Carnival in the Caribbean is a guaranteed good time. If you’re looking to have the kind of vacation that’s a mix of exploration and fun, it’s a good idea to head to this region to participate in one of many island carnivals, where you’ll have the opportunity to dress up, dance through the streets, and live life unbounded.
For islanders in the Caribbean region, Carnival is a time to let loose. It is considered a judgement-free time, particularly for conservative islands with a strong Christian background. People who celebrate carnival do so with the appreciation for the culture of their ancestors, particularly their African ancestors. They celebrate victoriously, knowing carnival’s roots in colonization, and later emancipation. Once enslaved people were set free, and for this region, this is the biggest reason to celebrate.
In addition to what is commonly known about the festival’s roots, there are some aspects of carnival’s origin which are not commonly known. Carnival in the Caribbean can be traced back to Italian Catholics in Europe. It is said these early celebrations later spread to French and Spanish colonialists, who brought with them to the Caribbean Shrovetide traditions, particularly in islands like Trinidad, Dominica, Saint Lucia, Haiti, Martinique, and others.
Masks and mythical characters form an essential part of carnival in the Caribbean. The masks, costumes, and the indulgence of excesses during carnival times all have a religious root. It is thought that all of these are symbolic of a type of reversal ritual, which means that regular rules or norms can be broken, ahead of a strict Lenten fast. This is largely a Catholic tradition.
There are a number of characters which all have their own stories rooted in traditions and folklore of the islands. Saint Lucia’s djab djab, Dominican Republic’s El Diablo Cojuelo, Trinidad’s Baby doll and Bookman are classic examples. There are many others, and throughout the islands, the tales vary. Characters can typically be seen during the carnival parade (also known as mas) in full bodied costumes that can be a mixture of weird and somewhat frightening. Each character has its own story to tell, so it is worth finding out all you can about this tradition while on island.
Know before you go: ‘Playing Mas’ simply means dancing through the streets in a costumed carnival band. It is a term you’ll hear often during carnival celebrations, so it’s good to know!
Carnival may be a cultural experience, but it is also big business for the many bands that participate annually, event promotors, costume designers, and every other person in between. Many islands record increased tourist arrivals during the carnival season, and resorts are usually filled to capacity. There is usually a string of events attached to the main celebrations, so if you’re travelling to any of the islands during their carnival season, expect to be entertained.
Insider tip: It is a good idea to book your ticket and accommodation early to guarantee availability.
This list includes some of the most popular carnival events in the Caribbean, as well as some lesser known festivals, which are surprisingly fun. Keep in mind that some of the carnival dates vary on an annual basis.
December 16 – January 5
Held in Saint Croix, this event which unfolds late December to early January has it all. Around this time, expect to find activities all over the island of Saint Croix, as part of this festival which merges Christmas and carnival in a very interesting way.
December 26 & January 1
Frequently compared to 'Kakamotobi', the Fancy Dress Festival of Ghana, Junkanoo celebrations in the Bahamas are larger than life. Annually on Boxing Day (December 26) and New Year’s Day (January 1), the eye catching festival takes to the streets and features costumed revelers, themed music, and loads of entertainment. The parade can be seen on the streets of downtown Nassau between 2am and 10am. The most amazing part of this festival is how easily the large parade and captivating beats manage to get spectators off their feet, and into the party!
Insider tip: While the main parade is held in Nassau, you can also get a feel of Junkanoo on Grand Bahama Island, The Exumas, Eleuthera, Habour Island, The Abacos and Bimini.
Picture: Junkanoo parade in Nassau, the Bahamas.
December 26 - January 2
Saint Kitts, the larger and more populated of two island nations (Nevis), is known for its lush rainforests, beaches of white, gray, and black sands, and of course, its carnival celebrations. Carnival in St Kitts, also known as Sugar Mas, typically starts from the second week of November, and spans until the first week of January. There is a packed schedule of activities marking this celebration which includes sunset cruises, jouvert, calypso and soca competitions, beauty pageants and more. The grand parade usually features colorful carnival bands parading through the streets to the sounds of sweet soca music!
Good to know: Jouvert is a carnival street party that happens in the early morning hours the day before the carnival parades of many Caribbean islands. It is a pre carnival party, which typically features revelers dancing with t-shirts and shorts representing their band of choice. Creative t-shirt designs are encouraged, and paint, powder, and mud and all part of the deliriously, messy fun.
Picture: Boy celebrating Sugar Mas in Saint Kitts.
December 26 - January 1
This festival starts in December and ends in January. During this time, Montserrat comes alive with its biggest festival for the year. This is a lesser known event, but it is very popular particularly for home-comers to Montserrat who fled the island after the Soufrière Hills Volcano eruption. The love for home despite circumstance can be seen in this event, as people come together and celebrate life.
