The ultimate guide to Trinidad Carnival: The biggest and best party on Earth

Some might say a slew of empty bottles scattered around the house or a hangover to end all hangovers, but what about a feeling so deep and widely felt that a phrase is coined to describe it?

Post-Carnival Depression, or Carnival tabanca as it’s known in Trinidad, is the comedown all revellers feel the moment the music stops. When the costumes are put away, the streets are cleared and the rum stops flowing. And it’s very real.

Maybe it’s something to do with this island. A place, unlike many nearby destinations, not dependent on tourism. Home to an array of people from Africa, India, China and beyond, with a shared history rooted in colonialism and a culture enhanced by its diversity. The birthplace of Steelpan, Soca, Calypso, and Chutney music. There’s something about Trinidad.

Only here could you find dishes like the double — a flat bread sandwich filled with curried chickpeas and topped pepper sauce — or chow, delicious fruit marinated in herbs and spices (emphasis on the spice). And how could we forget the rum? Home to House of Angostura, of bitters fame, it’s hard to walk a few blocks without spotting a billboard for the island’s favourite White Oak.

Once you take all this into account you begin to understand how something as special as Carnival exists. When African slaves and indentured labourers from India started their own celebration, Canboulay, in protest of their colonial landowners, did they know what it would become? From an act of protest to a celebration of emancipation, the Carnival we know today has evolved but maintained key traditions.

The joy of J’Ouvert and Playing Mas

If you take the colourful powder from Holi and mix it with equal parts Soca music and rum you’re pretty close to J’ouvert (day break), the pre-Lenten curtain raising event falling on Carnival Monday. This night time street party kicks off in the early hours and carries on well into the day.

Thousands of Trinidadians and tourists cover themselves in colourful paint and powder as they wine (dance) through the streets and lose themselves to the anonymity of the night. As Shal Marshall puts it, ‘Cyah play mas if yuh fraid powder’.

As the sun begins to rise the powder flies through the air as waves of euphoria crash against a sea of bodies. Tiredness is no longer a factor here, we’re in the midst of a religious experience. When the sun is risen and the powder has settled some continue the party into the day joining the Monday parade, while others break off for a much needed shower and sleep.

If J’Ouvert is Dirty Mas then the Carnival parade is Pretty Mas. Punctuated by masqueraders and their respective bands, here starts the main event.

Revellers in costumes covered in feathers and beads parade through the streets of Port of Spain before crossing the Socadrome stage where the atmosphere explodes as Mas bands move to Soca riddims. This all-day procession is complete in the blink of an eye as those not ready for Carnival tabanca join the Las Lap for one final night of bacchanal.

Trinidad’s annual celebration — an explosion of euphoria — might be the last experience of such a pure feeling the world sees for some time. Angostura, a byword for Trinidad, went from producing rum to making hand sanitiser. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley has already cancelled Carnival for 2021. It’s a feeling you struggle to describe, a feeling we all hope to experience again.

Jillionaire’s Guide to Trinidad

Trinidadian DJ, music producer, entrepreneur, former Major Lazer star and celebrity judge for the Angostura Global Cocktail Challenge 2020 — if there’s one person who knows about Carnival in Trinidad it’s Jillionaire.

What should we be doing in the run up to Carnival?

‘Hit a couple of rum shops, go to a pan yard, get some doubles. That’s a good way to get it started.

‘Go out to Ariapita Avenue and check out any of the bars there. Start at the top and work your way down. Check out some bars, meet some people. Get some street food, try some doubles.

‘Try to visit a pan yard. Go to one of the big steelpan competitions just because that’s our music, it comes from here. When you hear steelpan you think ‘Wow. They did that off a drum?’ and when you go to the pan yard and you see how much passion and intensity goes into it you’re blown away.

‘Trinidadian people are very warm, very welcoming, very accommodating. We don’t have any tourist traps. You don’t have to eat in the hotel. Go outside and get some local food. Get out and try to see as much as possible.’

Outside of Port of Spain what else should we see?

‘Come a week or two before carnival. Try to visit the Caroni Swamp and Bird Sanctuary where the Scarlet Ibis roosts. There’s the Temple in the Sea and the Hanuman Temple. You definitely have to go to Maracas Beach for Bake and Shark.’

