While many Caribbean islands celebrate Carnival in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday, including Trinidad and Tobago, whose Carnival is world-famous, others hold their celebrations at other times of the year. Barbados, for example, calls its Carnival "Crop Over," a traditional harvest festival that takes place in August, and St. Vincent's "Vincy Mas" is held in the summer as well. The good news for visitors is that you can likely find a Carnival celebration almost any time of the year. Some islands even have Carnival events stretching over months from the Feast of the Epiphany in January to Ash Wednesday in February or March.
What is Carnival
The history of Carnival is a convoluted one, with origins that can be traced back to Italian Catholics in Europe. Ultimately, the tradition was brought to Caribbean islands like Trinidad, Dominica, Haiti, and Martinique, by foreign colonialists.
The end of slavery in this region (around 1834) ushered in the modern version of Carnival in the Caribbean. Locals embraced the celebratory aspect of the party to revel in their newfound freedom with dancing, music, and colorful costumes.
These days, it's a party worth traveling for. If you've never been to Carnival in the Caribbean before, make sure to plan ahead for a safe and fun experience, veteran Carnival-goers know that preparing to "play mas" begins months, not weeks, ahead of time. The key to a good Carnival is to book tickets and lodging well in advance because hotels and flights tend to sell out. Bring comfortable footwear and remember to keep an eye on your belongings while dancing through the crowds.
Carnival Dates and Locations
- Anguilla: Taking place in August, Anguilla's Carnival features boat racing, beach barbecues, and bandstands.
- Antigua: Join much of Antigua's population in watching the brass and steel bands play in August.
- Aruba: Held in the traditional season (around February), Aruba's includes a night parade and the crowning of royalty.
- Bahamas: "Junkanoo," as it's called here, happens every year on Boxing Day and New Year's Day.
- Barbados: Barbados holds "Crop Over" in August.
- Bermuda: This celebration of Bermudan ancestry is held on the third weekend in June.
- Bonaire: Come witness the Old Mask Parade and the Burning of King Momo in February.
- British Virgin Islands: Folks in the British Virgin Islands call it the "Emancipation Festival" and it's held from the end of July to the beginning of August.
- Cayman Islands: "Batabano" is a colorful celebration of community spirit held the first week of May in George Town.
- Cuba: Cuba's Carnival is held in July and features street performances by cultural dancers called comparsas.
- Curacao: Taking place during the traditional Lent season, this one includes a certain kind of Carnival music called "Tumba."
- Dominica: Dominica holds a two-day block party called the Street Jump Up during Lent season.
- Dominican Republic: Expect elaborate masks and multi-town celebrations in February.
- Grenada: "Spicemas" or "August Mas" is an exuberant festival that takes place every August.
- Guadeloupe: Guadeloupe's Carnival is famous for its dance marathons and competitions.
- Haiti: Haitians celebrate with a kind of festival music called Rara and a variety of Creole celebrations, all held during the traditional Lent period.
- Jamaica: Jamaica's "Bacchanal" takes place in April with several vibrant parades.
- Martinique: Martinique hosts the burning of "Vaval the Carnival King" during February.
- Montserrat: Carnival here is all about beauty pageants and masqueraders, held in December.
- Puerto Rico: The quintessential Puerto Rican vejigante masks will be ever-present at this festival, held from January to February.
- Saba: Carnival Monday (the last Monday in July) is a public holiday in Saba. It's when the locals celebrate the "Old Caribbean."
- St. Barts: This Mardi Gras-like festival, leading up to Ash Wednesday, features a pajama parade.
- St. Eustatius: On the last week of July, St. Eustatius celebrates with dancing, beauty contests, food, and drinking.
- St. Kitts and Nevis: "Sugar Mas" ("Sugar Cup" in English) is like a cocktail party that lasts from November to January.
- St. Lucia: St. Lucia's Carnival is held in July and features a Parade of the Bands.
- St. Martin/Maarten: Held during Lent and in April, respectively, these celebrations include balloon parades and light parades.
- St. Vincent and the Grenadines: "Vincy Mas" is held from June to July, but J’Ouvert (one long, 24-hour party) is the main event.
- Trinidad and Tobago: This is the biggest and most well-known Carnival in the Caribbean, held during the traditional Mardi Gras season.
- Turks and Caicos: Like the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos also celebrate "Junkanoo" in December and January.
- U.S. Virgin Islands: St. Croix's is held in December and January, while St. Thomas' is held in April.
Can't make it to Carnival on any of the dates? No worries, there's always some sort of party going on in the Caribbean with a packed schedule of events each month.