Parades, music, symbolic and colorful masks, and costumes that can take a year to make are all a big part of Carnival and Mardi Gras revelries, traditionally held on the days before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.
Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday,” named for the day before the beginning of Lent, the Christian season before Easter that involved periods of fasting. The theory was, before giving it up, you fill up on those fatty foods. The religious origins have evolved (or devolved, depending upon your perspective) into enormous parties. And while Rio and New Orleans may have the most famous parties, here are five less hyped destinations that know how to celebrate Carnival just as well.
1. Dominican Republic
In the Dominican Republic, festivities are held throughout the country—with La Vega and Santo Domingo holding the biggest parties—every February weekend, culminating with celebrations of Dominican Independence Day Feb. 27. It’s a tradition that some say has been around since the early 1500s. If you can’t make it to the island February, Barceló Bávaro Beach Resort in Punta Cana hosts its own Carnival event March 1-3 with many of the country’s best musicians and dancers on parade.
2. San Diego, California
Photo courtesy of Be Water Photo
From 5 p.m. to midnight on fat Tuesday itself, the 16 blocks of San Diego’s historic Gaslamp Quarter are transformed into a 21+ block party. Along with drink and food specials, the tens of thousands of visitors get to dance to bands and DJ’s at five stages. At 9 p.m., a New Orleans inspired parade (lots of thrown beads, masks, feathers and skimpy clothing) makes its way down fifth Avenue.
3. Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago
On the streets of Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, J’Ouvert begins at 4 a.m. on the Monday before Ash Wednesday. Dancers come out dressed in clothes covered in chocolate, paint or mud. After the sun comes up, competing bands lead parades of glittering costumes and hypnotic beats from steel drums. Carnival Tuesday brings more bands, more costumes and more rum. The event originated with the French plantation owners. Slaves and laborers were not allowed to participate in the festivities until after independence in the 1830s and riots in the 1880s, when it became a party for everyone.
4. Mazatlan, Mexico
In Mazatlan, Mexico, a Carnival king, queen and child queen are crowned and become celebrities for events centered around Olas Altas beach along the famed Malecón. They remain royalty for the daily parades leading up to fat Tuesday. In 2017, Mazatlan’s 119th annual Carnival, the theme is “De Alebrijes y Dragones” or “Of Alebrijes and Dragons.” Alebrijes are Mexican folk art sculptures of mythical beings concocted of different parts of different animals—like cat eyes and bat wings, a lion with an eagle head, etc. Mock naval combat and fireworks are performed as a remembrance of the battle to defend the city against the French in 1864.
Photo by Frederic Lavoie
Québec Winter Carnival has its roots in the French Mardi Gras celebrations brought over in the 1890s. Night parades featuring mascot Bonhomme run through town, and the festival’s drink is the Caribou, a blend of brandy, vodka, sherry and port. Embracing the cold, there’s an Ice Palace, snow sculpting contests, dog sled races and for the brave of heart, the bathing-suits-only Snow Bath.
Kristin Conard is a writer, teacher, runner and occasional climber living along California’s central coast. She wrote an award-winning book on Kansas trails.