Trinidad Carnival: Wild and Immersive

Trinidad's Carnival celebrations are colorful, sensual and over the top By: Mark Rogers
Clients can pre-order costumes and collect them in Port of Spain. // (c) 2013 Jim Stephens/TDC
Clients can pre-order costumes and collect them in Port of Spain. // (c) 2013 Jim Stephens/TDC

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Trinidad & Tobago Tourism Development Company Ltd.

A case could be made that it was Rio that really put Carnival celebrations on the map. The colorful, sexy and over-the-top celebration caught the world’s attention and soon other destinations, particularly in the Caribbean, followed suit. However, one Caribbean island stands out for the quality of its annual Carnival celebration — Trinidad. What makes it special for travelers is the option to join in the Carnival festivities and don gaudy carnival costumes to dance through the streets of Port of Spain. They will party alongside excited Trinidadians who have begun preparing for this moment months in advance.

If your clients have a yen to participate, it’s best to get started early. The date for Carnival shifts slightly from year to year. Officially Carnival is the Monday and Tuesday preceding Ash Wednesday.

Joining one of the groups that parade through the streets is called “playing mas.” The year I participated in Carnival was definitely a bucket-list experience. I joined the group called Poison, which was 9,000 people strong. On Tuesday morning, we met at the starting point at 9:30 a.m. and began dancing through the streets. We trailed behind a music truck blasting soca and were followed by a rum and water truck dispensing free drinks. Our group wound through Port of Spain until 5:30 p.m. that evening. Men were dressed in lime green Roman Centurion costumes, while women made a splash in green feathers and sequins.

The Monday before Tuesday’s Carnival is called J’Ouvert. This is when participants convene at 4 a.m. In the pre-dawn hours, revelers change into the equivalent of a diaper for guys and a two-piece bathing suit for women. Participants then smear themselves with their band’s colors — which might be green or red paint, mud, chocolate or, in my case, silver mud. This is followed by five hours of dancing through the streets as the sun comes up, with the bolder members of the group seeing how many colors they can get smeared onto their body.

I would advise planning for Trinidad’s Carnival well in advance. This will give your clients time to scan a variety of websites, choose their band to play mas with and to order their costumes, which they will pick up in Port of Spain when they arrive. If clients can manage to be on-island for six days or so, they will have a chance to enjoy the build-up festivities to Carnival, which consist of huge musical events, steel pan contests and a minute-by-minute increase in excitement.

Trinidad’s economy is powered by oil instead of tourism, so there are relatively few hotels to choose from in Port of Spain. Three of the most popular for visitors are the Hilton Trinidad and Conference Centre, Hyatt Regency Trinidad and Courtyard by Marriott Port of Spain.

One of the traditions is the cool down after Carnival. Many participants find their way out to Maracas Beach, about a 45-minute drive outside the city. Another great option is to cool down on nearby Tobago, where the pace is slower. On Tobago, clients can recollect the excesses of Carnival and nurse sore muscles, surrounded by lush greenery and the songs of birds.

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