Carnival has a deep meaning to the people of the Caribbean islands and Jamaica is not excluded. With its own carnival celebration held just after Easter annually, many visitors go to Jamaica to be part of the festivities that are all about letting loose and celebrating culture and freedom as part of an event that culminates with costumes, dancing, and a grand masquerade.
During carnival in Jamaica carnival bands show off their costumes in a themed portrayal that’s usually eye-catching with various aspects of their presentation up for judging. With such a knack for making things exciting and fun on the entertainment scene, you can be sure carnival in Jamaica will be like none other you’ve ever experienced.
In the Caribbean context, carnival also known as ‘bacchanal’ is a celebration that takes place annually on many islands. Most carnival events are based on folklore, culture, religion, and tradition with quite a few Caribbean carnivals held just before Lent (February or early March) during a time known as Shrovetide (Pre-Lent).
In a number of islands the main carnival parades happen two days before Ash Wednesday, which is when Roman Catholics traditionally observe the beginning of the Lenten season. So essentially, carnival is the final festivity before a much more sober observation in this region. As such, many people let go of their inhibitions and enjoy the celebrations to the fullest.
In Jamaica carnival is held one week after Easter which can fall anywhere between March 22 and April 25. This is much unlike celebrations held ahead of Lent in many islands, but there are some other islands who have over the years shifted their celebrations from February to other times of the year for touristic and other reasons.
Carnival celebrations in Jamaica started in the 1990’s, and this happened as a result of a musician named Byron Lee wanting to bring some of Trinidad’s (the birthplace of Caribbean carnival) celebrations over to the island. Byron Lee’s band ‘Byron Lee and the Dragonaires’ is well known for having raised the profile of ska, calypso, and soca music in Jamaica. In Jamaica, the roots of carnival have to do with an ancient pagan festival in Egypt that was adopted by the Greeks, Romans, and later the Roman Catholic Church in Europe.
Though carnival celebrations in Jamaica traditionally kick off after Easter, this island’s carnival calendar is usually in full swing long before that with many parties (fetes) including breakfast party events and jouverts (street parties) getting underway. Events start rolling from February and happen at various venues including some beach jouvert experiences.
Carnival in Jamaica has been growing every year with events like cooler fetes (pay to enter and bring your own cooler and drinks), breakfast parties (early morning), and soca cruises being held in and out of Kingston where the main events are usually held.
In more recent times, carnival events in Jamaica have extended to areas like Ochos Rios, Montego Bay, and Negril.
Jamaica’s carnival is a true spectacle. The main event is the Road March through the streets of Kingston which is also the largest city in Jamaica. This event is usually held on the Sunday after Easter.
Thousands of revellers (masqueraders) groove to music on the streets at this time with many bands and singers coming in from other Caribbean islands to perform and even participate in the big event. Soca and calypso music ring out everywhere you go and the excitement in the air is palpable.
Aside from the main carnival event there are many activities and events visitors can be part of while in Jamaica in places like Ochos Rios, Montego Bay, Negril, and Kingston. These include live shows, boat parties, club events, and other regular or all-inclusive parties the latter of which requires a set price to be paid after which everything else including admission, food and drinks is usually included.
Good to know: Jamaica has one of the best Carnival celebrations in the Caribbean. Each of the carnival bands in Jamaica has its own costumes, parties, and the bands are often associated with specific locations in Jamaica.
There are quite a few spinoff events of the main carnival in Kingston and these are held in places like Ochos Rios, Montego Bay and Negril. Each of these areas has managed to make their celebration unique which is something that can be appreciated by both revellers and spectators.
Here’s what you need to know about carnival events around Jamaica:
Kingston, the capital of Jamaica, is where plenty of people spend a lot of time during Jamaica's carnival. Most carnival events are held in this area and throughout the carnival period, Kingston is usually a hive of activity.
Note that Kingston is the business center of Jamaica and generally not as popular amongst vacationers when compared to Montego Bay, Negril and Ocho Rios. When planning your vacation in Jamaica these are the places where you’ll find the best beaches, tourist attractions and resorts.
