Carnival in Jamaica: What newcomers need to know
Bigger crowds than ever are expected in Jamaica this year for the pulsating beats, show-stopping costumes and energetic party vibe of Carnival. Here’s Loop’s quick guide to what it’s all about.
Carnival has its roots in the Catholic tradition of celebrating before the period of fasting leading up to Easter known as Lent begins. It’s believed to have begun in Italy but soon spread to other Catholic nations like France and Spain, and then around the world. The timing and duration of celebrations differ from place to place but most festivities peak by Mardi Gras, which is the last day before Lent starts on Ash Wednesday. Today, places such as Rio de Janeiro, Venice and New Orleans are known around the world for their Carnivals.
(Image: AP: Dancer in Sao Paulo, Brazil)
What about the Caribbean?
Trinidad and Tobago is the undisputed Caribbean capital of Carnival. The festival arrived in the region via 18th Century French colonists who held masquerades and balls before Lent began. Slaves began their own celebrations, which became an expression of identity incorporating musical traditions and dress from their homelands. Today, Trinidad’s Carnival has become a huge-scale extravaganza of rival bands and sounds dominated by soca, an ever-evolving mixture of calypso and East Indian music. Trinidad-style Carnivals dominate many cities around the world and inspire aspects of Carnivals across the Caribbean region. There are major festivals in Barbados, St Lucia and the French-speaking islands, among others, with some holding their Carnivals at different times of year to avoid clashes and capitalise on peak tourist season.
So what happens in Jamaica?
Carnival came late to Jamaica but it is making up for lost time! Since it began in the 1990s it has grown enormously and, say organisers, might one day rival Trinidad and Tobago’s in popularity. And while Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival has both historical and modern roots, in Jamaica Carnival is all about the party.
Here it takes place the week after Easter, with the main event – the spectacular road marches through Kingston – this year set for Sunday 8 April.
Carnival season kicks off well before that, however, and this year’s calendar is more crowded than ever. Fetes including beach jouverts, Carnival cruises and soca extravaganzas featuring prominent artists ramp up in late March and peak on the Saturday just before the parades.
Revelry gets going in Ocho Rios over the Easter weekend, with popular fetes Frenchmen’s Rise Up and Bacchanal Jamaica’s Beach Jouvert on the Saturday, followed by the Ocho Rios road march on Easter Monday.
Then the action moves to Kingston, where a host of well-known party imports from Trinidad like Soca Brainwash and Tribe Ignite will be making a return, as well as popular local favourites like Blocko street party. There are also some new events debuting - the challenge will be planning your time to maximise your feting!
On parade day mas bands taking part include Xaymaca International, Xodus Carnival, Bacchanal Jamaica and Jamaica Carnival. Each band offers a range of fabulous costumes for revellers to select (you need to register in advance) and provides facilities such as lunch, drinks and glam-zone make-up touch-ups for its masqueraders on parade day. And for spectators, prepare to be dazzled by amazing outfits, gorgeous marchers and vibrant sounds as Kingston sheds its inhibitions.
Where should I stay?
Some specialist travel operators offer deals for overseas travellers that include hotel accommodation and a package with a band (Carnivalinfo.com is one such operator). Otherwise, try a hotel in New Kingston that will be convenient for going to events and for parade day. The Courtleigh, Knutsford Court Hotel, Jamaica Pegasus, Spanish Court Hotel and Eden Gardens Wellness Resort are some of the well-located options. Airbnb might also be an option, but properties seem to be going fast.
Where can I find more information?
Each mas band has a website with details of its costumes and events. The Jamaican Tourism Board has a comprehensive schedule here – or watch this space for Loop’s interactive calendar with all you need to know to plan your time. Loop’s also going to publish lists of places to visit and eat in and around Kingston to help newcomers out. Taxi operators include OnTime, Apollo Taxis and El Shaddai.