Latin America's most unique Carnival traditions

Rio isn't the only city that knows how to celebrate Carnival in style. In the week leading up to Lent, millions of people across Latin America take to the streets for dancing, live music, drinking and revelry – and a range of other unusual and surprising traditions.

Bolivia Carnival.jpg
Carnival isn't just sparkles and feathers – learn more about Latin America's most unique carnival traditions © Marcelo Chacón Aracena / Getty Images

In Paraty, Brazil, participants cover their bodies in mud; in Trinidad and Tobago, they smear themselves with melted chocolate. In Paraguay, Carnival-goers spray each other with fake snow. In Panama, water trucks cool down the crowds. And in Mexico, the party kicks off with the burning of a giant papier-mâché effigy.

A large effigy is completely engulfed in flames as a large group of people look on
Revelers burn an effigy as part of the Quema del Mal Humor in Veracruz © Ilse Huesca/ Getty Images

Burning of the Bad Mood (Quema del Mal Humor) – Mexico

In Mexico, Carnival kicks off with a beloved tradition: the Quema del Mal Humor, or Burning of the Bad Mood. The ritual begins with a larger-than-life effigy of a disliked political figure or celebrity – picture a huge, cartoonish piñata – suspended over the crowds. Then the papier-mâché puppet is set on fire, and carnival-goers cheer and celebrate as it goes up in flames. The tradition is symbolic: as the piñata burns, it’s a cue for people to let go of their everyday worries and enjoy the start of the festivities.

The Burning of the Bad Mood happens at Carnival celebrations all over Mexico, notably in Veracruz and Mazatlan, when in 2019, ex-president Enrique Peña's effigy was burned during the celebration.

People splash through calf-deep black mud on the shores of Paraty
Partygoers get ready for the Bloco da Lama, the mud Carnival in Paraty © Yasuyoshi Chiba / Getty Images

Mud Block (Bloco da Lama) – Brazil

More than 100 miles away from the flashing lights of Rio’s Sambadrome, there’s a lesser-known celebration in the historic city of Paraty – one that’s more down-to-earth. Literally. Instead of feathered headdresses and sequined wings, many Carnival-goers wear mud.

The Bloco da Lama has humble origins: during carnival in 1986, after a tropical rain shower, a group of teenagers started playing with mud on the beach, and then paraded through the streets, unrecognizable to their own friends and family.

Just like that, an annual tradition was born. Every year, festival-goers wade into pools of mud, smearing it on their bodies and faces, throwing it, wrestling in it, and then dancing to live samba and reggaeton as part of the larger carnival celebration. It’s a one-of-a-kind spectacle that’s practically the polar opposite of the glitter and neon lights of Rio’s Carnival, but one look at the throngs of mud-covered partiers, and there’s no question it’s just as much fun.

A group of people spray cans of fake snow in the air, covering those nearby
No need to wear a coat in the "snowstorm" at Carnival in Encarnacion, Paraguay © Matyas Rehak / Shutterstock

Snow celebrations – Paraguay

It almost never snows in the balmy city of Encarnación, Paraguay. Which may explain the novelty of the faux snow spray cans that are such an integral part of the local carnival celebrations. Be forewarned: if you’re joining this street party, you may be sprayed in the face with “snow,” or you could be doused with shaving cream, or you might get your clothes stained with white paint.

The illusion of winter weather in summertime is part of the fantasy in Encarnación, the self-proclaimed “Carnival Capital of Paraguay”. It’s a title the city deserves, considering that Encarnación has one of the region’s liveliest celebrations – and a permanent Sambadrome that accommodates up to 12,000 revelers at a time.

A man dressed in an elaborately ornate angel costume runs through smoke during during Diablada during Carnival in Bolivia
Dancers participate in the Diablada during Carnival in Oruro, Bolivia © Aizar Raldes / Getty Images

Carnival de Oruro – Bolivia

The Carnival of Oruro, Bolivia enjoys a special distinction: Unesco named it a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. These annual celebrations have deep indigenous roots and a history that dates back to ancient times, when the area was a major religious center. Spanish colonists outlawed native ceremonies, forcing an introduction to Catholic traditions.

