Antigua is a 108-square-mile island that stretches roughly 13 miles across. The capital of this island is St. John, where most of the residents live. Antigua is known for many things including its immense number of beaches (365 in all), luxurious all-inclusive resorts, and of course, Antigua carnival. In terms of the latter, carnival in Antigua is frequently referred to as the Caribbean's greatest summer festival. Is there any truth to this? Well, you'll probably need to go to the island to find out for yourself!
Antigua Carnival is held annually in early August. Most of the major events for the carnival take place at Carnival City at the Antigua Recreation Ground. If you plan to have the full carnival experience in Antigua, you’ll likely attend at least a couple of events at this location. Aside from this, the main parade is a central focus for most, and this marks the climax of the carnival celebrations. Before getting to that point though, there are plenty of boat rides, fetes, and other events you might want to experience first! We’ve got the breakdown in this post of everything you need to know about the Antigua Carnival!
Good to know: Antigua & Barbuda are two islands that make up a single nation. If you visit Antigua for the carnival, you’ll also be able to take a boat across to Barbuda.
Participating in the Antigua Carnival can feel like the ultimate outdoor masquerade event. This event literally comes to life on the streets of Antigua and includes costumes, pageants, food-related events, and concerts. The soca music and calypso beats along with the bright and sparkly costumes create a tropical vibe to the whole affair and the large numbers of revelers make this quite an exciting event.
Carnival really is the biggest party of the year on this island. Antigua Carnival dates back to 1834. In the earlier years, this event was intended to celebrate emancipation from slavery. Organizers adjusted various elements of the event over the years until, in 1957, Antigua Carnival became a 13-day festival. The 13-day format for the Antigua carnival has stayed the same ever since.
In terms of the history of the Antigua carnival, this event is also said to have replaced another cultural celebration known as the Old Time Christmas Festival. Some of the same elements that you see in the Antigua Carnival today, like the steel band music and dance performances, would usually have been seen in the Old Time Festival. This change saw traditional calypso and soca music being featured at Antigua Carnival as the Old Time Festival faded out.
Good to know: Participating in the carnival in Antigua might be referred to as ‘Playing Mas’ by the locals. Mas is short for masquerade. In this sense, the masqueraders would be none other than the people involved in the carnival revelry who most often wear costumes and masks.
The costumes are a large part of the appeal of carnival events anywhere in the world and understandably so. After all, what other time of the year is it acceptable to skip work and dance through the streets of St. John’s in practically nothing? The costumes featured at the Antigua Carnival are as varied as the people who participate in this event and if you plan on playing Mas’ in Antigua, it would be a good idea to get started on selecting yours.
Antigua carnival costumes range from simple and functional to elaborate and glitzy. Many of these costumes are brightly colored with rhinestones, gems, and other captivating features, but that isn’t the case for every single costume. The costume designs and colors featured at the carnival highly depend on the carnival themes being portrayed by the various bands. While participating in Antigua Carnival, look out for traditional costumes like the Carnival Man who dances on one foot, and sways to the right.
Good to know: Some of the longest-standing carnival bands in Antigua include Myst Carnival and Insane Carnival. These award-winning bands have been around for decades and might be a good starting point when it comes to comparing and selecting costumes.
Antigua is a really great place to experience good soca music. There are loads of events that happen on this island around carnival time. During these engagements and at the grand parade, you’ll be able to hear Caribbean soca and other local music. Calypso music, which tends to be a bit of a slower pace as compared to soca, is also popular in Antigua, particularly around carnival time. Soca was invented by Trinidadian Lord Shorty in the 1970s and is known as the “Soul of Calypso” in some corners. While the origin of soca music is in Trinidad, this genre is popular in many other Caribbean islands including Antigua.
Good to know: Outside of Antigua Carnival, the Antigua Recreation Ground is home to the island’s cricket team.
The major carnival events in Antigua include J’ouvert, the Carnival Queen Show, the Calypso Monarch Competition, the Soca Monarch Competition, Panorama, and the Carnival Parade. Most of these events take place at Carnival City in St. John’s. Carnival events kick off in late July/early August with the main parade and other events taking place on the First Monday and Tuesday of August. During the Carnival Season in Antigua, it won’t be hard to find music competitions, concerts, parties, and pageants which happen almost every day.
The opening of the carnival season is a reason to celebrate in Antigua. There are events held in recognition of this festival which help to set the mood for the occasion. One such event is the T-shirt Mas Parade. For this event, revelers usually wear troupes t-shirts, some of which are glammed up in various ways. You might spot gem-enhanced designs, tye dye, or even fringe-cut looks and bikinis.
