Carnival of Santa Cruz de Tenerife

Posted on September 15, 2014 by Eleanor McKenzie
Fireworks over the carnival

If you’re a Coronation St. fan, you may remember that beehive hairdo adorned Bet Lynch—the best barmaid ever to pull a pint of Newton & Ridley—used to always holiday in Tenerife, or ‘Tener-ree-fay’ as Bet pronounced it, which is correct, according to Tenerife Magazine’s fun facts about Bet. It would seem that Bet knew a thing or two about where to take a winter holiday, because Tenerife is a buzzing place to go for a bit of February fun.

Tenerife has the second biggest carnival in the world after Rio.  That’s why the island is twinned with Rio and why the Spanish government declared the Santa Cruz Carnival a ‘Tourist Festival of International Interest’ in 1980. The carnival also aspires to be listed as an ‘intangible cultural heritage’ by UNESCO, where it would join an array of protected cultural products including the Argentinian tango, Panama hat and Mediterranean diet. Spanish authorities hope this award will attract more visitors.

Hundreds of thousands of people flock to the island’s capital Santa Cruz de Tenerife over the period of the festival that ends on Ash Wednesday. And because the carnival is tied to Easter, the dates change annually. If you’re planning to book a holiday to coincide with the carnival, the first main event—the election of the Carnival Queen—is held on the Wednesday before Shrove Tuesday. The first street carnival and fireworks follow this gala event on the Friday before Shove Tuesday and the main parade is on Shrove Tuesday itself. Consult Todo Tenerife for carnival dates through to 2025.

One reason that so many people enjoy carnivals is the impressive parades. The floats compete with each other to create the most spectacular extravaganza and designers go all out to amaze the crowd with sensational costumes. Some carnival participants spend most of the year creating these exotic and intricate outfits, which are truly a labour of love. The Santa Cruz Carnival has a different theme each year. In 2014 it was “Cartoons” and in 2015 it is “The Future”, which suggests that more than a few space cadets will be filling the streets.

In 2004, the theme was one person: the incomparable singer Celia Cruz, Cuban Queen of Salsa. This was to honour the singer, who has supported this particular carnival for many years and who died in 2003. In 1987, her appearance at the Santa Cruz Carnival with The Caracas Boys drew over 250,000 fans, which the Guinness Book of Records declared the biggest crowd attending a concert in an outdoor plaza.

The carnival is also famous for drag queens and you’ll see a number of extraordinary costumes. This is not some modern feature: the earliest written references to the carnival in 1605 note that it mostly consisted of “men dressed as women.” It’s all good fun and there are few people who can resist the temptation to get dressed up, as it’s a good excuse to let your hair down and do things you might not normally do. After all, if you’re dressed like Carmen Miranda, you might as well do the salsa!

The carnival reaches its peak on Shrove Tuesday and finishes on Ash Wednesday with the “Burial of the Sardine.” Contrasting with the colours and fireworks of the preceding weeks, the streets of Santa Cruz are draped in black and men dress as ‘widows.’ They carry an enormous papier-mâché sardine that is ceremonially burnt to a cinder. One purpose of this event is to mock the Catholic Church, so expect to see some participants dressed as bawdy priests and nuns.

If you’re not a fan of the crowds and mayhem of carnival, Tenerife has a few other festivals of interest. Classical music fans will enjoy the annual International Music Festival in January, which attracts performers and orchestras of the highest standard. Car enthusiasts should visit in March when the Rally Islas Canarias takes place and international rally drivers arrive to race around the tough island course. Semana Santa is always worth a visit, as the Easter week parades are a visual spectacle that visitors will find in even the smallest Spanish village and the Santa Cruz celebration of Holy Week is considered one of the grander processions in Spain.

Tenerife has a unique heritage of African, Spanish and Portuguese influences that differentiates it from mainland Spain. Plus, it offers a taste of festivities that you’d otherwise have to travel all the way to Trinidad or Rio to experience. Why bother, when you can find carnival much closer to home? And don’t be surprised if you find some Bet Lynch lookalikes when you get there!


by Eleanor McKenzie

Eleanor McKenzie is a Northern Irish writer with a passion for art, literature, and red wine. She's worked at advertising agency JWT, edited a journal for a European social policy think tank and tried to teach teenagers the difference between "there" and "their". Being 50+ has not significantly changed Eleanor's life, although she finds it a handy excuse when she wants to avoid anything too energetic.