When it comes to Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago, everything is bigger and better than you ever imagined. Think louder music, more colors and even more revealing costumes for this annual two-day celebration before Lent. Carnival, pronounced “Cahneeval,” is a non-stop party fueled by live Soca music, street dancing, elaborate costumes and a loss of all inhibitions in the Port of Spain.
It is often said that if Trinidadians are not celebrating Carnival, they are either preparing for or reminiscing about it. Parties, or “fetes,” begin as early as July, culminating in a two-day parade and street celebration the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.
Here’s everything you need to know before you go to Carnival in Trinidad.
Carnival costumes are over the top
If you’re playing “mas” (dressing up in a costume and marching in the parade) or simply just taking it all in from the sidelines, prepare for an epic show of revealing bikini costumes, colorful head dresses with feathers, and bedazzled body and face pieces. Costumes can range anywhere from $200 to more than $1,000. No matter what your budget, bigger is always better – Carnival is a time to go all out with feathers, glitter and make up.
Dance to Soca and Calypso music
From early in the morning to late at night, you’ll hear lively street performers playing Soca and Calypso music, steel pans included. Calypso music has been a part of Trinidadian culture since the 18th century, when slaves used music to communicate and mock their masters. Today, the soulful sounds call for street dancing. Don’t be surprised by these gyrating hip dance moves. Better known as “wining,” you’ll see this borderline erotic dancing all over the island and at fetes during Carnival, at all hours of the day.
Join a group or “band” at Carnival
For an authentic and immersive Carnival experience, join a band before arriving. Bands are themed groups that plan to march in the parade. You can join one before your trip and dress in theme so that during the parade, you are all together. Remember, at Carnival, everyone is extremely friendly and outgoing–there are no “strangers.” You may also choose to attend a fete or party celebrating Carnival. Fetes take place all over Trinidad, from the Hyatt Regency to the beach, and many are all-inclusive, meaning you pay a flat price including food and drink.
Plan for an early morning on J’Ouvert
Expect an early morning wake up call of Soca music for J’Ouvert, the official opening of Carnival. You’ll want to wear clothes that can be thrown away afterwards as this tradition entails a street party where you locals lose all inhibitions by throwing mud, oil, paint and cocoa all over one another. It’s a nod to the country’s history and folklore, and a recognition of the culture’s rebellion against slavery.
The street food is authentic and amazing
One of the best things about Carnival? The unbelievable street vendors serve up authentic Trinidadian eats–steaming hot, spicy and with all of the local flavors. Try doubles, a simple dish of spiced chick peas served between two pieces of fried bread. Add that to a full day of drinking and dancing, and you’ll be beyond satisfied. If you’re headed to a fete closer to Maracas Beach, you’ll want to try Richard’s Bake & Shark, a simple fried shark steak served between fried bread… plus up to 20 toppings including Chadon Beni Chutney, garlic sauce and coleslaw.
Plan to relax after the celebrations
After Carnival, you’ll be in need of some R&R. Head to Tobago, Trinidad’s sister island, and take it easy at Store Bay, a beach right by the airport, or try the more secluded Swallows beach. Either take a boat to the island, or arrange a cheap flight before Carnival kicks off.