Carnaval 101: How to Carnaval

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Forget March Madness. It’s all about el Carnaval (or Mardis Gras) in March. The age ol’ “la vida es un Carnaval” Celia adage is in full swing and during this month, countries like Brazil, Colombia, Panama, and the lovely city of New Orleans, make the queen’s song their life motto.

El Carnaval can be traced back to the Greeks and the word itself comes from the Italian word carnevale, which means “to put away the meat.” The celebration is the last call for indulgence, feasting, and naughtiness just before Lent, a period in which Catholics give up such decadent things as partying, dancing, and mami’s bistec. It usually includes a street dancing, floats, flashy costumes, and even water fights.

The party comes to a stop on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. While the first carnaval originated in Europe, it’s currently celebrated worldwide in more than 40 countries. Here’s a look at how a few of these countries celebrate Carnaval. Maybe you can take some pointers.



Cariocas’ version of the Carnaval is a televised event known around the world. It’s the largest carnaval in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. The event begins four days before Lent.

The first recorded carnaval celebration in Rio de Janeiro took place in 1723 by immigrants from the Portuguese islands of Açores, Madeira, and Cabo Verde. They held public water fights where anybody in sight would end up soaked. This celebration was outlawed by the 1800s, but it didn’t mark the end of the carnaval.

The celebration evolved into a larger event by the 1900s. Parades, costumes, dancers, floats, and bands became part of the carnaval. The 1920s brought with them the introduction of samba schools, which are made up of the people in a given neighborhood or favela. By the ‘50s, the schools become more organized and added more regulations.

Each school can be made up of 3,000 to 5,000 members and may have from six to eight floats, a theme, theme song, and costumes. Today, Rio’s samba schools compete against each other while the public gets to enjoy watching women and men samba in colorful, creative, and sometimes (if not always) risqué costumes.



The land of Juanes, Shakira, and Sofía Vergara celebrates its carnaval with the Carnaval de Barranquilla. There’s no official record of the first carnaval in the city, but by 1888 the position of Rey Momo was created, the king of the carnaval. He is chosen based on his contributions to the city or folk music.

In 1889, Barranquilla established a committee and a president for the carnaval. The committee decided that the Rey Momo needed a mate and created the position of the beauty Queen of the Carnaval by 1918.

The celebration’s main event is the Batalla de Flores, where parades of floats fill the main streets of the city and introduce the queen. The floats are followed by different folk groups performing el congo, el mapale, and the number one dance in Colombia—cumbia. Regular folk follow the parade by dressing up in costumes and animal masks. The most famous and traditional costumes and masks are el torito, la loca, la reina gay, and el tigrillo.

Today, the Carnaval de Barranquilla rivals Brazil’s carnaval. In 2003, UNESCO named the carnaval an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.



Cajuns’ carnaval is known as Mardis Gras or Fat Tuesday. The French Quarter becomes a sea of purple, green, and gold, and outrageous costumes, brass bands, and floats boasting its crowned Celebrity King.

The first Mardis Gras was celebrated in 1703 in the Fort Louis de la Mobile, now known as Mobile. The following year a secret society or “Krewe” formed to plan Mardis Gras. From 1711 to 1861, a procession that included a large bull head on wheels pushed by 16 men paraded on Fat Tuesday. But, in the 1740s, Louisiana’s Governor (the Marquis de Vaudreuil) turned the celebration into a elegant society ball.

The word carnival first became associated with the event in 1781 in a report to the Spanish colonial government. One of the first club and carnival organizations, the Perseverance Benevolent & Mutual Aid Association, formed that same year.

The celebration changed again in the late 1830s. New Orleans began to hold parades of maskers with carriages and horseback to celebrate Mardis Gras. In 1872, a group of businessmen created the position of the King of the Carnival to rule in the first daytime parade. They are also responsible for giving Mardis Gras its themes colors of purple, green, and gold, the Mardis Gras song and flag.

Louisiana made Mardis Gras an official legal holiday in 1875. Today, Mardis Gras attracts people from all walks of life, from Spring breakers to grandmas, begging for those coveted plastic beads (what they do to get them, we don’t wanna know). But it’s the heart of Lousiana and according to the city, it’s the “Greatest Free Show on Earth.”



Panamanians know a thing or two about carnavales. It’s said that the carnaval started during colonial times, but the festivity has been officially celebrated for 100 years. In 1910, the mayor of Panama City declared it an official event. Soon after, the title of Queen of the Carnaval was created. She is the fairest maiden chosen by popular vote.

The four-day festivity has two parts. In the mornings, you can expect las mojederas, los culecos, or in other words, a free shower. Crowds are sprayed with water springing from water trucks provided by the city.

Every night, the parade kicks off with a different theme float such as “Panama, Bridge of the World” and “Flora y Fauna,” and the presentation of the queen and her princesses. The floats are followed by people performing folk dances, dressed in colorful feathered costumes, and even fireworks.

The official title for the carnaval is “Carnival of the City. Enjoy, What’s yours, Panama,” and, more than 250,000 are expected to attend this year and make Panama City their city also.


How will you celebrate Carnaval? Let us know below and maybe we’ll see you on the streets of wherever.