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.
The Bahamas and Turks and Caicos make up the Lucayan Archipelago, which is further north and closer to the U.S. border than any other group of Caribbean islands (hence why they're such popular cruise destinations). In fact, despite being included in many Caribbean itineraries, the Lucayan Archipelago region is not technically classified as part of the region. Nonetheless, it does throw a good Carnival celebration.
The Greater Antilles is where you'll find the largest of the Caribbean Islands, such as Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica. This region constitutes 90 percent of the West Indies in both land mass and population. The Lesser Antilles (Leeward Islands, Leeward Antilles, and Windward Islands) make up the other 10 percent.
- 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.
- Haiti: Haitians celebrate with a kind of festival music called Rara and a variety of Creole celebrations, all held during the traditional Lent period.
- Dominican Republic: Expect elaborate masks and multi-town celebrations in February.
- Jamaica: Jamaica's "Bacchanal" takes place in April with several vibrant parades.
- Puerto Rico: The quintessential Puerto Rican vejigante masks will be ever-present at this festival, held from January to February.
Part of the Lesser Antilles, this is where the northeastern Caribbean Sea and the western Atlantic Ocean meet. The Leeward Islands extend from the Virgin Islands to Guadeloupe.
- 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.
- 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.
- Guadeloupe: Guadeloupe's Carnival is famous for its dance marathons and competitions.
- Montserrat: Carnival here is all about beauty pageants and masqueraders, held in December.
- St. Martin/Maarten: Held during Lent and in April, respectively, these celebrations include balloon parades and light parades.
- Saba: Carnival Monday (the last Monday in July) is a public holiday in Saba. It's when the locals celebrate the "Old Caribbean."
- St. Eustatius: On the last week of July, St. Eustatius celebrates with dancing, beauty contests, food, and drinking.
- St. Barts: This Mardi Gras-like festival, leading up to Ash Wednesday, features a pajama parade.
- St. Kitts and Nevis: "Sugar Mas" ("Sugar Cup" in English) is like a cocktail party that lasts from November to January.
- U.S. Virgin Islands: St. Croix's celebration is held in December and January, while the party in St. Thomas is held in April.
The Leeward Antilles are the southernmost islands of the Lesser Antilles, just north of Venezuela in South America.
- Aruba: Held in the traditional season (around February), Aruba's includes a night parade and the crowning of royalty.
- Curacao: Taking place during the traditional Lent season, this one includes a certain kind of Carnival music called "Tumba."
- Bonaire: Come witness the Old Mask Parade and the Burning of King Momo in February.
Spanning from Martinique to Trinidad and Tobago, the Windward Islands are at the tail end of the Leeward Islands to their north.
- Barbados: Barbados holds "Crop Over" in August.
- Dominica: Dominica holds a two-day block party called the Street Jump Up during Lent season.
- Grenada: "Spicemas" or "August Mas" is an exuberant festival that takes place every August.
- Martinique: Martinique hosts the burning of "Vaval the Carnival King" during February.
- St. Lucia: St. Lucia's Carnival is held in July and features a Parade of the Bands.
- 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.
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.