Carnival in the Caribbean has a complicated birthright, tied as it is to colonialism, religious conversion, and ultimately freedom and celebration. The festival originated with Italian Catholics in Europe, later spreading to the French and Spanish, who brought the pre-Lenten tradition when they settled (and brought slaves to) Trinidad, Dominica, Haiti, Martinique, and other islands. Carnival itself is thought to mean "farewell to meat" or "farewell to flesh," the former referencing the Catholic practice of abstaining from red meat from Ash Wednesday until Easter. The latter explanation, while possibly apocryphal, is said to be emblematic of the sensuous abandon that came to define the Caribbean celebration of the holiday.
What to Expect When Carnival Week Arrives
Carnival is not a one-day event, or even just about the big Mas parades. Each island does Carnival a little differently, but typically you can expect a week-long celebration that includes concerts (steel pan, soca, reggae, etc.), cultural events, private parties, street festivals, and more. Highlights include the naughty nocturnal jouvert, crowning of a Carnival king and queen, dance and costume competitions, and a Carnival children's parade.
Choose Which Carnival You Want to Attend
Carnival is celebrated throughout the Caribbean, and while Trinidad's party is the biggest and most famous, there are other great Carnival celebrations that belong on anyone's bucket list, such as Vincy Mas in St. Vincent and Crop Over in Barbados. Many Carnival celebrations take place just before the beginning of Lent and the Easter season, but you can find a Caribbean Carnival taking place on some island nearly every month of the year.
Book Your Hotel and Flights Early!
For most Caribbean islands, Carnival is THE party of the year, drawing not only tourists but also expatriates back home from all over the world to celebrate with friends and family. That means that you need to book your flights and hotels early if you plan to attend Carnival, especially if you're heading to the biggest party of them all in Trinidad.
Decide Whether You Want to Watch or "Play"
Assuming you've got a flight and a place to stay, attending Carnival on most Caribbean islands is a pretty simple affair: just show up for the parade and festival and join the party. On some islands -- notably Trinidad -- even tourists have the opportunity to dress up and join the Carnival jouvert and mas parades. It's not cheap -- costumes and tickets can run into the high hundreds of dollars -- but for the most authentic Carnival experience, reserve your costume early and hit de road with one of these Trinidad Mas Bands.
Even if you can't march on Monday or Tuesday Mas, there are plenty of pre-Carnival parties on Trinidad that rival the official events in decibels, intensity, and pure fun, including the annual party sponsored by cricket star Brian Lara and the newer LIME fete at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Port of Spain.
Get Prepared for the Party of a Lifetime!
Ensuring that your Carnival experience is safe and healthy as well as fun takes some planning as well as a go-cup full of common sense. Parade marchers need to prepare for a long day on the road, and everyone can benefit from some good advice about keeping alcohol consumption under control and practicing safe sex.