Carnival in Latin America Image of People Celebrating

Carnival in Latin America: How This Festival Is Celebrated

Celebration , Featured , Festive

Say the word “Carnival” and most people will immediately think of revelry and dancing. Ask which country is the Carnival capital, and many will reply “Brazil.” While Brazilians certainly know how to mark the occasion in style, Carnival in Latin America and beyond is as rich and varied as the countries that celebrate it.

So grab your samba skirt and get dressed up for a parade like no other. First, let’s boogie through the history of Carnival. Then, we’ll shimmy through the streets of Latin America to see how people celebrate this world-famous fiesta.

What’s the Brief History of Carnival?

Also spelled Carnaval in Spanish and Portuguese , t he word Carnival is thought to originate from the medieval Latin “carnem levare” or “carnelevarium,” which means to remove or take away meat. This links to Carnival’s Catholic origins, although some speculate that Carnival is part of an ancient new year festival.

Unlike everyday carnivals that you might find in your hometown, Carnival (with a capital “C”) is a specific occasion that occurs once a year. Following Catholic beliefs, it is celebrated before Lent, which features 40 days of abstinence from eating meat (at least on Fridays) and other indulgent behaviors. This period of Lent starts on what is called Ash Wednesday and ends on Easter Sunday. It’s a time to remember when Jesus spent 40 days and nights without food or drink in the desert.

But clearly Carnival is a much more flamboyant time than Lent. In French, the day before Ash Wednesday is called Mardi Gras (interchangeable with the name Carnival) or Fat Tuesday. This was interpreted as the last chance to use up and enjoy all the decadent “fats” before Lent, leading to the dazzling celebrations we see today.

When Is Carnival Traditionally Held?

Ash Wednesday is often the focal date on which many Carnival celebrations hang. In 2023, Ash Wednesday falls on Wednesday, February 22 . Many countries will base their Carnival celebrations before, on, or around that date.

However, Carnival season and Ash Wednesday change date every year, albeit they will fall in February or March. That’s because Lent is always 46 days before Easter, and Easter’s moving dates dictate when Carnival falls.

Easter is always held on the first full moon after the northern hemisphere’s spring equinox (March 20 or 21). The timing of that full moon varies yearly, pushing Carnival dates backwards or forwards on the calendar.

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Why Do People Celebrate Carnival?

Traditionally, Roman Catholics celebrated Carnival with street parties, live music, and dancing as a last chance to enjoy treats and frivolities before Lent. Carnival is now often the party storm before the austerity of Lent in many countries.

Many places put on special carnival shows. In Spain, the Canary Islands’ Carnival celebrations are broadcast nationwide, with all eyes on the Carnival Queen. Carnival in Venice, Italy has a world-famous and expensive 10-day-long celebration featuring ornate costumes and masks, which attracts tourists from all over the world.

The Spanish conquistadors brought Catholicism and, therefore, Carnival to Latin America during their colonization of the continent. Latin America’s unique blend of cultures and people has led to a fantastic array of Carnival celebrations.

How Is Carnival Celebrated in Latin America?

Parade of People at Carnival March source

Carnival in Latin America is unlike anywhere else thanks to its incredible cultural diversity and the varied landscapes of its regions. One thing is for sure, though — there’s always plenty of dancing, music, and parties.

Many Latin American countries were forced to adopt Catholicism and its customs after the Spanish arrived on October 12, 1492 . The similarly Catholic Portuguese soon followed, bringing with them their “Carnaval” to the mix.

Since then, Carnival in Latin America has developed identities that participating towns, regions, and countries have made their own. From the Caribbean islands to the Andean mountains of South America, from African influences to Incan, Carnival in Latin America is something to experience at least once.

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Which Country Is Famous for Carnivals?

We can’t talk about Carnival without starting with Rio de Janeiro Carnival in Brazil, the self-declared Carnival capital of the world.

The most important date in the Brazilian calendar is Carnaval, sometimes dubbed the Greatest Show on Earth. It starts five days before Ash Wednesday, and samba — a blend of African and Brazilian music and dance moves — rules.

The main event is at the country’s iconic Sambadrome , where Brazil’s top samba schools perform for millions in a breathtaking parade. Visitors can learn to play and dance to samba or join the enormous street parties, known as blocos . These more intimate fiestas are said to distill more of the true meaning of the Rio de Janeiro Carnaval.

Which City Hosts the Biggest Carnival in the World?

Rio de Janeiro hosts the largest Carnival in the world, with millions flocking to the Brazilian city.

Is Carnival a Holiday in Brazil?

Officially, Brazil has one public holiday to mark Carnival, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. The law states that Ash Wednesday is a half-day off, but on the ground, it’s not uncommon to find schools closed for a week and people taking many days off to mark Carnaval.

What Is the Second Largest Carnival in the World?

Colombia’s Barranquilla Carnival claims to be the second-largest in the world, with two million visitors. Other claimants to the prize include the Carnival of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, based on performers. London’s Notting Hill Carnival also has more than two million visitors, but it’s held in August rather than February or March, so it is not a Lent-based Carnival.

Where Is the Longest-Lasting Carnival in the World?

Carnival in Encarnación source

The longest Carnival in the world lasts a mammoth 40+ days and is held in Montevideo, Uruguay.

Highlights include the 2,000-drum Desfile de Llamadas parade, whose roots come from slave traditions established during colonial times. The drum parade is an example of a candombe , a rhythm played between three types of drums in a call-and-response manner. Candombe has been placed on the list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO .

