More than 50 countries across the world host Carnival, but it's in Latin America and the Caribbean that you will find its beating heart. Here, the parties and parades keep people shaking their tailfeather until dawn.
But with so many to choose from – and events across much of the year – it's hard to know which to attend. Luckily, there is a Carnival for everyone. So whether you love music, history, food, parades, or long days on the beach, you're covered. These are the eight best Carnivals in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Best for history
Dates: Monday before Ash Wednesday, (February 20, 2023).
Known as the 'Greatest Show on Earth', Trinidad Carnival is one of the most popular carnivals in the Americas. With beautiful costumes and huge parties, expect to hear plenty of soca (an offshoot of calypso) and steel-pan music, both of which were invented in Trinidad.
Carnival here is also best known for its traditional storytelling, featuring characters like Dame Lorraine, the Midnight Robber, and the Blue Devil. Dame Lorraine is imitative mas (short for masquerade), which began with French planters dressing up as aristocracy in the 18th and 19th centuries and parading in groups at private homes. The Midnight Robber is an act derived from African storytelling traditions and uses distinctive "robber talk" that is extravagant, egocentric, and boastful. The Blue Devil, meanwhile, is a type of jab (patois for "devil") who hails from the Paramin region of Trinidad, and it takes to the streets to menace and scare festival participants (all in good fun, though!).
Attendees interested in history can also catch Canboulay reenactments that depict Trinidad's historical events. The island's enslaved people were freed in 1834 and were technically allowed to celebrate Carnival following emancipation, but the British government and the local police force continued to shut down the festival, which resulted in the 1881 riots. The pageant portrays the local population's efforts in preventing the suppression of Canboulay celebrations with flambeaux (flaming torches), African drumming, tamboo bamboo (a percussion instrument that predated the steel pan), and stick-fighting (an African martial art).
2. Salvador, Brazil
Best for music
Dates: February 17-21, 2023.
Brazil is home to two major Carnivals: one in Salvador and the other in Rio de Janeiro. While both share similar traditions, they remain true to each city's culture. Salvador's Carnival is fueled by axé, a regional musical genre inspired by African and Brazilian pop.
The best way to take in the music is to participate in one of the street parties, the highlight of these being the trio elétrico, a large truck piled up with sound equipment and topped with a band playing music for the masses. While there is no official schedule, tickets for the street parties can be found online. Some of the biggest acts in Brazil perform at these street parties, including popular local musicians. Any lover of music will enjoy absorbing the African drums while axé booms through the speakers.
3. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Best for party animals
Dates: February 17-25, 2023.
Attracting some two million people a year, Rio Carnival is the largest in the world. Samba is the main music played during the parties, reigning supreme over the event's signature events at the spectacular Sambadromo, a purpose-built parade area which hosts a parade of over-the-top floats and dance competitions.
Rio de Janeiro also hosts around 600 parties, known as blocos, which take place throughout January and February. Cordão Da Bola Preta, Rio's largest and oldest street party first started in 1918 and still happens in the city center. Nearly one million partygoers show up for it each year.
Best for nature lovers
Dates: January 14 to February 22, 2023.
If you love Carnival, nature, and outdoor adventure, Dominica’s Carnival (better known as Mas Dominik) is for you. Dubbed the "nature isle" of the Caribbean, Dominica is home to 365 rivers, plus numerous sulfur pools and a number of lush mountains, so there's plenty to explore either before or after carnival activities.
Dominica's Carnival incorporates both traditional and modern elements of mas. Large floats present the Carnival Queen to the population, and displays of traditional characters and what is now known as 'bikini mas' – gemmed bras and panties – fill the streets. Keep an eye out for Hysteria Mas, one of the costume bands that has introduced premium elements of mas to Dominica by bringing together rich local culture, diverse creatives, and energetic musicians.
You'll also hear the vibrant sounds of the island's traditional carnival music, bouyon and Lapo kabwit. Stemming from the island's emancipation days, Lapo kabwit is a drumming sound made by a band of "street" instruments including conch shells, horns, goatskin drums, cowbells, and shack-shacks (a maraca-style instrument)
Best for families
Dates: May 1-18, 2023.
Influenced by both the Dutch and the French, beautiful St. Maarten is perfect for families to get a taste of Carnival. It is easy to hop between its golden beaches and the events in cities like Philipsburg, where most of the action takes place.
With a tailormade Carnival village, it's easy to get to the heart of the event. Carnival also has clear themes and designs that parents can explain to their children. Costume bands each choose a theme like 'World Wonders' and will then each make a World Wonder with their costumes by using colored feathers, beads, crowns, and floats. Thanks to its high level of organization, this Carnival is an accessible party that won't overwhelm kids or parents.
Best for the beach
Dates: June 16-19, 2023.
Carnival doesn't have to be all parties and parades – you can enjoy gorgeous beaches as well. Nestled in the North Atlantic Ocean, relaxed Bermuda is known for its pink beaches. The sand gets its pink hue as a result of the shells of a tiny organism called the red foraminifera, which has a red coloring that mixes with the white sand.
Carnival in Bermuda festivities kick off on a Thursday in June with the parade concluding the long weekend. Bermuda’s Carnival is participant heavy, with several music trucks playing and masqueraders dancing in the street. The weekend’s festivities include several parties, a concert, and a large beach event called Raft Up, where several catamarans and boats anchor in the ocean while party attendees dance, drink, and enjoy the clear blue waters.
Best for parades
Dates: February 16-22, 2023.
Recognized as one of the world's best festivals, the elaborate, 10-day Oruro Carnival in Bolivia blends Indigenous and Catholic traditions with elaborate parades. Corresponding with Lent, the parade can last up to 20 hours. As one of the country's largest events, Unesco has recognized it as a 'Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity'.
Among the syncretism is El Tío, a malevolent character that transforms into the devil, as well as the Earth Mother (Pachamama) and Archangel San Miguel. The highlight of the Carnival is the 'Diablada' (Dance of the Devils), an intricate dance depicting an epic battle between angels and demons.
Best for food
Dates: July 30 to August 7, 2023.
Considered the culinary powerhouse of the Caribbean, Anguilla boasts more than 100 restaurants on its 35-mile stretch, making it the perfect Carnival location for any foodie. Anguilla began its road to culinary fame in the 1980s when the island nation began to develop tourism, and now there is something for all palettes, from the beachside seafood shacks to the fine dining restaurants with Michelin star-awarded chefs. As well as the food, attendees can enjoy street festivals, boat racing and the grand parade.