowers Show (Saturday); Carnival Parade (Sunday); Orchestra Festival (Monday); Symbolic burial of the Joselito Carnaval (Tuesday)
Where to stay: Find hotels in Barranquilla
The Colombian city of Barranquilla hosts the second-largest Carnival in South America, it is the country’s most important folkloric celebration and dates back to the 19Th century. Partaking in this four-day extravaganza is one of the best things to do in Barranquilla.
As is the case for many of the Carnivals in Latin America, Barranquilla’s Carnival is heavily influenced by the culture, music and dance of indigenous people and the African slaves from the 18th century, fused with pagan ceremonies and Catholic beliefs. This is reflected in the various dances performed during the parades: the Spanish paloteo, African Congo, and indigenous mico y micas. In fact, it is this eclectic mix that led the Carnival to be classified as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2003.
Celebrations start on Saturday before Ash Wednesday (or Lent) with the beautiful parade of floats known as the Battle of Flowers. Sunday is when the great parade is held, and folkloric groups of dancers make their way along Via 40 dancing to cumbia, chandé or fandango.
The keen observer will spot some of the traditional costumes such as El Garabato, El Africano, Drácula, El Torito, El Congo, El Monocuco, Los Cabezones, Las Muñeconas, El Tigrillo and the hooded figure of Marimondas. Day three is marked by the Great Fantasy Parade and the Orchestras Festival while the fourth day is the symbolic burial of the Joselito Carnaval, the character that symbolizes the joy of Carnival.
Throughout these four days locals and tourists come together and enjoy the dancing and music, the whole city turns into a huge party with people celebrating everywhere to the sound of the Colombian cumbia rhythms. The locals enjoy covering each other in foam and flour, so make sure to bring a rain jacket to cover your clothes.
6. Carnival in French Guiana
Main Events: Paré-masked ball (Saturday before Lent); Grande Parade (Sunday before Lent)
Where to stay: Find accommodations in Cayenne
Carnival in French Guiana is unlike anywhere else in the world, it is a joyful mix of different cultures which is best described as Afro-Caribbean. It might not be the most well-known South American Carnival but it is the longest! Celebrations start right after Epiphany and end of Ash Wednesday.
Every Saturday between Epiphany and Lent, the masked Touloulou Carnival queens take to the streets of Cayenne, Kourou, and Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni. to dance. They are easily recognizable by their costumes: Elegant petticoats, a domino mask and long gloves to hide every little bit of skin. The objective is to go completely incognito. These mysterious women invite various gentlemen to dance with them, the gentlemen in question may not refuse the request. Music and dancing go on deep into the night, after which locals indulge in a delicious Creole-style Carnival dish called blaff.
Sundays are for watching the parade which is made up of beautiful floats and colorful dancers. The largest and most important parade is known as the “Grand Parade”, held the Sunday before Ash Wednesday in Cayenne.
Carnival is without a doubt one of the main reasons why French Guiana should be on your bucket list! This vibrant spectacle has taken many months of preparation with groups dressing according to a specific theme of the year. The most recognizable costumes are those of the Touloulou, King Vaval, Neg’Marrons (sporting red loincloths), Zombi baréyé, ( a zombie) and Jwé farin ( the baker).
7. El Callao Carnival (Venezuela)
Main Events: Saturday before Lent (Main Parade), Sunday before Lent at 04.00 am (Agricultura Parade)
Where to stay: You will need to look outside the traditional Booking.com and Airbnb platforms
Much like the Oruro Carnival, El Callao Carnival has received recognition as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. Festivities start on Thursday before Lent and end on Shrove Tuesday (or the Tuesday before Lent itself).
The tiny mining town of El Callao has a 150-year tradition of celebrating Carnival. What makes the festivities here unique to other places in South America is the addition of cultural traditions stemming from the French and English-speaking Caribbean islands whose inhabitants flocked to El Callao during the 1850 gold rush.
Parades and festivities are held to the tune of rhythmic calypso music. Popular characters include Las Madamas (wearing Turbans), La Negra Isidora Agñes, Medio Pintos (tar-covered men), Diablos (devils) and Mineros (miners).
The highlight of Carnival is the main parade, held on the Saturday before Lent. Led by the Madamas, followed by the Medio-pintos and the Diablos and finally numerous Carnival groups, the procession makes its way through the main artery of the town. Festivities go on until the early hours of the morning (04.00 am) after which the Agricultura Parade is held to celebrate the sowing of seeds.
8. Montevideo Carnival (Uruguay)
Main Events: Last weekend of January (Inaugural Parade), Weekend before Lent (Parade of the Calls or Desfile de las Llamadas)
Where to stay: Find a hotel in Montevideo
Carnival in Montevideo has somehow remained firmly under the tourist radar ensuring it has remained wonderfully authentic. Celebrations start as early as the end of January and usually run until the beginning of March, unlike other Carnivals in South America it does not end with Lent.
Festivities are kicked off with the Inaugural Parade where locals line the streets from 07.00 pm until 04.00 am to watch the procession of the Carnival groups and throw confetti at each other. The procession includes dancers, musicians, floats, and even pantomime troupes.
During the next 40 days, Tablados are put on across the city. These are little shows with local artists, dancers, and comedians performed in public spaces. The shows require a small fee to be paid by their audience.
The undisputed highlight of Uruguayan Carnival is the Parade of the Calls or Desfile de las Llamadas which is held the weekend before Lent. The Parade of the Calls is an interesting mixture of African slave culture and European influences which translates into dancers, Carnival characters, stilt-walkers and energetic drummers. This spectacle can be witnessed from the bleachers (US$ 10) or alternatively from the terrace of one of the Spanish colonial houses which can be rented for the night.