December 31 - January 1
If you’re looking for a good time in Turks and Caicos, Junkanoo is a good pick. Happing within the beautiful islands of Turks and Caicos, this event is known for being a parade of energy. The Junkanoo parade held on January 1 includes horns, drums and revelers in bejeweled masks, and handmade costumes dancing into the wee hours of the morning. This festival pays tribute to African music and dance.
Looking for a place to stay? Definitely check out Beaches Turks & Caicos (all-inclusive resort in Turks and Caicos).
Most carnivals in February happen just before Ash Wednesday. The root of this scheduling has religious connections, but in recent times, these festivals have taken on a life of their own.
Feb 17 - March 6
You can have the best of both worlds in Saint Martin, an island which is both Dutch and French. The island is a melting pot of cultures, and for a small island, it is significantly more developed than others in the same category. Most people are unaware of this, and for that reason, carnival in this territory is underrated. With a fast-growing entertainment scene, the event is growing in popularity. Carnival festivities in the French side of Saint Martin typically start in February and end early March.
February 19 - 25
Puerto Rico is not left out of the fun. Carnaval de Ponce, also known as Carnaval Ponceño, is held towards the end of February and has a lot to offer. The event is held in Ponce, Puerto Rico, and it is one of the oldest carnivals in the Western Hemisphere. Celebrations in this Spanish territory are frequently likened to that of Rio de Janeiro, but you’ll have to go for yourself to see if they match up!
Picture: Ponce parade in Puerto Rico.
Held on Guyanese Republic Day, Mashramani, also known as Mash, is an annual celebration that honors Guyana becoming a Republic in 1970. It is a festival rooted in independence, which fuses together the best of Guyana – from food and games, to parties and parades.
February 23 - 26
A festival with a difference, Martinique’s carnival is perfect for those wanting a more traditional event. Music and authenticity are at the core of this event which pays tribute to the island’s French and African roots.
February 24 - 25
Trinidad carnival is the mother of all carnivals in this region. It is the carnival event that almost every single person aspires to attend at least once in their lifetime. As the festival continues to grow, these aspirations have extended internationally. In recent times, celebrities of all calibers have made Trinidad their destination of choice in February, primarily to partake in the celebrations. The event has seen the attendance of celebrities including Ashanti, Mya, Lil Kim, Trinidad James, and others.
Picture: Carnival in Trinidad.
Insider tip: While in Trinidad, don’t forget to check out Tobago’s carnival celebrations also held in February.
No Caribbean island is left behind on the carnival train, and certainly not Saint Barthélemy. This island is known for its festivals, events, and regattas, and just as much planning and dedication goes into its carnival celebrations which get underway mid-February and end in March.
Carnival in the Dominican Republic is a wild time. Much due to Spanish influences, the atmosphere of this festival can be compared to that of Rio de Janairo on a much smaller scale. A vibrant celebration, festivities in this part of the world usually fill the entire month of February. It is a ‘celebration of culture and identity’, which extends throughout the DR. Costumes, masks, and symbolic characters are a big part of this event, and are tied to folklore traditions and beliefs.
Aruba’s Carnival is the ultimate party of the year. Carnival celebrations on this island located on the ABC chain typically feature Antillean “tumba” music, steel bands with a mix of pulsating salsa beats, marching bands, and more. According to the natives, ‘you haven’t lived until you’ve been to Aruba’s carnival’, and the island’s two-month long carnival calendar (starting in January) backs up that sentiment!
Picture: Carnival parade in Aruba.
Curacao is a beautiful island, and its people are equally so. Held in March, this festival is a lively occasion which serves as an opportunity to bring people together to celebrate culture, heritage and freedom. The Dutch island of Curacao is part of the ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao).
March 2 - 3
A visit to the ABC islands is incomplete without checking out what Bonaire has to offer. As part of its carnival offering held in February, in Bonaire you’ll find music festivals, parades, and other traditional carnival rituals. The burning of ‘King Mono’ is symbolic in this land, which signifies all the impurities that must vanish before the Lenten fast begins.
Picture: Carnival parade in Bonaire.
March 4 - 5
The French islands have a special essence that can be seen in the way their carnival celebrations come to life. Like most of the French speaking territories, the dances, music and other aspects showcased during Guadeloupe’s carnival are something unique, and completely their own. Guadeloupe’s carnival is one of the biggest festivals in the Antilles.
