It’s hard to put Carnival in Trinidad & Tobago into mere words, but if I had to chose one it would be: intoxicating.
(Intoxicating: noun. characterized by overpowering exhilaration or excitement of the mind or emotions). Yes, that.
Think of the greatest fun you’ve ever had in life, multiply that by 10 and we might be getting close to what Carnival feels like.
It’s freedom. It’s dancing to life-giving soca music nearly nonstop until you can’t tell what time or day it is. It’s letting go of every care in the world and giving way to revelry to celebrate liberation and life. It. Is. Beautiful.
So, all of that said—if I haven’t convinced you in these few little paragraphs that you’re missing half your life if you’re not going to Trinidad Carnival—here’s more of what you might need to know.
Carnival takes place every year on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday (Feb. 12 & 13 this year) though the season starts as early as the December before.
Feting—also known as partying, but better—for Carnival is an ongoing business of bacchanal. Your stamina will be tested. There are boat fetes, beach fetes, breakfast fetes and middle-of-the-night fetes like Caesar’s Army’s A.M. Bush, a take on Carnival’s official opening, known as J’ouvert, where partiers slather one another in colored paint and powder until all are unrecognizable. Then there’s actual J’ouvert in the wee hours of Carnival Monday morning where you get to do it all again.
Many of these fetes are all-inclusive, meaning you pay a flat fee for all you can consume, so you’ll have to eat and drink your money’s worth. Once inside these well packed parties, with soca artists like Machel Montano and Bunji Garlin onstage belting the hottest tunes and the smell of chicken roti generating drool, you’ll wonder which of your senses to answer first. Arrive hungry so you can eat right away. This ensures you’ll have your pick of Trinidadian staples like bake and shark or doubles, should anything run out.
So, about the food
Fetes are often valued not just for their vibes, but the cuisine they dish up. At most fetes, doubles will often be the biggest hit. The beloved—and straightforward—street food is little more than two pieces of bara, or flat fried bread, filled with curried chana (chickpeas) and typically topped with hot pepper sauce, pickled green mango and tamarind sauce. Try not to leave Trinidad without tasting one.
Also, don’t skip Maracas Beach for Richard’s Shark and Bake between fetes to refuel. The dish starts out simple, with a piece of fried shark between two pieces of bake, or fried bread. From there, however, is where the magic begins, as there are nearly 20 toppings to dress the sandwich with. There’s locally made pepper sauce, chadon beni chutney, tamarind, garlic sauce, ketchup, pineapple, coleslaw, cucumber, tomato, and more.
And then there’s the feathers
On Carnival Tuesday, masqueraders come out adorned in all colors of beads and feathers, which have origins in African culture and symbolize rebirth and rising above life’s ills. You’ll join an all-inclusive masquerade band, or group, like Fantasy or Tribe, to participate in the parade, where you’ll get all-you-can-consume beverages for both days and built in best friends to fete with—because even strangers are united in nirvana.
I’ll say this, and I mean it: Don’t tell Brazil, but Trinidad and Tobago Carnival is the single greatest festival on earth. There, soca subs for samba, beverages are bottomless and showcasing your worst behavior is celebrated (though whatever happens stays safely within the confines of Carnival). You’re going to like the way you feel, I guarantee it.