One of those traditions is still a highlight of Oruro’s Carnival. The colors and sounds of carnival are in full force during the Diablada (The Dance of the Devils), a ritualistic dance starring hundreds of devils in decorative costumes, grotesque masks and flowing wigs. It’s the battle between good and evil that features a band of costumed devils and angels, plus dancers representing the seven deadly sins: pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth.

A group of women with their hands in the air get showered with water
Revelers enjoy the spray from the culeco (water truck) at Carnival in Panama © Rodrigo Arangua /Getty Images

La Mojadera – Panama

It gets hot and sweaty in the streets during Carnival celebrations in Las Tablas, Panama. Luckily, local crowds are prepared for the tropical weather. Every year, culecos (water trucks) park in the plazas and drive slowly along the streets, spraying festival-goers with water as they dance, sing and drink copious amounts of cerveza.

Wear a swimsuit: when the party’s in full swing it’s impossible to avoid la mojadera (water spray), which could sprinkle or drench you completely, depending on your luck. Carnival participants also bring water guns and water balloons, and it’s easy – and fun – to get caught in the crossfire. When the temperature’s really soaring, some locals resort to an even more straightforward approach. Don’t be surprised if someone dumps a bucket of cold water directly over your head. (Pro tip: get a waterproof case for your phone or camera).

Three men covered in white paint hold a bucket and bottle while singing/cheering
Pick your medium during J'ouvert in Trinidad: chocolate, mud, oil or paint ©  Sean Drakes / Getty Images

J'Ouvert – Trinidad and Tobago

In Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, Carnival begins at dawn. J’Ouvert (the word is considered a derivative of a creole French term, jou ouvè, meaning “daybreak”) is the raucous celebration that marks the official start of the festivities. The streets fill with people dancing and celebrating, but unlike in Rio and many other famous carnival destinations, participants don’t wear glamorous costumes bedazzled with sequins and feathers. They wear old clothes and they cover themselves in chocolate, oil, paint or mud.

What’s the idea behind the ritual? In Port of Spain, and throughout the Caribbean, it’s thought that the tradition dates back to the days of slavery. Though not invited or included in the plantation owners’ parties during Carnival season, enslaved people didn’t want to be left out of the festivities. So they’d use whatever materials they had on hand to disguise themselves so they wouldn’t be recognizable in the street party.

Today, it’s a nod to the region’s history, and it’s also seen as a way of blurring racial and ethnic lines. That’s one element of Carnival that’s consistent across borders: it’s an inclusive celebration where all are welcome. The more the merrier, no matter where you join the party.

Discover Rio Carnival

Originally published Feb. 2019. Updated Feb. 2020

Get more travel inspiration, tips and exclusive offers sent straight to your inbox with our weekly newsletterMake sure you're ready for anything with travel insurance from our trusted partners.

Places from this story

Recent stories

Activities

14 of Iceland's most magical experiences

12 min readPublished about 1 hour ago
Tourists ride horses at the majestic Skogafoss Waterfall in countryside of Iceland in summer. Skogafoss waterfall is top famous natural landmark and travel destination place of Iceland and Europe.
Beaches

The top 10 free things to do in the Florida Keys

7 min readPublished about 1 hour ago
Key West, Florida - December 4, 2019:  People gather on the sand of Smathers Beach to watch the sunset in tropical Key West Florida USA
Beaches

The best Malibu parks for fun in the sun

4 min readPublished about 2 hours ago
Beautiful view of Malibu lake from Malibu Creek State Park, California, USA
National Parks

Find adventure in Chile's best national parks

7 min readPublished about 2 hours ago
Couple admiring scenery at Parque Nacional Torres del Paine

Related content