Other than the T-shirt Mas Parade there are other events that get underway on this island ahead of the carnival as well. These events include evening concerts, fetes, and other celebrations like the Band Meets Band showdown held at Carnival City -- this event includes lots of music, dancing, and delicious food on sale from local vendors. If you decide to attend pre-opening festivals and events in Antigua, you’ll get a taste of what’s to come for Antigua Carnival.
J’ouvert, which celebrates the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean in the early 1830s, has a long and storied history. In keeping with that history, today the event’s focus is on liberation and emancipation. J’ouvert is a carnival staple and certainly worth experiencing in Antigua.
You can expect a carnival-like atmosphere, but without fancy costumes, at J’ouvert. Instead, you might see t-shirt bands and people dressed casually, well-prepared for the event that tends to involve mud, body paint, powder, oil, and tons of dancing. While the most dedicated carnival revelers go straight from J’ouvert to carnival (with little time to shower and change into costumes in between), others prefer to partake in only J’ouvert to get just a taste of carnival. J’ouvert is significantly less expensive than a carnival. A J’ouvert band bundle will typically only include a t-shirt and other assorted carnival memorabilia.
Before the big bands head onto the street later in the morning, you’ll find J’ouvert revelers suited up and ready to go from as early as 3 a.m. The French word J’ouvert means “daybreak,” which is a fairly accurate description of what this party entails. J’ouvert ends in the early morning, often after the sun has risen.
Good to know: If you want to participate in both J’ouvert and carnival in Antigua as well as any parties that may take place the night before the main carnival parade, be prepared to sleep very little!
The Queen of Carnival Pageants are highly anticipated events during the Antigua Carnival. Young Antiguan women vie for the title of Carnival Queen in one of this nation’s most popular carnival events, known as the Carnival Queen Show. Participants in this event compete in various categories including talent and also showcase their knowledge of the island’s culture and carnival itself. The winner of the Carnival Queen Show is featured prominently as part of the carnival celebrations, particularly on the main parade route. The island's carnival queen for any given year is also responsible for assisting in promoting events, attending festivals, and being the official representative of the island's carnival.
Pageant-wise, Antigua also plays host to one of the most popular youth queen show pageants in the Caribbean, the Jaycees Queen Show. This is a regional event that usually includes participants from various islands including Barbados, St. Croix, Saint Lucia, Jamaica, and other islands. The Jaycees pageant has been around since the 1970s and is organized by the Junior Chamber of Antigua and Barbuda.
It’s not just the parties that attract a large crowd at Antigua Carnival - the Party Monarch Competition does, too. This event is actually one of the best-attended shows during the Antigua Carnival. At the Party Monarch Competition, you can expect to see some of the best Antiguan soca artists battle it out with up-tempo and groovy selections. As Antigua has some great talent, you can expect to hear some impressive Soca tunes at this event.
As the Party Monarch carnival event is a competition, there’s a winner announced at the end of the event in both the Up-tempo and Groovy categories. The winners earn the Party Monarch titles, which really gives their songs a push during carnival. The Party Monarch Competition is attended by locals and visitors of all ages.
Steel pans, also known as steel drums, are a big part of carnival celebrations in the Caribbean. You might hear the sweet sounds of this instrument being featured at some carnival events, incorporated into some soca tunes or you might have a chance to see live steel bands as well. For an event that focuses on steel pans, you’ll want to go to Antigua Panorama which is an annual event on the carnival calendar.
Antigua Panorama is essentially a music competition. Various steel bands or orchestras compete against each other to win the title, giving them the bragging rights of being the best on the island. During this event, you’ll be able to learn a little more about the history of steel drums in the Caribbean -- they were invented in Trinidad and Tobago, and popularized on that island as well. Over the years, steel pans have become a carnival staple in Antigua.
For most islands, the carnival is the time of year when you’ll find the largest concentration of events. In Antigua, there are a variety of events that are part of the national celebrations and lots of parties organized by private promoters and individuals as well. Many of these events have popular local and regional artists as headliners. The emphasis tends to be on soca and Caribbean calypso music during carnival time.
Among the popular carnival parties held in Antigua are events like breakfast fetes that tend to start between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. These events tend to span several hours and are a good place to enjoy traditional Antiguan cuisine and music. If you want to attend some of the more popular carnival concerts and parties in Antigua, you'll need to purchase your tickets well in advance. Events like Powder Party (tickets start at $20 USD) and the Melting Pot ($15 USD) are quite popular. The Powder Party features colored dust (comparable to India’s Holi Festival). For this type of event, you’ll want to wear something that you don't mind getting stained or messy.
Good to know: In Antigua, small-scale carnival activities are held in some of the smaller towns. During these events, you can try some of the popular food and drinks in Antigua.
