In Mexico, as in many other predominantly Catholic countries, Carnival (spelled Carnaval in Spanish) is a few days that are given over to wanton revelry before the abstinence of Lent takes over. Carnival takes place during the week before Ash Wednesday, but the dates vary from year to year. It is celebrated in different ways in various destinations throughout Mexico. In some places, festivities are comparable to celebrations for Carnaval in Rio or Mardi Gras in New Orleans, with colorful parades and parade floats, and scantily dressed dancers, whereas some towns have completely unique ways of celebrating, sometimes incorporating prehispanic traditions. One thing to keep in mind is that although Mexico's celebrations can be exuberant, they're nearly always family-friendly, so you can feel comfortable bringing the kids along.
The largest, grand scale fiestas with lots of parades, marching bands and carnival dancers take place in Mazatlan and Veracruz, but it doesn't end there. Here are some of the best places to celebrate carnival in Mexico.
This beach resort town and busy seaport located on Mexico's northern Pacific coast in the state of Sinaloa has exuberant festivities. Carnaval celebrations in Mazatlan include costume parades, music, food, fireworks, art exhibits, beauty pageants and more. The event began over 100 years ago and is now one of the world's largest Mardi Gras celebrations, attracting hundreds of thousands of revelers.
Official Website: Carnaval de Mazatlan
Veracruz, on Mexico's Gulf coast, is a bustling tropical port city with a rich history and a strong Afro-Caribbean feel. During Carnaval, the city comes to life with music, parades, dancing, food, and fireworks. The celebration often includes performances by big-name musical artists such as Paulina Rubio, Cristian Castro, and Enrique Iglesias.
Official Website: Carnaval de Veracruz
The island of Cozumel is located east of the Yucatan Peninsula on top of the age-old structures of the Mayan coral reef. It's one of Mexico's top scuba diving destinations but is also home to one of the most popular Carnaval celebrations in the Mexican Caribbean. During Carnaval, Cozumel springs to life in an exciting explosion of color and music. Cozumel's unique celebration includes a variety of costumed characters, such as Harlequins, rumba dancers, Spaniards, gypsy women, fairies, princesses and bullfighters.
Facebook Page: Carnaval de Cozumel
This port city was walled to prevent attacks by pirates in the late 17th Century. Now it's one of Mexico's best preserved colonial cities and a World Heritage Site. Campeche hosts the country's oldest Carnival celebrations and the city offers some of the most traditional fanfare associated with Carnival.
Facebook page: Carnaval de Campeche
Mérida, the capital of the state of Yucatan, is located in the northwest part of the state. It's a charming city with elegant colonial buildings and a vibrant cultural life. Mérida's Carnaval is a week-long party featuring parades, music and dancing. This is a good place for families to celebrate Carnaval because there are activities for all ages.
Official Website: Carnaval de Mérida
Ensenada, in Baja California, just south (70 miles) of Tijuana, hosts Mexico's northernmost Carnival celebration. The carnival celebrations here include masquerade parties, carnival games, grand balls, street dancing, and parades.
Official Website: Carnaval de Ensenada
Tlaxcala's carnival tradition dates from the seventeenth century. At that time, the state's agricultural farms were owned by people of Spanish origin who held large parties to which the workers were not invited. In response, the workers held their own celebrations in which they dressed up like Europeans and mocked their costumes and dances.
Facebook page: Carnival in Tlaxcala.
This small town in the state of Puebla has been hosting a unique carnival celebration since the 1800s. Participants dress up in elaborate costumes and reenact a few traditional events that play an important role in local history, including the first marriage performed by Catholic rite and the battle of 1862 between French and Mexican troops that took place in Puebla (this is also commemorated each year on Cinco de Mayo).
In San Juan Chamula, Chiapas, you can see a very different Carnival celebration. Here Carnival is given a pre-Hispanic connotation - these days are associated with the five "lost" days of the Mesoamerican calendar - the solar calendar cycle had 360 named days (18 months with 20 days each) and five days which had no name, and were considered to exist outside of the ordinary cycles. During the festivities, revelers run through the streets with flaming branches, re-enact Chiapan military battles and perform traditional dances.