March 4 - 5
Carriacou is a surprisingly fun destination for carnival. The island is close to both Saint Vincent and Grenada and is part of a sprinkling of islands known as the Grenadines. To attend this event, you’re likely going to have to fly over to either of the bigger islands, and boat across to Carriacou. This event includes street dancers, costumed bands and the regular soca parties, in a more intimate setting.
Insider tip: Take a ferry over to Carricou the Thursday before the event to take in all the carnival fun.
March 4 - 5
Dominicans sure know how to party, and carnival in the nature island is great time to experience that. The Creole speaking Caribbean island is known for day to night partying during carnival and other major events. This event is a guaranteed good time, amid an environment that is refreshing and invigorating. Dominica’s carnival is known as ‘The Real Mas’ because it pays tribute to traditional carnival celebrations.
Picture: Kids celebrating carnival in Dominica.
Carnival in this Creole speaking island has come together over the years in a big way, to pay tribute to the roots of this country. While Haiti is known to have several carnival celebrations throughout the year, the main event, Haiti Kanaval, is held in Port-au-Prince from January and into early March.
Virgin Gorda is a tropical paradise. In late March/early April, the island located in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) heats up for some carnival fun. Easter is party time on this island, so get ready to wine and grind.
Beach parties, breakfast fetes, parades, and concerts are all part of Jamaica’s carnival, and Ocho Rios is one of the best places in Jamaica to take in the celebrations. With a schedule of activities starting in January and ending in April, you won’t be bored on this rock.
Insider tip: Sandals' all-inclusive beach resort in Ocho Rios is nearby the carnival celebrations in Ocho Rios.
Annually, Saint Thomas in the Virgin Islands hosts their carnival celebrations during the month of April. The island hosts hard core parties leading up to the main event, a carnival parade that lights up Main Street. Whether you sit on the sidelines, or jump in a band, you’re guaranteed a fun time in Saint Thomas.
Starting with three carnival bands in 2000, Bachannal Jamaica is today one of the biggest carnival events held on the island. Events start in December and wind down towards the end of Easter. Loads of activities lead up to the Road March finale, which is hugely popular. The event has featured Caribbean stars including Machel Montano, Destra, Kes, Bunji Garlin, Fayann Lyons, Kerwin Dubois and more. The rich culture of Dancehall and Reggae is fused into traditional carnival celebrations in Jamaica.
Sint Maarten, the Dutch side of a twin island, is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. It is one of many Dutch territories in the Caribbean that host their own carnival celebrations. With a mixed culture, carnival on this island is all embracing, so you can expect an action-packed time in a classic Caribbean setting. Sint Maarten’s carnival is held late April/early May.
Held in the Cayman Islands, Batabano is usually observed in the first week of May. This festival is the only carnival held in the Cayman Islands, and features events for adults and juniors.
One of the most beautiful destinations in the world, the Bahamas is a top choice for many travelers. Throw in a spectacular carnival event and you’ll have even more motivation to visit this island to get acquainted with its culture. Carnival in the Bahamas is usually held in the first week of May, though there are lots of other events happening year-round.
Insider tip: Heading to Bahamas carnival? Plan your accommodation early. Book one of the all-inclusive resorts in the Bahamas for unlimited gourmet food and premium spirits.
Picture: Carnival parade in Nassau, the Bahamas.
June 6 - 9
Off the shores of Antigua, Barbuda’s carnival beckons carnival lovers from all over to an intimate and traditional event. Smaller islands tend to have less crowded celebrations, which are great for those who feel more comfortable in a close-knit setting.
Bermuda is that pretty little island in the Caribbean with gorgeous pink sand beaches and amazing people. Carnival in this territory happens in the third week of June and is part of Bermuda’s Heroes Weekend. Though small, this festival is steadily growing, and it is one of the highly recommended events in the Caribbean.
In the months of June and July, the Saint John Festival is one of the major attractions for this isle which is part of the US Virgin Islands. Saint John’s Festival, a carnival celebration, is tied to Emancipation Day on the island, so expect a culturally varied experience.
July 8 - 9
There is a graduation of sorts that seems to happen once you set out on the carnival trail. Perhaps you might begin with milder events and end in an epic way at the best carnival of the region. Vincy Mas is somewhere at the top of Caribbean carnival ratings. Held late June to early July, this event in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines includes carnival activities for the young and young at heart. Some of the best Soca stars come from Saint Vincent, so expect great music and parties!
July 18 - 27
A large festival that is as famous as it is traditional, Santiago de Cuba’s carnival happens in July annually. This event is loved because it highlights Cuba’s interests and influences in an authentic way. The parades that are part of this event are nothing short of spectacular, and while attending this event, you’ll literally feel like you’re being sucked into a culture, that welcomes you with open arms.