Bake and Shark in all its glory (Picture: Brett Leppard)

What should we be drinking?

‘White Oak Rum and ice. If I drink White Oak and ice I don’t have any kind of sluggish feeling the next day. Or you could try White Oak with a splash soda, dash of Angostura bitters, bit of coconut water. That’s my go-to drink.

‘There’s the Queen’s Park Swizzle [rum, mint, sugar syrup, bitters, lime] but I think most people here will be drinking a rum and coke or a rum, soda and bitters with a dash of lime.

‘To me it’s a favourite. It’s one of the most refreshing things you can have, a classic Trinidadian rum cocktail. We’re a big liming culture, we like to hangout. We like our drinks simple, we like our drinks fast. It’s really about being with your friends celebrating.’

How to plan your Carnival experience

It’s said that Trinidadians can always be found doing one of two things, celebrating Carnival or planning for it. If you’re going to experience Carnival you need to get organised.

The biggest street party in the world doesn’t just happen by chance. The costumes, the bands, the fêtes — what all seems like chaos in the moment is a plan executed with military precision.

First things first, get yourself a crew. While the revellers in Port of Spain might be the friendliest you will ever meet you’re going to need a crack squad of mates to get you through this marathon of a party. You’ll arrive as friends and leave as family.

Carnival season in Trinidad starts on Boxing Day but assuming, like most, that you’re unable to take two months off for nonstop fetting (partying) you’re going to want to aim for the Thursday before Ash Wednesday in February. This will allow you ample opportunity to experience different fêtes, like the Re-enactment of the Canboulay Riots (held on Carnival Friday) or the costume competition Dimanche Gras (held on Carnival Sunday).

Next, get your flights and accommodation booked ASAP. You ideally want to have things in place by July but if you’re able book earlier then all the better. There are a number of hotels in the city but a guesthouse might be the way to go depending on your budget.

If you’re going to Play Mas — and you most definitely should —you’re going to need a Mas Band. The bands have their own sound systems and masquerade styles so decide on what you want (you can’t join Carnival without one) and book well in advance around August/September.

Most bands provide packages covering lunch and drinks which is well worth a look. Heavily stocked drinks carts follow the procession allowing you to stay with the band while you grab yourself a LLB (lemon, lime and bitters for the uninitiated) and rum.

J’Ouvert follows a similar setup only instead of a costume you get a t-shirt and it all kicks off at about 3am. A range of different bands or sound systems sell packages covering breakfast (usually doubles), drinks, security and most importantly paint. Tickets can be purchased as early as November with some still advertised a month before J’Ouvert.

While J’Ouvert and Pretty Mas are the meat and potatoes there are even more opportunities during the build up to experience Carnival in Trinidad. Soca Monarch, an international Soca music competition, and the steelpan equivalent Panorama are wildly popular events. If that wasn’t enough there are a number of fêtes organised across the city letting you wine to your heart’s content. Those keen for more wining post-Mas can head to Ash Wednesday Cooldown or hop over to Tobago for a well deserved rest.

Top tips for surviving Carnival

Wear comfortable shoes

You’re going to be dancing and walking all day in the sun, probably under the influence of a lot of rum. Get some footwear that won’t give you blisters and will not slip off as you wine.

Wear sunscreen and lip balm

You’re in the Caribbean, it just makes sense.

Drink plenty of water

It’s hot, the rum is strong, you’re dancing. You do the maths. You don’t want to be the person who had to leave early because you got smashed at 11am. A toilet truck follows the band at the back so there are no excuses for not being well hydrated.

Leave your valuables at home

You need only three things: cash, your phone and a waterproof case (this will come in handy for J’Ouvert.) Carnival is not the place for your expensive DSLR.

J’Ouvert will destroy your clothes

You will be covered head-to-toe in paint, mud and oil (if you somehow avoid this you’ve done something wrong.) Do not wear anything you intend to wear again. Shorts, a t-shirt and some plimsolls will do you just fine.

Bring ear plugs

The sound systems are loud. At some point you will find yourself next to one and while the reverberations from the bass won’t hurt your internal organs they will harm your ears. If that doesn’t convince you just think about how awful it is waking up with ringing ears.

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