Caribbean Carnival for Every Type of Traveler

Carnival is a cultural must in the Caribbean, but it varies from island to island. Check out which celebration is right for you, from celebrations for foodies to party animals to Carnival first-timers.

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What is Carnival?

You could say Carnival is like Mardi Gras, but that's a big generalization. Both festivals share Catholic roots and revolve around pre-Lent, Fat Tuesday traditions, but Carnival folds in African traditions like dance, music and costumes for a much more flavorful, vibrant party.

Historians believe that the first Carnival started in Trinidad in the colonial era when French and Spanish Catholics introduced Fat Tuesday to the island. At the time, many Africans on the island were celebrating freedom from slavery, so Carnival evolved into more than just Lent. It's part religion but also part emancipation and the celebration of African culture. From Trinidad, Carnival spread to other islands in the Caribbean and each culture put their own twist on festivities.

Today, many islands have ditched the Catholic ties and have moved their celebration from February to the summer, incorporating larger festivals and parties.

For the First-Timer

If navigating the ruckus of Carnival sounds overwhelming, Curacao's got you. The Dutch island organizes a tame, tourist-friendly parade right through the heart of downtown Willemstad. Must-see events include the Grand Parade, the crowning of the king and queen and the ceremonial burning of Momo, a large straw-filled doll that represents bad luck and sin. If the idea of baring it all isn't your thing, the more conservative costumes are a great family-friendly alternative to popular outfits on other islands.

For the Family

Grand Cayman is a great, family-friendly destination, and Carnival time is no exception. The Cayman Islands national Carnival event, Batabano, is a vibrant celebration of the island's rich culture and turtle-loving heritage. In its 16th year, the festival's Junior Batabano on April 28 features a children's street parade and Family Fun Day with mask decorating and colorful stilt walkers.

For the History Buff

Carnival in Barbados takes another form as Crop Over. The festival celebrates a 200-year-old tradition that honors the end of the sugar cane season and includes indigenous arts and crafts, calypso, flower festivals and folk concerts. During all the revelry, make time to visit Mount Gay Rum, the world's oldest rum producer, and learn about the history of rum.

For the Holiday Traveler

If you love to get away for Christmas and New Year, head to the Bahamas for sun, sand and Junkanoo. The celebration features colorful parades with Goombay drums, vibrant, feathered costumes and massive dance troupes with hundreds of dancers. If you're not a morning person, grab a large cup of coffee before heading to downtown Nassau for these early morning dance performances. Festivities typically start around two in the morning!

For the Party Animal

Trinidad is the birthplace of Caribbean Carnival and though dozens of other islands have adopted the holiday, it's still the biggest celebration. It's also the wildest party around. If you're looking for an early spring break, you'll love the all-day and all-night revelry in Port of Spain.

For the Foodie

In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma and Maria, the U.S. Virgin Islands might not be at the top of your travel list, but now, more than ever, the islands need tourism. Celebrate Carnival while supporting St. Thomas from March 31 to April 28. The island's month-long festivities include pageantry, dance and music, but the highlight is the savory cuisine. Don't miss the food fair showcasing local eats and artisan crafts or Carnival Village for nightlife and local cocktails.

For the "Forgot to Renew My Passport"

Like the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico needs tourism support following Hurricane Maria's destruction in 2017. While San Juan might be your first pick, just two hours away in Ponce, you'll find the island's biggest party. Watch out for the vejigantes. These masked characters represent spirits and might hit you with an inflated cow bladder. But it's all in good fun (and to ward off evil spirits!).

For the Music Lovers

St. Vincent's Carnival celebration, Vincy Mas, kicks off in May but parties go all the way through July. There's music everywhere, from steel drum street music to calypso to Caribbean soca. Don't miss the Mardi Gras parade of bands competing for the coveted "Band of the Year" title.

For the Obscure Traveler

If you're a veteran Carnival-er and want something different, head to Carriacou in the Grenadines for Shakespeare Mas. The unique event at Carriacou Carnival can't be found anywhere else in the world. Revelers and thespians engage in a battle of wits, using only Shakespearean verse.