Carnival planet

The Carnival spirit, celebrated across the Caribbean, isn’t unique to our region. In countries and cities across the world — many of them with a cross-cultural history — the weeks and days before Lent are a season of revelry

  • Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo by T Photography /
  • Venice, Italy. Photo by Massimo Calmonte ( / Getty Images
  • Mindelo, Cape Verde. Photo by Mic Dax
  • Goa, India. Dinodia Photo / Passage / Getty
  • Binche, Belgium. Photo by Weskerbe /
  • Cape Town, South Africa.  Rapport / Gallo Images / Getty
  • Oruro, Bolivia. Gary Yim /
  • New Orleans, United States. Photo by Siouxsnapp /

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

It’s the world’s biggest Carnival — with over two million revellers on the streets — and probably the most famous. Carnival is celebrated in cities across Brazil, but the most spectacular of them all is in Rio, the former capital. And the centre of attention is the Sambadrome, a canyon-like parade route lined with spectators gathered to watch the energetically choreographed procession of the samba schools, escorting gigantic floats with historical and political themes.


Venice, Italy

Distinctive masks hand-made from glass or porcelain give Carnival celebrations in Italy’s city of canals an eerie atmosphere, in keeping with the winter fogs that swirl in from the Adriatic Sea. Venice’s long history as a crossroads of trade between Europe and Asia inspires elaborate costumes that blend medieval and Renaissance touches with fantastic visual elements. Traditional mask styles suggest a range of traditional characters: such as the Plague Doctor with his long nose, or Pantalone, Colombina, and Arlecchino from the Commedia dell’arte, or the ghostly, stark-white volto.


Mindelo, Cape Verde

Off the west coast of Africa, the island nation of Cape Verde shares a history of Portuguese colonisation with Brazil and Goa — and the annual Carnival is a close cousin as well. The traditional centre is the port city of Mindelo, where tens of thousands of revellers gather for samba-inspired music, and costumes that range from pretty feather-and-sequin creations to head-to-toe layers of paint, mud, or oil, recalling J’Ouvert celebrations across the Atlantic in the Caribbean.


Goa, India

A Portuguese colony on India’s west coast for over four centuries, the state of Goa has a unique hybrid culture, exemplified by the annual Carnival celebrations, centred in Panjim. Presided over by King Momo, a deity of revelry, Goa Carnival began in the eighteenth century. Troupes of masqueraders accompany floats through the streets, ending with a famous red-and-black dance. Meanwhile, in the state’s rural districts, Catholic families celebrate the pre-Lenten “farewell to the flesh” with music, feasting, and house-to-house processions.


Binche, Belgium

Near the border with France, the Belgian town of Binche is home to one of Europe’s most distinctive Carnivals, where hundreds of local men don identical costumes of wax masks, striped linen suits, and wooden clogs to represent the character of Gilles. Dancing to the beat of drums, the Gilles carry bunches of twigs, said to ward off evil. After assembling at the town hall, the Gilles trade their masks for towering headdresses of ostrich plumes, and throw oranges into the crowds of spectators — tokens of good luck.


Cape Town, South Africa

Unlike most other Carnivals profiled here, Cape Town’s Minstrel Carnival falls not in the days before Lent, but at the start of the New Year, on 2 January. With its heart in the Bo-Kaap neighbourhood (or Malay Quarter) at the foot of Signal Hill, the Minstrel Carnival began during the era of slavery and evolved over two centuries into a commemoration of Cape Town’s creole culture, reinvigorated after the end of Apartheid. Like traditional minstrel characters in Trinidad Carnival, Cape Town’s minstrel troupes were influenced by nineteenth-century minstrel bands from the United States — subverting a racist tradition and transforming it into a celebration of the mixed-race “Cape Coloured” community and its perseverance.


Oruro, Bolivia

Long before the modern Carnival, the city of Oruro in the Bolivian Andes was a centre of religious pilgrimage for indigenous peoples. Officially banned by Spanish colonisers in the seventeenth century, the annual Itu festival was continued by indigenous locals under the guise of a Catholic ceremony on the feast of Candlemas. Today’s Carnival retains these religious elements — and also reflects the region’s dominant industry, silver mining — paying homage to the Virgen del Socavón, the Virgin of the Mineshaft, patroness of miners. Dozens of traditional dances include the Diablada, whose performers wear alarming devil costumes with bulging eyes.


New Orleans, United States

Mardi Gras festivities in Louisiana — then a French colony — date back to 1699, predating the founding of New Orleans. Opening on 6 January, the Mardi Gras season includes weeks of masked balls and parades, culminating on Fat Tuesday itself. Spectators vie for “throws,” trinkets like beads and wooden coins, flung into the crowds by revellers riding on decorated floats. Another distinctive element: “tribes” of Mardi Gras Indians from New Orleans’ black communities, in costumes influenced by Native Americans, performing traditional dances and songs — cousins of Trinidad Carnival’s fancy Indians.

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