July 16 - 17
Saint Lucia carnival, now part of the Soleil Summer Festival in Saint Lucia, culminates with two days of revelry through the streets. The island’s carnival celebrations were previously held in February, ahead of Ash Wednesday, but have now been transitioned to July. The move was made by the island’s government in an attempt to be more competitive on the tourism front. Saint Lucia’s carnival has grown and changed since the move, but the island remains one of the top spots for carnival in the region.
Insider tip: Luxury resort Sandals Halcyon Beach in Saint Lucia is located along the island’s carnival route.
Picture: Carnival parade in Castries, Saint Lucia.
This Dutch Caribbean island hosts its carnival celebrations in late July to August. One of the smaller Caribbean events, the Saba Summer Festival features good food, music and a cultural showcase worth taking in.
Insider tip: There is a lot you can learn about this island on the chain of the Lesser Antilles through this event, so be sure to get out there and explore.
July 30 - August 5
Late July into early August the people of Saint Eustantius welcome foreigners to their shores, as well as people born on island who have since migrated. The small Dutch island with a population of just over 3,000 people is a hive of activity during this time with events intended to boost the island’s tourism product.
This island’s Emancipation Festival is held in early August, and this is a great time to visit Tortola as you can expect really good local and international food, music, pageants, parades, and even gospel celebrations. The options are endless for this festival which focuses on celebrating the history and culture of the nation and paying tribute to the freedom of the ancestors.
Held in early August, Crop Over is known to feature stars like Rihanna, who was born and raised on Barbados. Rihanna’s attendance of this event has significantly raised the ratings for this now high-profile carnival event. Crop over is set apart from other carnival events in the region because its origins have to do with the season marking the ending of the local Sugar Cane Harvest.
Insider tip: Resorts on Barbados fill up quickly during Carnival time. Plan your accommodation early.
August 5 - 6
Antigua features one of the most organized carnivals in the region. Held annually in early August, Antigua’s carnival draws scores of regional and international guests. From convertibles driving past with beautiful carnival contestants, to day and night parties, Antigua is hands down one of the best Caribbean carnivals around town.
Looking for a place to stay? Antigua boasts lots of beautiful all-inclusive resorts which will be perfect for you!
August 5 - 6
Saint Kitts and Nevis is a duel island nation. Many people are familiar with Saint Kitts, but slightly less acquainted with the latter. Culturama held late July into early August is an opportunity for Nevis to showcase its cultural identity, and that the little island does well with a series of shows and a grand parade which is one of its biggest highlights annually.
Just off the shores of Saint Martin, Anguilla is a paradise for carnival lovers seeking an experience which is a little different from most. Boat races, pageants and parties are all part of this event which has gained popularity over the years. Be sure to check out August Monday, jouvert and the Caribbean Beach Party while on this island.
Insider tip: You can fly to Anguilla from the Princess Juliana Airport in St. Maarten or take a ferry across.
August 12 - 13
There’s no going wrong with an event with such a spicy connotation. Spice Mas is one of the best marketed events in the Caribbean, and it lives up to the hype. Held early to mid-August, this event in Grenada features steel pan showcases, parades, beauty pageants, and more.
Insider tip: Stay close to celebrations while in Grenada to minimize transport costs. Check out Sandals' all-inclusive resort in Grenada, which is near to the parade route.
August 24 - 31
Cuba is a truly vibrant nation and it is no surprise that the liveliness of the people makes its way into carnival celebrations. Held in August, carnival festivities in Cuba date back to 1573. The first Havana carnival of the twentieth century was held in 1902, and the event has grown leaps and bounds since then.
Picture: Carnival in the streets of Havana
Rounding up the carnival trail is Belize Carnival, held in September. This event is a combination of street theatre, music, costumes, and very enthusiastic and friendly people. Mixed origins find the people of Belize paying tribute to their Mayan, African, and European roots, in a celebration that is uniquely Belizean. Even though this celebration wraps up the main events in the region for the year, it doesn’t mean the carnival road map is done. Preparations for most carnivals held in February begin around this time, and by November, some bands would have already hosted their launch parties for the upcoming year!
Keep safe as you take in the sights and sounds of carnival. Here are some of the most important things to keep in mind.
Carnival is a celebration of beauty, as seen in the vivid colors surrounding the event. Women and even men in the region pay great attention at this time to looking their best. Some people go on strict diets and exercise for months leading up to the major events just so they can look stunning on the big day. While some people prefer to just throw on a costume and have a good time, others prefer to look glittery and gorgeous while feting the day away. Either way, carnival in the Caribbean is a good time, so make sure you take lots of photos to memorialize this once in a lifetime event!