The annual Trinidad and Tobago Carnival is the most exuberant and vibrant in the Caribbean, bringing four days of impossible colour and revelry to the Port-of-Spain.
Young and old, rich and poor, the whole nation joins the masqueraded celebrations, making for the liveliest and most extravagant carnival anywhere in the Caribbean. Perhaps only Rio de Janeiro can rival the ebullience and euphoria. Carnival is a wonderful highlight of a Trinidad and Tobago holiday and worth an island hop if you’re visiting the Caribbean around Lent.
Why the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival is so special
Trinidad and Tobago is always an explosion of colour, although it’s often the exotic coastal hues that grab a visitor’s attention. When carnival comes around the streets come alive with astonishing costumes. A parade of flamboyant brilliance winds through the streets, the energetic performances and music continuing for a full four days. It’s this musical and masquerade parade that the country is most famous for – tens of thousands dancing through Port-of-Spain in kaleidoscopic resplendence. Each band and group has its own theme, recreating a mythical or tropical concept with their music and dancing. And, unlike many street parades, tourists are encouraged to join the bands and locals on the streets. You can walk and dance along with them, becoming an active part of the celebration.
The ‘when’ and ‘where’ of the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival
The official Trinidad and Tobago carnival takes place in capital Port-of-Spain on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday – usually in February or March with the exact dates dependent on Easter. But there’s much to discover in the days leading up to Carnival:
- In the weeks before Carnival, each of the country’s four regions holds Panorama contests, preliminary competitions for the amateur steel bands. These start at village level and the relentless drumming can be heard all around.
- Panorama Saturday, two days before Carnival Monday, is a showcase of the best steel bands from across the nation. You can see it at Queen’s Park Savannah in Port-of-Spain.
- On the eve of Carnival, Queen’s Park Savannah comes alive once more, this time with the colourful music of calypso and soca. It’s a vibrant cultural show, culminating in a dozen calypso singers on stage and the crowning of the Kings and Queens of Carnival. Stadium seats and lots of space make this a great time to experience the carnival colour without spending the whole day on your feet.
- Carnival starts before sunrise on the Monday, with revellers smearing themselves in mud, paint, and chocolate, a nod to the ritualistic history of the Carnival. This pre-dawn J’Ouvert party symbolises the loosening of inhibitions.
- When the mud-splattered crowds clear, the streets come alive with the parades of colour and dancing on Carnival Monday.
- Carnival Tuesday is the main event, tens of thousands of masqueraders in full costume dancing through the streets. Riotous and euphoric, it’s the ultimate rainbow of excess. However, the streets can get extremely crowded and many are drunk by early-afternoon. For those who’d rather avoid this, seeing the parade in the morning or on Carnival Monday is a little more relaxed.
Trinidad and Tobago Carnival’s unique history
Most carnival celebrations are Catholic at heart but Trinidad and Tobago’s is a little different. Slaves were banned from participating in the 18th century Lent carnival for French plantation owners. So they formed their own, Canboulay, literally meaning “burnt cane.” It was banned but reappeared, then their unique calypso percussion music was outlawed. Yet the locals kept celebrating, forming orchestras out of frying pans, oil drums, and dustbin lids; something that’s eventually been popularised around the world as steel pan music. So rather than a primarily religious celebration, the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival represents independence and freedom, one of the reasons the festival is so outrageous in its colour and costumes.
Seeing the Carnival on a Trinidad and Tobago holiday
Unlike its Caribbean neighbours, Trinidad and Tobago remains relatively unspoiled by tourism. White sand beaches and luxurious resorts line the island of Tobago, hidden between plantations and gazing onto turquoise waters. Trinidad is an island of lush rainforest slopes and mangrove swamps, more dominated by industry than tourism. Most mature travellers choose to stay in Tobago and then hop over to Port-of-Spain for the few days of the carnival. Note that accommodation in the capital is in high demand and gets booked up far in advance. There are chic guesthouses and large international chain hotels. Another option is a day trip from one of Trinidad’s beach resorts, something for those that want to experience the colour but still get a good night’s sleep!
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