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It’s that time of the year again, and most people have fled the cities to enjoy the coast and relax. Of course the beach can be a great place to nurse a hangover and for many, holidays are also the period to release a bit of that tension accumulated throughout the year with late night parties.
As if you needed another excuse to party, carnival is around the corner. And that’s where the Indy comes in, providing you with a guide to the best carnivals in Latin America.
Despite its origin in the days preceding the Catholic celebration of Lent, particularly followed in Italy and other areas of Western Europe, nowadays mention the word carnival to somebody and chances are the first image that will pop in that person’s mind won’t be a Catholic priest from two centuries ago. In fact, without going into lewd comparisons, it would probably be the exact opposite.
That is because that on this side of the globe, in particular in Latin America, they have taken their own version of Carnival very seriously. This is particularly true of Brazilians, who arguably have the most famous Carnival in the world held in Rio de Janeiro. Because of this, and the fact you could easily compile a top five of Brazilian carnivals alone, this list of top travel destinations for Carnival will limit itself to parties held across the rest of Latin America.
People usually imagine a colourful South American Carnival to be somewhere in a tropical climate with white sand beaches and with the possibility to rest from the partying in the shade of a coconut tree. If that’s what you’re expecting from the world famous carnival in Oruro, you’re in for a surprise.
The highest major carnival in the world, Oruro sits at a (literally) breath-taking altitude of 3,710 metres above sea level. The carnival has been celebrated for more than 2,000 years and was proclaimed one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2001.
It celebrates all the regions and cultures of Bolivia in the different neighbourhoods of the city, which is spread over 400 square miles on the Bolivian Altiplano.
The three main climatological and cultural divisions of the Andean country are each represented by their traditional dances and dresses. The Tinku dance and outfit represent the Altiplano region, high in the mountains and home to Oruro itself as well as the country’s capital La Paz. The lush valleys most known for the beautiful region of Cochabamba are represented by the dances of Pujillay and Potolos; while the tropical plains and jungle are home to the war dances, Chunchos and Tobas.
Oruro was a pilgrimage destination for indigenous populations who would come to celebrate the protective Waka gods, and as would be expected with a religious tradition outdating Christianity, its history is incredibly rich. Most importantly, this history is now more alive then ever, and attracts tens of thousands of tourists every year.
This year the Oruro Carnival will be held on 8th-11th February.
The Barranquilla carnival, held in the Carribean city of the same name, is the largest carnival in Colombia. Considering Colombians’ taste for dancing, music, and their permanent disposition to transform any event into a party, this is no minor feat. It is also one of the few to boast cumbia as its main musical genre, which will keep those porteños addicted to its hypnotic rhythm well satisfied.
The carnival is the festive product of centuries of mixing between Catholic and pagan celebrations from local indigenous populations, Africans and Europeans. This diversity is also represented in the dozens of different colourful disguises that people wear to the Carnival, although locals say there is only one to be really unique to Barranquilla, the marimonda.
The legend goes that one local barranquillero didn’t have enough money to buy a disguise, so he decided to put on a shirt and tie, a pair of pants upside down and a paper bag with holes in it over his head. The marimonda was born.
As in most carnivals, groups of dancers compete to be designated as the best of their city; in Barranquilla this much-coveted prize is symbolised by the Golden Congo. However the women of Barranquilla start dreaming much earlier as in August the Queen of the Carnival is designated to preside over the celebrations in February. She presides over a number of the official celebrations and is in charge of promulgating the only “law” that applies during the carnival: “To dance and enjoy as much as your body permits”.
This year the Barranquilla Carnival will be held on 9-12th February.
Carnaval Encarnaceno, Paraguay
Held in Encarnación, on the southern border of Paraguay, the Carnaval Encarnaceno is the longest festival in South America. It lasts for a mind-boggling 22 days of dancing, drinking, and all out partying. The carnival has been defying human stamina for nearly a century, having officially been held since 1916.
The carnival was part of the development of the city itself, which went from a small town to a busy city with the arrival of the railway in the early 20th century. At first a small party held by and for the locals, in its early years the carnival was celebrated only by men and lasted for a day or two.
Then, following a period of war and internal conflict the festival all but disappeared until the 1940s. After including women from the 1950s, it exploded in popularity in the 1980s and 1990s and now attracts an estimated 60,000 tourists each year, revolutionising the city that counts fewer than 120,000 inhabitants in normal periods of the year.
For the 2013 edition it has employed over 30,000 people over a four-month period and is expected to receive tens of thousands of tourists every weekend during the event. If you’re planning on the long term however, preparations have already begun for the 2016 special centenary carnival, which promises to be a party of epic proportions.
This year the Encarnación Carnival will be held on 18th January-9th February.
For those living in the northern fringes of Latin America there is no reason you shouldn’t have your fair share of party, drinks and wild celebrations. The Veracruz carnival, on the eastern coast of Mexico, provides exactly that.
Although it has “only” been around for under 150 years, the carnival has won the nickname as “the most joyful in the world” and does justice to its name. It started with parties held in local theatres and salons, authorised and organised by the local prefect, a representative of the Maximilano I emperor of Mexico. Although the first few editions were limited to these inside venues, the festivities soon spilled over into the streets.
At first partygoers would simply celebrate and dance on the streets on their way to the official events, forming caravans where participants would show off their outfits and the traditional masks that were a part of the local heritage. Soon these caravans became the main focus of the parties and a competition was organised to choose the best group, based on criteria of outfits, dancing skills, and outright “joyfulness”. Although it wasn’t immediately called that way, the Veracruz Carnival was born.
In the years since, a number of other ingredients have been added and it is now considered the largest carnival in Mexico. Among these joyful additions is a large bonfire held on the first day of the carnival, where all “bad moods are burned away”. The carnival ends in a party echoing the Dia de los Muertos, the most important traditional party in Mexico, with the funeral of “Juan Carnaval”.
This year the Veracruz Carnival will be held on 5-13th February.
Quebrada de Humahuaca, Argentina
Finally, Argentina itself boasts a number of colourful and entertaining carnivals held in February, of which the Diablada de la Quebrada de Humahuaca stands out. As in Oruro, the Diablada combines traditional indigenous celebrations mixed with Catholic elements. The celebrations kick off the Saturday before carnival with the unearthing of the “devil” (represented by a huge devil-shaped doll) that was buried at the end of the previous carnival. As its name indicates, the character of the devil is central to the festivities and many dancers use its characteristic pitchforks, tails and horns in their choreographies.
Once the statue representing the devil is unearthed, the comparsas descend into town to the tune of the carnavalito jujeño, and amidst fireworks.
Each group has their identifying coat of arms that can be found on the doors of houses around the town. These indicate that the members of that comparsa are welcome to come in for a drink, which they invariably do.
On the Sunday of Carnival, after over a week of non-stop partying, the devil is buried once again, with the comparsas each laying offerings before covering him in dirt until the next year. Possibly because at that point no one can take anymore of these, the offerings consist mainly of booze, cigarettes, and coca leaves.
This year the Diablada Carnival will be held between 3-17th February.
For those looking to stay closer to Buenos Aires, the Gualeguaychú carnival will be held every weekend until the end of March in the city just a few hours north of Argentina’s capital.