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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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Originally published Feb. 2019. Updated Feb. 2020