That being said, the main Road March event is held in the capital city and not to be missed. All events promoted and staged ahead of this build up the hype for the main event which brings the curtains down on the festivities. Jamaica’s Carnival Road March is the grand parade and features all the carnival bands displaying their show-stopping costumes as they make their way along the carnival route.
Carnival trucks usually lead the bands with loud music which can range from Soca and Calypso to Dancehall and Reggae, and everything else in between.
Ocho Rios on the Northern coast of Jamaica has a history of being a fishing village, but in more recent times has grown to become an alluring resort town. Even with the way this area has developed over the years it has not lost its natural essence and still today boasts some of the most beautiful rainforests, rivers and waterfalls in Jamaica.
On the carnival scene, festivities in Ocho Rios start in January and conclude in April. Some of the popular fetes happening in Ocho Rios around carnival time include Frenchman’s Rise Up and Caesar’s Army Bacchanal Road. Ocho Rios also has a Road March event of its own which showcases the Ocho Rios Carnival Band. This happens one week before Kingston’s Road March.
As Ochos Rios also features some of Jamaica’s best all-inclusive resorts, there’s often carnival celebrations held on the resort grounds.
Insider tip: Ocho Rios is about an hour and a half away from Kingston which means you can easily make your way to some of the main carnival events in Kingston if you will be staying at a Sandals all-inclusive resort in Ocho Rios. The best part is that all (alcoholic) drinks are included and unlimited at Sandals, which should get you in the right mood!
Montego Bay is known and loved for its ambiance and opulent resorts. Travellers love the all-inclusive beach resorts in Montego Bay where you can drink unlimited cocktails on one of its amazing white sand beaches.
During Jamaica’s carnival Montego Bay lights up even more on the entertainment scene with lots of parties, live shows and other events being staged. This area on the north coast of Jamaica has its own carnival celebrations that are worth checking out while on the island.
Montego Bay is around a 2.5-hour drive from Kingston, in case you want to book a taxi and make the trip to the Road March event in the capital city.
Negril is a popular vacation destination in Jamaica that is known for its calm, laid back ambiance and its enticing natural beauty. Negril is also home to the best beach in Jamaica: the world famous Seven Mile Beach.
As this town is located on a 4-hour drive from Kingston, it’s not recommended to make the trip down to the capital city for the Road March, unless you decide on a split stay.
However, beach lovers are still able to stay in Negril and enjoy Jamaica’s carnival without having to make the trip down to Kingston, as the town has its own carnival celebration that is usually held in May. This event is a lot more low key than the main event held in Kingston, but still a great experience. Negril’s carnival includes live music, jouverts, and other cultural events.
Carnival bands in Jamaica are often referred to as Mas bands, which is short for masquerade bands. Revellers are the participants in these Mas bands and once the grand carnival parade comes around everyone who is part of the band gets to march and dance along the streets as part of carnival celebrations. This is called ‘playing Mas’.
If you plan on jumping carnival in Jamaica, the first thing you’ll need to decide is which band you’re going to join. There are four major carnival bands in Jamaica including Bacchanal Jamaica, Ochos Rios Carnival Band, Xaymaca International, and Xodus Carnival.
Xaymaca and Xodus are the newest of these bands to Jamaica’s carnival scene. There are key differences between the portrayal of each individual band every year. Bands will have their own themes and costume designs to match. The themes are often expanded into entire story lines that are shared at respective band launches.
Each Mas band in Jamaica is divided into various sections based on their theme. Larger bands usually are divided into 8-10 sections, while smaller bands can have much less. Carnival bands usually have section leaders for the various band sections which are basically a sub-theme of that year’s portrayal.
Section leaders usually attend all the band meetings and are responsible for organizing and meeting the needs of participants in their section. Section leaders help come up with the overall theme and sometimes contribute costume design ideas.
Revellers (participants) in individual sections wear cohesive costumes which differentiate the various sections. Even within a single costumed section there can be variations of the same costume depending on the preference of participants.