Don’t forget to catch a murgas , satirical music and theater performed on stages called tablados throughout the Montevideo Carnival. Murgas carry a distinctive Uruguayan voice and have influenced Carnival performers throughout South America.

What’s the Best Carnival in Argentina?

In Argentina, the Gualeguaychú Carnival is the most famous and emblematic celebration of its type. Gualeguaychú is around 150 miles north of Buenos Aires and hosts parades called comparsas, similar to the Brazilian samba-based shows. Look out for murgas throughout January and February and musical performances in the Corsódromo stadium.

What Happens at Bolivia’s Oruro Carnival?

Oruro, a Bolivian town at 12,139 feet is the scene for a 10-day-long Carnival that mixes Christian and Andean beliefs. The Spanish originally banned the local Uru people from performing their Ito festival . The people hid their symbols beneath the imposed Christian icons, although the date was moved to Christian Candlemas, February 2.

Nowadays, the people of Oruro celebrate their God in the Indigenous Carnival of Oruro, in what is now a UNESCO-recognized Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. People dress as a llama-type creature called a diablada, with 10 days of traditional songs, dances, textiles, and embroidery. The main parade lasts more than 20 hours and features over 28,000 dancers and 10,000 musicians.

Why Do I Need a Towel for Carnival in Encarnación?

Mexico Carnival Celebration source

Encarnación in Paraguay is a balmy place where snow is as rare as apparitions of Jesus. If you’re planning to visit during the town’s Carnival, get ready to wipe away heavy dumps of human-sprayed snow as people squirt shaving cream and fake snow over fellow attendees. You could easily get a face-full of shaving cream!

A party mask may protect your face, but your clothing will no doubt get soaked, so bring a towel and fake snow cans for retaliation. Don’t miss the city’s Sambadrome , which fills up with 12,000 revelers dancing to the samba beat.

Keep the towel handy if you travel onwards to Ecuador . Carnival in Ecuador sees people throw flowers, flour, and water at fellow celebrants. There are street parades, music, dancing, and plenty of chicha corn beer drinks.

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Why Do People Chop Trees at Peru’s Carnivals?

Peru Carnival Person Wearing Monster Mask source

Peruvians love Carnival as much as the rest of Latin America. There are parades, music, and partying, and keep an eye out for people throwing water balloons . Part of the Peruvian tradition at Carnival is to soak their fellow humans.

You may see folks dressed as devils who surprise people on the streets, often under the direction of an overseer called a caporal. Also, look for trees with presents in their branches. Called Yunzas, people take turns chopping at these present-laden trees to grab a gift or try to hook one down using a stick.

Get Ready to Eat Meat in Venezuela

Venezuela takes the Latin “carnem levare” or “carnelevarium,” which means to remove or take away meat, to heart. In Puerto Cabello , Carnival is based around a meat festival to ensure folks get their fill before Lent. The four-day Carnival of El Callao is the largest in Venezuela. Look for mamarrachos (clowns), madamas (elaborately dressed women), devils, and bands.

Why Do People Bury Sardines in Panama?

From meat to seafood, Panama’s Carnival adds another dimension to the multi-faceted fiestas of Latin America. Panamanians take the water soaking to a new level. Water trucks (culecos) travel the streets, blasting water from hoses (mojaderos) onto the crowds.

There are the usual parades, music, parties, and a definitive end to the fiestas and the start of Lent. Called the Entierro de la Sardina (the burial of the sardine), a symbolic sardine is placed into a tiny coffin. Carnival-goers transport the coffin to a chosen burial spot where the sardine is lowered and covered. The party is over and Lent begins.

Why Does El Salvador Celebrate Carnival in November?

El Salvador’s most famous Carnival takes place in the city of San Miguel, with up to two million people visiting — in November.

Apart from the date, the Carnival celebrations are familiar, with dances, Carnival queens, and live music. People drink a sweet, pink drink called atol chuco and eat local delicacies as the floats glide by.

Why the date change? Carnival was initially celebrated in El Salvador on May 8, the day San Miguel was founded. In 1939, the local authorities decided to switch it to November to coincide with the celebration of the city’s patron saint, the Virgin of Peace (Virgen de la Paz).

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How Do People Celebrate Carnival in Mexico?

Mexican Costume at in Festival source

Mexico is a vast country with varied traditions from place to place. Two of the biggest Carnivals take place in Veracruz and Mazatlán.

Many thousands of Mexicans seek out Veracruz because of its lengthy and high-spirited Carnaval celebrations. The festivities open with the purging of bad feelings and emotions through the symbolic burning of large, purpose-built statues, called the Quema de Mal Humor (the burning of bad moods). There then follows many days of dancing, music, seafood, and parades.

Over in Mazatlán , there are claims to be the world’s third-largest Carnival. It’s undoubtedly impressive, with sculptures called Monigotes made especially each year, forming part of the parades. That’s just the beginning though. Mazatlán also counts a fair, a Quema de Mal Humor, and two separate and enormous parades watched by up to 500,000 people each time.

Enjoy the Diversity of Carnival in Latin America

The many Carnival celebrations in Latin America share many common themes, from dates in and around Lent to featuring parades, parties, and music.

Each region, with a diverse cultural background, has taken the Spanish and Catholic-imported celebration and stamped its mark upon Carnaval. Dancing with devils and masks, burning effigies, and eating copious amounts of meat are all part of Carnival’s rebellious spirit.

Whether participants follow the abstinence of Lent is not always guaranteed. But judging by the level of fiestas organized across Latin America, a fair few may welcome the time to recover their energy for the next Carnival season.

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