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Give a Carnival Festival Top Spot on Your Bucket List

Woman wearing a blue headdress with feathers for Carnaval. As the ever-anticipated Carnival season approaches, countries around the world gear up and get ready to go. From endless parades to intricately designed masks and musical competitions, there is always something to love about Carnival no matter where you choose to celebrate it.

Although Rio de Janeiro in Brazil usually takes the cake when it comes to size and international fame, the fun certainly doesn’t stop there, so we’re highlighting just a few of the hundreds of other Carnival locations — each of which offers its own unique cultural flavor.

Be warned, though! This post may cause you to make spontaneous travel plans.

 Carnaval de Binche — Belgium

Gilles in costume at the Carnaval de Binche.

If you’re a person who’s afraid of clowns, it’s time to head to Belgium and overcome your fears once and for all. In the small town of Binche, up to 1,000 masked clowns called Gilles will take over the streets during the Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Sound terrifying? Not to worry — they’re quite harmless, and actually carry sticks that help to ward off evil spirits. Judging by their energetic performances and elaborate dress, it’s no surprise that local men jump at the chance to be one of the Gilles during Carnaval season.

Gilles have been the focus of Carnaval de Binche for centuries, even though the true origins of the annual celebration are a mystery. Historians agree that the tradition dates back to the 14th century, but due to lack of sufficient evidence and documentation, that’s about all they know for sure. The most popular legend credits the Incas for inspiration, citing a large party they once threw featuring foreign visitors dressed in brightly colored costumes. The locals admired the costumes so much that they decided to create their own version of the festivities — and, according to the legend, one of them later became one of the first Gilles. 

Oruro Carnaval — Bolivia

Performers dancing in devil costume dancing La Diablada at the Oruro Carnaval.

 If Rio is the place to be in Brazil during Carnival season, then the Oruro Carnaval is the Rio of Bolivia. You can’t get much better than 20 continuous hours of partying complete with 10,000 musicians, 20,000 folk dancers, and an infinite supply of spray foam.

The celebration kicks off on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday and continues for three days. The last day is known as Devil’s Monday, featuring Oruro’s most famous folk dance called La Diablada.

Performers don frightening costumes of horned masks, long capes, and boots decorated with serpents to wow (and perhaps terrify) the crowd. La Diablada has been a staple of the Oruro Carnaval since 1904, when it was performed as a way to honor El Tio, the god of the underworld.

Mardi Gras Carnival — New Orleans 

Mardi Gras parade float in New Orleans.

There are normal parties, and then there’s Mardi Gras. By far the largest and most raucous annual Carnival celebration in the United States, Mardi Gras has taken over the streets of New Orleans since the 1730s, consistently drawing energetic partygoers from around the world. If you’re wondering how it all got started, much of the answer lies in its English translation: Fat Tuesday. It’s the last day of revelry before Ash Wednesday, meaning that anything you want to eat — usually the fattiest foods you can find — are all fair game.

What is now the modern-day Mardi Gras parade with lavish floats was once a street procession with carriages and horseback riders. A famous custom of old Mardi Gras was the presence of beautiful torches called flambeaux, made simply of wood wrapped with burning pine-tar rags, that lit the way for costumed paraders. Today, the flambeaux represent an enduring tradition that is now recognized as a true art form. Sure, they might use natural gas and LED lights instead of rags, but the nostalgic feeling is there all the same.

Tenerife Carnaval — Spain

Costumed women competing for the title of Carnaval Queen at Tenerife Carnaval.

Fun fact: the city of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, the capital of the largest Canary Island in Spain, is twinned with Rio de Janeiro. It only makes sense, then, for Tenerife to boast the second most internationally popular carnival in the world, only after Rio.

One of the most notable events at the Tenerife Carnaval is the selection of the Carnaval Queen, a beauty pageant-esque ceremony where female contestants parade across a large stage and television viewers vote for their favorite via SMS. After the Queen is chosen, she will go on to represent the Carnaval and the Canary Islands at future tourism events. Competing for the crown isn’t exactly an easy feat, either — each contestant wears an elaborate dress typically weighing over a hundred kilos. Talk about dedication!

Carnival — Trinidad and Tobago

Young woman in an elaborate headdress  at the Trinidad and Tobago Carnaval.Held on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival is one of the shorter ones on this list. That’s not to say it’s any less exciting — if local islanders aren’t celebrating it, they’re busy preparing for the next one. Similar to the Carnaval Queen of Tenerife, it is considered a high honor in Trinidad and Tobago to be named Calypso Monarch, a more gender-neutral version. For those who manage to snag the top prize, they receive a trophy, a new car, about $300,000, and a long list of endorsements. Not too shabby, if you ask us.

What makes the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival particularly special is the country’s diverse mix of cultures. From Africa and China to the Middle East and Europe, the range of musical and artistic influences from around the world creates a unique experience unlike any other Carnival. Many musicians perform calypso music using drums, claves and an instrument native to Trinidad called the steelpan. The style was introduced in the 17th century by Africans, who were brought to Trinidad as slaves to work on sugar plantations and used calypso as a way to communicate with each other. Today, the sounds of original calypso can still be heard at every Carnival.

With so much excitement in the air, it can be tough to focus on anything that doesn’t involve music, dance, delicious food, or fabulous costumes. We get it. We feel the same way. We’ve also got good news for you — by choosing to learn a language through Mango Languages, you won’t have to miss out on any of those things. In fact, you’ll find that you learn just as much about the culture as you do the grammar and vocabulary. So, grab a mask and a costume, choose from over 70 different courses, and get ready to party along with Mango this Carnival season.

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How do you plan to celebrate Carnival this year? Let us know in the comments section below! 

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Britta Wilhelmsen

Britta is a University of Michigan graduate, currently living and working in the vibrant city of Buenos Aires, Argentina. When she's not busy teaching English to business professionals or writing for Mango, you can find her enjoying the sun in one of Buenos Aires' beautiful parks and/or studying Spanish in her free time. Like many mangos, she believes that language consistently makes life more colorful.

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