If you visit various parts of Latin America, you’ll find that there’s always something different in the streets, in the people and in the customs. During the celebration of different Carnival traditions in Latin America, you’ll see how the mixture of color, joy, music, dance and culture creates an unforgettable experience. It’s a mathematical formula that never fails.
A Brief Historical Overview
The word Carnival comes from the Genoese carne levare, which refers to the time spent abstaining from meat. Lent, as a religious tradition, means depriving yourself, and Carnival is how to enjoy to the fullest everything that believers are about to give up: food, drink, dance and lust. While there are some Carnivals at other times of the year, most of them are held in the days or weeks leading up to Ash Wednesday, a solemn Christian holiday where you’re meant to think about death.
The general Carnival tradition emerged around the 1300s in Europe, and it’s spread far and wide. It was brought to the Americas during the Spanish conquest, and has continued to evolve. With Carnival traditions in Latin America especially, African descendants have given the celebration a distinctive touch with dances and masks.
A Tour Of Carnival Traditions In Latin America
Let’s take a bird’s-eye view of Central and South America and show you how widespread the holiday is. Although the most well known celebrations are Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and Barranquilla in Colombia, each country has its own Carnival traditions and a very particular way of celebrating.
Carnival Traditions In Central America
Mexico celebrates Carnival in various cities in the week leading up to Ash Wednesday by burning away bad moods, burning an effigy of Don Juan Carnaval and crowning the king of joy. It’s a large country, so traditions can vary quite a bit from place to place, with some of the biggest celebrations taking place in Veracruz and Mazatlán.
For Guatemalans, bursting colored shells filled with pica-pica, flour or ash is a Carnival tradition more than 400 years old that children and adults enjoy. It’s celebrated with costumes and a party on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.
The International Carnival of Friendship is celebrated in May in Honduras. The city of La Ceiba becomes a giant stage for dances, parades and floats. Selling typical handmade objects is a Carnival tradition that lets visitors take something with them from Honduras.
The San Miguel carnival in El Salvador is one of the most important in Central America. While it’s still connected with Christianity, it’s not celebrated near Lent at all as most of the other Carnival traditions in Latin America are. In the month of November, more than two million people come together to visit the country of the eternal smile. Carnival queens, dances and soap bubbles are some of the Carnival traditions that make this celebration unforgettable.
“Alegría por la vida,” the traditional Carnival celebration in Nicaragua, is a newer celebration that holds its own alongside the bigger ones. Between March and April, floats and parades from all over the country continue for more than a kilometer so that Nicaraguans can party and enjoy the lights and color.
December is full of light and Carnival in Costa Rica. Two of its main events take place this month: the Festival of Light, which announces the arrival of Christmas with fireworks, and the San José Carnival, which welcomes the new year with its traditional parades, troupes, concerts and colorful costumes.
If you go to Carnival in Panama, get ready to enjoy four days of Carnival queens and floats along with its two most traditional events: the mojaderas (water hoses meant to soak you) and the burial of the sardine, a marine figure carried in a funeral procession that announces the end of Carnival. All of this happens in the four days leading up to Ash Wednesday.
Carnival traditions In South America
The party starts on the Caribbean coast and closes in San Juan de Pasto. The colorful Barranquilla takes places in February, with four days of partying that delights locals and visitors with dancing, guacherna, King Momo, the Joselito Carnival, the battle of flowers and a huge parade.
That isn’t the only Carnival in Colombia. In December and January, the traditional Blacks and Whites’ Carnival takes place in the southern part of the country. It’s a playful festivity where puppets and figures of the year gone by inspire expressions of tolerance regardless of race or ethnicity. These carnivals, being central to the Colombian culture, were named to the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage list.
Venezuela celebrates its Carnival at the end of February with mamarrachos (clowns), old men, madamas (elaborately dressed women), devils, troupes and musical bands. It’s two days of celebration that are part of the culture and tradition of Carnival in this country.
Bubbling over with joy, Carnival is celebrated in Ecuador on the two days before Ash Wednesday. It’s an event that unifies people and brings to life the country’s agricultural, musical and culinary traditions. If you’re visiting Ecuador at this time of year, prepare to be showered in water and powder in the streets, as that’s a fun tradition that comes from this country.
Peru celebrates Carnival in two different ways: the folk festival and games with water and paint, which ultimately merge into a single celebration that begins usually in February and lasts three days during the week before Lent. During some of the celebrations, a caporal (a type of overseer) directs the devils who scare unsuspecting passers-by with acrobatic movements.
A mix of culture, history and tradition, carnivals in Brazil have become a worldwide reference of how Carnival is celebrated. In the days leading up to Lent, in sync with the rhythm of samba. Brazil sees parades in the sambadrome — a parade area surrounded by bleachers and seats to make it easier to view by large numbers of people — where floats, dancers and other types of show make for an unforgettable experience.
The weekend before Ash Wednesday is the time Bolivia celebrates its Indigenous Carnival of Oruro, an intangible oral heritage of humanity. Typical dances of the region are the primary tradition carried on by this carnival.
The Encarnaceno Carnival in Paraguay gathers people from all over the region for five Saturdays between January and February. The most common activity is watching parades of comparsas (groups of singers and dancers) and floats make their way through the Encarnación sambadrome.
Uruguay’s Carnival is the longest, lasting 40 days. The Montevideo Carnival is characterized by its Afro-Uruguayan comparsas called Candombe, as well as the parades, Las Llamadas festival, and the tablados (street stages). The inaugural parade takes place at some point in January, and the festivities stretch until March.
Arica, in Chile, celebrates the Andean Carnival with the Fuerza del Sol every year. Dances like the Ñusta — which praises the Pachamama, an indigenous goddess— and performances like the Diablada merge the old and traditional with the new in this three-day Carnival held usually in January or February.
Córdoba, San Luis and La Rioja are some of the many provinces of Argentina that, along with Buenos Aires, cover themselves with murgas (a type of musical performance) and corsos (a type of parade) as part of the Carnival traditions. From one end to the other it’s a great celebration that unites Argentines in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday.
As you can see, from Mexico to Argentina, you can trace a traditional route in search of unity and celebration that will chase away sorrow.
This article was originally published on the Spanish edition of Babbel Magazine.