Carnival costumes are usually first displayed at band launches which are more or less fashion shows with an amped up party vibe. People who are unable to attend the various launch events can still view the costumes on various carnival band websites and even watch replays of the band launches in the days following the events.
With all of the options available after these launches some people find it hard to select a carnival band and costume. To make things easier, it’s a good idea to first choose the band you want to jump with based on reviews and maybe even opinions from friends who’ve participated before, and then select the costume you like from that band.
Overall, if you want to be part of any carnival band in Jamaica you’ll need to secure your costume early. This can be done by making a deposit to the band of your choice. Once you’ve done that, your costume will be placed on hold until the full amount has been paid. It is also an option to pay for the entire costume in full.
If you don’t have a costume you won’t be able to join a carnival band in Jamaica.
The cost of the Jamaica carnival depends on whether you’ll be a spectator or masquerader. It’ll cost the most to be a masquerader as you’ll have to pay for your costume and will likely want to pay for some parties as well. We’ll detail some of the specifics below:
Carnival can be fun even if you don’t play Mas in a band. While watching from the sidelines you can quietly take in the carnival scene or fall into the rhythm and really let loose. Even as a spectator you’ll be able to get into the carnival fun in Jamaica with many parties being held before and after the main carnival parade.
The cost of carnival parties in Jamaica will depend on how many events you go to and whether or not these events are all-inclusive. Regular carnival parties can cost around $50 - $125, but all-inclusive parties tend to be somewhere in the region of $300 - $600.
Most revellers try to go to at least two or three of the major carnival parties, or at least one in each category, club, boat, breakfast party, etc.
Playing Mas comes with a cost. People pay for the experience which includes fancy costumes and the price you’ll pay depends on the band you decide to jump carnival with.
Carnival costumes are often quite elaborate with lots of glitter, feathers, and faux gems. They are intricately designed and most of them hand made. More elaborate costumes can include wings in addition to the head pieces and other body adornments.
The price you’ll pay to be a masquerader depends on whether you choose a VIP section, or a regular one. Costume prices can range from $400 to $1,000 for women, while men can expect to pay $500 on average for a carnival costume.
Carnival planning can be exhausting. You have to make arrangements for costumes if you plan on jumping with a band, plan which parties you’re going to, and somehow still find the time to plan other activities while in Jamaica.
If you’re planning on traveling for carnival, it is a good idea to stay at one of the all-inclusive resorts in Jamaica. This can help take away some of the stresses of vacation planning as all you’ll need to do is pay for your vacation package after which everything else including unlimited food, (alcoholic) drinks and entertainment within the resort will be available to you.
Depending on the resort, you can even get help to book some of the best tours to go on between the carnival action so you can make the best of your time in Jamaica.
When traveling to Jamaica especially for carnival, stay in an area close to some of the best events like Kingston, Ocho Rios, Montego Bay, or Negril. Resorts in Ocho Rios, Montego Bay, and Negril are often less crowded during carnival time and will leave room for you to do other activities other than just carnival.
Carnival in Jamaica is something to be experienced at least once. After that one time you might become a bit addicted to Mas, but at least there’s many other events on the Caribbean Carnival Calendar to keep you in a festive mood.
Overall, the most important things to do when planning a carnival related vacation, and specifically, planning one in Jamaica, is to sort out your accommodation plans well in advance keeping in mind all the things you need and want. Again, Jamaica’s all-inclusive resorts are always a good idea for the simple fact that carnival time can get busy, and once you’re having a good time partying you’re not going to want to think about making arrangements for anything else.
At an all-inclusive resort you won’t have to, as restaurants, (swim-up) bars, water sports and even airport transfers are included in the cost of your package. And, as a carnival newbie, the local staff at the resort may even be able to give you some useful carnival tips that can enhance your experience.
So, all of this to say, once you have your all-inclusive booking out of the way, you’ll be free to let loose and enjoy your carnival experience in Jamaica to the fullest!
Expert tip: Try to get some sleep in between carnival events so you’re not too exhausted to enjoy it all! When returning from a carnival trip, also ensure you have at least one day to recoup before getting back to business as usual.