If you want to take part in Antigua Carnival, you can either play Mas (join a costumed carnival band) or just watch. If you want to be a part of a costumed band you have a few band options. Insane Carnival, Myst Carnival, Barefoot, DumzTree, Fuze, Flex, and others are among the most popular. Each band has its own theme and sections with unique costumes, and each experience is priced differently (more on this later). A costume is a must to join most carnival bands in Antigua.
Once you purchase a costume, it will be valid for the duration of the parade days. The carnival parade in Antigua is known as the Carnival Road March and it is a huge highlight that pretty much closes off the festival. Of course, there are after-parties as well, but the parade really and truly is the climax of the festivities. If you choose to enjoy the carnival as a spectator, you’ll be able to watch from the sidelines and still have some fun dancing to the loud music from the carnival trucks.
The cost of the Antigua carnival will depend on your participation. Whether you opt to watch or get into a costume, your decision will ultimately determine how much it will cost you, and we’ve got a breakdown below!
As a spectator, Antigua Carnival will cost you not much more than the price of your flight and accommodations. If you choose to go to carnival events, this can increase your cost as well. To calculate, factor in round-trip flights from the United States which are usually a couple of hundred dollars a piece, or flight tickets from Europe to Antigua which can be a thousand dollars (or less).
Being a carnival spectator can be fun. If you get a good spot to watch, it will be like having a front-row seat at the carnival. If you choose to do carnival this way, you’ll also have the option to attend fetes to take in more of the carnival experience — most carnival parties cost between $15 and $125 USD. All-inclusive carnival parties can cost upwards of $200 USD. Even still, carnival celebrations in Antigua are less pricey than that of some other Caribbean islands.
Expert tip: Antigua vs Saint Lucia. It’s tough deciding which of these islands to go to, but Antigua beaches certainly do add to the appeal of the former. Antigua has at least 365 beaches which means you'll have lots of options for a beach day.
Glitter, feathers, jewels, and bright colors — this is what carnival revelers can look forward to in their costumes for this event. No matter which band you choose, you’ll need to expect a price tag if you want to play Mas with a costumed band. Keep in mind that the price you’ll pay for your carnival package inclusive of your costume will vary depending on the band. There are other things to factor in as well in terms of the price you'll pay, and this includes which events and parties you’ll be attending while in Antigua and travel accommodations.
In general, if you will be playing Mas with a costumed band in Antigua, you can expect to spend between $400-$1500 USD for women and between $500-$1500 USD for men. The more elaborate the costume, the more you’ll pay. Front line and VIP costumes tend to cost more than the regular costumed sections. Most bands include carnival costumes and accessories as well as drinks and food for the parade as part of the carnival package. Tickets for some activities like band parties can be included in this cost as well.
Good to know: Getting a car rental can add to your cost as a masquerader, but it can be convenient to have one during carnival time as there are often many activities to attend. A car rental in Antigua will cost around $400 USD per week on average.
If you want to go to Antigua for the carnival, the best way to get to this island is by plane. The main airport, the V.C. Bird International Airport (ANU), is just five minutes away from the capital city. If you'll be traveling to this island, more than likely this is the airport that you will be flying into. From some U.S. states like Florida, you can be in Antigua for a carnival in under four hours by plane.
In terms of where to stay, you’ll need to plan this in advance if you will be going to the Antigua Carnival. Staying in a resort on the west side of Antigua in towns like St. John's, Fort James, Dickenson Bay, or Five Islands Village is a good idea if you want to see the best carnival action. These areas are all close to some of the island’s best fetes, parades, and events during the carnival season.
Looking a little closer, Dickenson Bay is a great place to stay during the carnival as you’ll be able to find all-inclusive resorts like Sandals Resorts that are ideal for couples. If you go to this all-inclusive resort, you can experience the thrill of a carnival and then return to your resort to relax in a luxurious style.
Good to know: Guests of Sandals Grande Antigua can indulge in fine dining at a variety of restaurants, luxury accommodations, day and night entertainment, land and water activities, and more. All of these are included in the price of a Sandals Resorts couple’s vacation. The RedLane Spa, available at Sandals Antigua, is ideal for some R&R after the excitement of the carnival.
There you have it — all the reasons going to Antigua carnival is a wonderful idea. This is one of the most exciting things to do in Antigua and a bit of planning will certainly go a long way in making this trip happen. Couples in particular will love the quality inclusions at Sandals' all-inclusive resort, the helpfulness of staff with carnival insights, and the fact that they’ll be close to the beach and all things carnival related!
Expert tip: There are so many things Antigua is known for including the scenic Shirley Heights, its frigate bird sanctuary, and delicious cuisines like the saltfish and fungie.