It's called Carnaval in Brazil and Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but the Ponce Carnival—or Carnaval Ponceño—is Puerto Rico's version of this worldwide celebration. The name comes from the city of Ponce on the south side of the island, which is the focal point of the festivities and hosts over 100,000 revelers.
The carnival dominates the historic downtown area in the city of Ponce, with the bulk of events taking place at the Plaza las Delicias (Town Plaza) and the Casa Alcalde (Ponce City Hall). The celebration takes place in February or March with the exact date varying from year to year, but it always occurs in the week leading up to Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent.
Ponce Carnival 2021
Ash Wednesday falls on February 17, 2021, and the Ponce Carnival starts on February 13, the Saturday before. However, the Carnival celebrations look very different from typical years. Instead of people coming to the town center to see Carnival, the Carnival will be traveling around the region in a caravan. Each day from February 13–16, the Carnival Caravan visits a different neighborhood or town so locals can still participate without having to cluster together.
What to Expect
The vejigantes are the undisputed stars of the Ponce Carnival. These demons are straight out of centuries-old folklore that blends African, Spanish, and Caribbean customs and traditions. Their name originates from "vejiga," which means "bladder" in Spanish, because the vejigantes used to arm themselves with inflated cow bladders and go around beating the evil spirits away from children and other innocent people.
Even though the celebration itself has roots in Catholicism, the traditions are mixed in with Indigenous and African influences of the island. The traditional vejigante costume requires three basic components: mask, cape, and suit. As the most iconic and colorful of these essentials, even the mask has rules and regulations, typically requiring teeth and horns.
In addition to marauding costumed vejigantes, expect a lot of traditional bomba y plena percussion music and an abundance of eating and drinking. Visitors can also watch a parade for the King and Queen of the Carnival and the "Burial of the Sardine." It's Puerto Rico's biggest party and a family-friendly event, so you'll see mini-vejigantes all over the place and can expect crowds, loud music and revelers, and a good time for all ages.
What to See and Do
The festival typically kicks off with the vejigantes, who run around the town dressed in costume to get everyone in the Carnival spirit. Then there are daily parades that include the crowning the Carnival King, Carnival Queen, and the Carnival Child Queen. On the Monday before Ash Wednesday, there is traditionally a huge masquerade ball that the entire city participates in.
The festival ends with the Entierro de la Sardina, or "Burial of the Sardine." This mock funeral, complete with a dummy-laden coffin, is in honor of the coming season of Lent. During the burial, a coffin and replica of a person are set on fire to symbolize the burning away of the sins of the flesh. Afterward, many of the bars and restaurants in Ponce will stay open late for all-night dance parties, feasts, and other events.
Tips for Visiting
Similar to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, accommodations and airfare prices tend to go up during this annual celebration. Book your hotel as early as possible and look for places to stay outside of Ponce for more affordable options (if you want to stay in San Juan, it's about an hour and 15 minutes by car to Ponce). However, parking in Ponce is so difficult during Carnival that staying locally may be worth it.
Even though it's cold in much of the U.S. in late February, Puerto Rico is warm and sunny. Be sure you pack sunglasses, sunscreen, a large hat, comfortable shoes such as sneakers and sandals, and light breathable clothing. Drink plenty of water so you can stay hydrated, especially if you'll be imbibing some local Puerto Rican rum.