2 ADDITIONAL UNMISSABLE LATIN AMERICAN CARNIVALS
While most of this article does concern festivities in South America, I wanted to highlight two additional carnivals – one in the Caribbean island of the Dominican Republic and the other in Mexico.
1. Carnival in the Dominican Republic
Main Events: La Vega Carnival Parade (dates vary every year), Santo Domingo parade on February 27th
Where to stay: Check for sustainable accommodations in Santo Domingo
In the 40 days leading up to Lent, the Caribbean island of the Dominican Republic transforms into an explosion of colors, music and dancers running around in highly ornate costumes. According to various historical sources the very first Carnival held in Latin America was right here on the island back in the 16th century. Since then Carnival has become an integral part of local culture and even one of the most important celebrations of the year.
The start of Carnival is marked by a large Carnival gala in Santiago de Los Caballeros, which unlike other celebrations is held indoors. Following the gala are 40 days of celebration which end on the first day of Lent. Parades are traditionally held every Sunday during this pre-Lenten period. Each and every corner of the islands is engulfed in Carnival celebrations, the largest of all – and arguably the most famous- is held in La Vega, closely followed by Santo Domingo which is also the scene for the military parade on the 27th of February, the independence day for the DR.
Carnival is a beautiful representation of local Dominican folkloric beliefs and traditions, as such the parades held across the island are wonderfully diverse and reflect the culture of the region. Those lucky few that partake in various celebrations will notice there are a few recurring costumes in the Carnival parade: Diablo Conjuelo (limping Devil), Roba la Gallina (Hen Robbers ), Los Tiznaos (Africans), Los Indios (The Indians). Be wary of the character with a vejiga (a whip) as this is a Diablo Conjuelo who carries his whip around to hit people on the street.
Thanks to the compact size of the island and the length of the celebration, one can easily partake in various Carnival festivities across the Dominican Republic. If you decide to book a resort holiday, look into the festivities held in your hotel or alternatively rent a car for a few days to cruise around and find the very best parades near you.
2. Oaxaca Carnival (Mexico)
Main Events: Carnival Parade Oaxaca city (Saturday before Lent), San Martin Tilcajete Parade (Tuesday before Ash Wednesday), Zaachila Parade (Sunday before Lent), Santa Catarina de Minas Parade (Tuesday before Lent)
Where to stay: Find sustainable hotels in Oaxaca
The Oaxaca state in southwestern Mexico is known for its elaborate Carnival celebrations. If you are looking to partake in folkloric traditions and some of the most interesting festivals in Oaxaca, the two weeks leading up to Lent are the best time to visit.
While the most interesting celebrations are held in the smaller towns and villages, Oaxaca city hosts a large parade for all the communities in the state on the two Saturdays leading up to Lent, this parade is filled with brightly colored costumes – Some of the most well-known costumes in the parade are the Tiliches of Putla de Guerrero, the Devils of Zaachila and the Chilolos of Santiago Juxtlahuaca.
As Lent approaches, many revelers choose to leave the city behind and head to the smaller towns in the state to celebrate. Sunday before Lent (the day after the Oaxaca City Carnival Parade) head to Zaachilla to partake in their local parade which starts in Barrio del Niño. Locals are dressed up as devils, albeit it Devils wearing satin costumes, or costumes used in the Danza de la Pluma (a traditional Zapotec dance) and carry decorated eggshells (filled with flour), popcorn and other colorful items through the streets.
Tuesday before Lent there are two celebrations you can partake in. The first – arguably one of the most well-known Carnivals of Latin America – is in San Martin Tilcajete. Here the Aceitados (Literally the Oiled Ones) and devils with beautifully hand-carved wooden masks run wildly through the streets.
The oily figures are locals who have covered their bodies in black or red oily paint and have tied bells around their waists. Simply follow the sound of bells to find where the party is at! Be weary however because it is customary for the oily parade goes to dole out hugs to unsuspecting viewers. Festivities are kicked off by a mock wedding, where the bride and groom as well as the “guests” are cross-dressed. This is followed by dancing and a traditional meal in the house of the mayor.
The second takes place in Santa Catarina de Minas, an area known for mezcal production. Los Pintos shout through the town to announce that the day to let out the demons has arrived. Then just before sundown, they have a ritual hanging of the devil to prepare for Lent.
FAQ about Latin American carnivals
When is Carnival?
The exact dates of the various Carnival festivities differ from country to country but the vast majority of parades happen within the 4 to 5 days leading up to Lent (i.e. 40 days before Easter).
Is it safe as a foreigner to partake in Carnival in South America and beyond?
In general yes, although be sure to ask your local accommodation which areas of the cities/towns are safe to visit both during the day and at night. Be mindful of your valuables, crowded places are usually a breeding ground for pickpockets (as is the case in any part of the world).
MORE TRAVEL RESOURCES FOR VISITING SOUTH AMERICA
Argentina: Everything you need to know before planning a trip to Argentina
Argentina: Things to know before planning a trip to Patagonia
Chile: Three day Easter Island Itinerary
Bolivia: Complete guide to Oruro Carnival
Bolivia: Complete guide to Salar de Uyuni in rainy season
Bolivia: 10 Reasons to visit Bolivia
Bolivia: 15 Unmissable places to see in Bolivia
Bolivia: Practical guide to Chualluma La Paz