Jacmel’s Carnival celebrations are famous across Haiti, and every year thousands of partygoers descend on the city to take part in this fantastic spectacle. Jacmel turns into one giant street theater for the event: it’s a world away from the sequins and sparkle of Carnival in Rio de Janeiro.
The Carnival season starts its buildup in late January, with events every Sunday leading up to the giant celebrations and procession on the Sunday of the week before Shrove Tuesday (it’s held a week earlier than other Carnivals so it doesn’t clash with Port-au-Prince’s party).
The streets suddenly swell and everywhere you look are strange figures in fantastical papier-mâché masks – the signature image of Jacmel Carnival. You can see the masks being made and on display in the ateliers year-round. Jungle animals jostle with mythical birds, giant fruit and lwa (Vodou spirits). Mixed in with the procession are celebrants dressed as Arawaks and colonists, and horned figures covered in molasses and soot, who tease revelers with their sticky grab. St Michael and his angels ritually fight the devil, while gangs of monsters – caricaturing military misrule – growl scarily at the crowds. There’s even a donkey dressed up in peasant clothes and sneakers (an old Carnival favorite).
Music is everywhere, from bands on organized floats to rara (one of the most popular forms of Haitian music) outfits on foot. It’s an enormous party. The procession kicks off roughly around noon, with celebrations continuing late into the night.