Carnival in the Caribbean is among the world's greatest parties, a can't-miss celebration of life that should be on any traveler's "bucket list." Like most parties, however, you can't just show up empty-handed. Here are the things you must do to make your Carnival celebration fun, safe, and healthy.
Time Required: at least six months in advance
- The most important advice: plan early. Hotel and air travel should be booked as far in advance as possible. For Carnival in Trinidad, for example, experts advise booking hotels and flights as early as the previous July. To "play" mas with a Carnival "band," costumes must also be booked well in advance, usually in September and October. (Most -- but not all -- Caribbean Carnival celebrations are in February and March, in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday).
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- Start working out now! Seriously, true Carnival veterans hit the gym well in advance of the annual event so they look their best when the day comes to put on their costumes. You don't want to spend literally thousands of dollars to "play Mas" and hate the way you look in the mirror. There are practical considerations, too: Carnival calls for two solid days and nights of marching -- plus dancing at fetes and concerts -- so you need to build up your strength and stamina!
- The road systems in most Caribbean destinations isn't great to begin with, so imagine what happens when nearly everyone on the islands converges in one location for Carnival. To avoid spending Carnival stuck in traffic, book a hotel as close to the parade route as possible (which means booking early). If you can't get a close hotel, arrive early, and make sure you have your transportation needs figured out in advance so your not stuck searching for a cab.
- Get tickets for popular Carnival events like Trinidad's Soca Monarch and Panorama concerts early. Tourists also can join in private parties, such as the popular fete sponsored by Trini cricket star Brian Lara and the LIME party at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Port of Spain. Your hotel concierge can help you get tickets. Note: Soca Monarch crowds tend to be younger and louder: come ready to dance into the wee hours. Panorama attracts an older, lawn-chair type crowd.
- Shop for supplies in advance. Many stores, restaurants and attractions close during Carnival, so make sure you bring supplies like batteries, disposable cameras, pharmaceuticals, etc., with you.
- Come prepared for Carnival parades/road marches. Wear comfortable walking shoes. Bring lots of water, especially if you are planning to drink alcohol. Earplugs will protect your hearing from the soca music blaring from mega-decibel sound trucks. Sunblock is a must, especially considering the skimpy costumes you'll likely be wearing under the blazing sun. For women, sheer dance stockings are recommended for sun protection as well as a degree of modesty.
- Watch your alcohol consumption and use of other mind-altering substances. It's devilishly easy to lose track of how much you are drinking during Carnival, especially if you are playing in a band that provides unlimited drinks from rolling bar trucks. Dehydration is a real risk under the hot Caribbean sun. Toilets are few and far between. And drunk tourists make easy targets for thieves, sexual predators, and other unseemly characters.
- Pace yourself. Carnival means lots of late-night concerts and partying, including a middle-of-the-night road march for J'Ouvert followed by more parading on Carnival Monday. In Trinidad, sound trucks roam the streets of Port of Spain pumping out soca at all hours, so don't count on getting too much sleep back in your hotel unless you bring earplugs. Follow the locals' lead and build in some down time at the beach or, in Trinidad, a recovery trip to the quiet neighbor island of Tobago.
- Practice safe sex. On the one hand, Carnival's bacchanal image is overblown: I've seen more drunks and flesh at a Jimmy Buffett concert. On the other, hooking up is definitely a big part of the Carnival celebration, and all the drinking certainly does nothing to discourage casual flings with strangers. The Caribbean has one of the highest HIV/AIDS rates in the world, so it's for good reason that the Carnival survival kits supplied by bands include condoms. Use them.
- Take security seriously. Trinidad has the best Carnival in the Caribbean, for example, but also one of the highest crime rates. Don't wander off alone or drunk from the parade route. Leave fancy jewelry home, and carry only enough "road money" needed to buy drinks or food. Marching with an established Carnival "band" like Tribe has the added benefit of an extensive security staff. Follow their directions closely at all times.
- Don't wear your full Carnival costume on Monday. Save it for "Pretty Mas" on Tuesday.
- "Winin'" is the booty-bumping dance of Carnival. Don't be surprised if you are the recipient of a sudden, grinding experience, especially if you are a light-skinned tourist. Take it in the spirit intended and you'll find yourself giving as well as you get!
- Most bands provide breakfast on the morning of Carnival, typically including traditional "doubles" -- a cheap but filling chickpea rollup. Eat them: they're tasty and excellent absorption food ahead of a day of drinking.
- Carnival costumes -- especially those for women -- don't usually have pockets. Bring a small backpack to carry your road supplies.
What You Need:
- Carnival costume
- sneakers or broken-in walking shoes
- stockings (for women)
- small amount of cash
- disposable camera
- a sense of adventure and spirit of fun!