The Ponce Carnival in Puerto Rico

Celebrants wear scary masks at a carnival in Ponce, Puerto Rico.

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The Ponce Carnival in Puerto Rico's Caribbean nod to Mardi Gras and Carnival, its more famous cousin in Rio de Janeiro. A festival that has been held since 1858, the bash in Ponce is the epitome of all things boricua (Puerto Rican) and an annual testament to the capacity of the island's locals for whimsy and revelry.

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 usually takes place in February or March, but always occurs in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. In 2020, the Ponce Carnival will take place from Wednesday, February 19, to Tuesday, February 25 (Fat Tuesday).

Parades occur daily, starting with the Parade of the Carnival King on Friday afternoon and ending with the burial at midnight on Fat Tuesday, and the weekend offers plenty of dancing, singing, and live music performances to enjoy.

Vejigantes: Symbolism of the Carnival

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 vejigas (inflated cow bladders) and go around beating the evil spirits away from children and other innocent people—especially attractive, single women.

While the lore of the festival may be a little suspect, the celebration itself has roots in Catholicism. 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.

Entierro de la Sardina Burial

The festival ends with the Entierro de la Sardina, or "Burial of the Sardine." This mock funeral, complete with dummy-laden coffin, is in honor of the coming season of Lent. During the Entierro, 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.

What to Expect at the Ponce Carnival

In addition to marauding costumed vejigantes, expect a lot of traditional bomba y plena percussion music, an abundance of eating and drinking, and a chanting, boisterous crowd. 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.

Similar to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, accommodations and airfare prices tend to go up during this annual celebration. You may want to consider staying outside of town to avoid higher hotel fees, and if you are driving into Ponce and need parking, arrive early in hopes of finding metered spots on the street or public parking lots in the city.

Even though it's cold in much of the U.S. in late February, Ponce in Puerto Rico will be warm and sunny, so you'll need to pack sunglasses, sunscreen, an umbrella for shade, and a large hat, comfortable shoes such as sneakers and sandals, along with breathable clothing. Drink plenty of water so you can stay hydrated.

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