Carnaval – South America’s Annual Party
Five Interesting Carnaval Stories from Five Countries
Getting Ready to Give It Up
Did you know? The word “carnival” derives (most likely) from the latin words for “farewell to meat” (carne) – because Carnaval time is the period just before the forty days of Lent, when Catholics have traditionally fasted, or given up pleasures gastronomic and otherwise.
Thus, Carnaval in Christian countries has become a festive occasion for people to eat up and drink up the treats in their larders, and to purge reckless desires before a period of contemplation and austerity. A week (or in some cases, several weeks) when the regular rules don’t apply, everyone is in costume or hidden behind a mask, and all anyone seeks is a good time.
Forty Days Before the Forty Days
Carnaval in Montevideo, Uruguay, is the longest in the world – for 40 days leading up to Ash Wednesday (February 18th this year), the city is transformed. Stages are set up on streets, parades, dances, and parties erupt that go on for days at a time, and feature the city’s own invention – the Candombe, a lively drum driven music and dance style rooted in African slave culture. More than 90 “Comparsas” (Candombe groups) compete during Carnaval at the downtown amphitheater on Montevideo’s beautiful Ramblas in the South American summer.
The Short Life and Brave Death of Joselito Carnaval
Everybody knows that Rio de Janeiro hosts the largest Carnaval celebration in the world, but did you know that the second biggest Carnaval is in Baranquilla, Colombia? This lovely city of 2 million on the Caribbean coast literally shuts down for a week, its population swelling with at least half a million visitors, and parties. And Baranquilla, home town of Shakira, Sofia Vergara, and now Miss Universe Paulina Vega, knows how to party! Kicking off on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday with The Battle of the Flowers (a six-hour long parade of floats made of flowers, dancers, musicians, people in costumes – often topical costumes, including political figures in unlikely groupings; a couple dressed as Bin Laden and Obama dancing together was popular in recent years), and culminates on Tuesday with the burial of Joselito Carnaval – a fellow who is (re-)born each year at the beginning of this festival and embodies its spirit of reckless abandon, only to die four days later.
Blame It On Rio
Just how big is the biggest party in the world every year? In 2015, more than 5 million people will take part in the festivities in Rio, including half a million foreigners. The first festival in Rio was in 1723. There are more than 2 million people on the streets every day during the Carnaval. More than 200 different samba schools from Rio participate. The main Carnaval parade takes place in the Sambadrome. The samba dance, which originated in the Bahia region of Brazil with African rhythms, came to Rio de Janeiro around 1920. The Carnaval is a national holiday in Brazil. Many residents of Rio leave the city for quieter places during the festival – can you blame ‘em?
In Ecuador, Ancient and Messy Traditions Live On
In February in Ecuador, it’s as likely as not to rain, but that’s not why you want to make sure to wear rain gear if you visit during Carnaval. Simply put, Carnaval in Ecuador is a five-day water fight! It’s Everyone vs. Everyone everywhere you go. The authorities warn that they will discipline the diablitos (little devils) who shoot water guns and throw water balloons at innocent citizens, but that does nothing to deter the mayhem.
Throwing water balloons is an element of Carnaval celebrations in several other Latin American countries (Mexico and Bolivia, e.g.), thought to be a remnant of egg toss events at European spring festivals, with the water balloons standing in for eggs. But Ecuador’s water wars are different, and are rooted in much older times. Long before they ever saw a European, Ecuador’s native people had a 3 day celebration on the second moon of the year during which everyone put on silly costumes, got drunk, threw flour and water at each other and generally goofed around. So when the Catholic missionaries noticed the coincidental timing, they just let the old traditions become Carnaval traditions in preparation for lent. Throwing water on each other in the 16th century became throwing water balloons by the hundred in the 20th century became SuperSoakers and full-on garden hoses in the 21st century. And most pervacious these days is the carioca, a white spray foam that shoots out of its cans like silly string.
To go downtown in the evening this week in Guayaquil, Ambato, Quito, Cuenca or Guaranda, is to expect to be pelted with water, suds, foam, flour, possibly colored paints – all while enjoying immensely entertaining parades of beautiful dancers and master musicians, outrageous costumes, and tasty local delicacies like the cuy, Ecuador’s special roasted guinea pig. The drink of the Carnaval is Pájaro Azul, a liqueur from Guaranda made from orange, tangerine, chicken and aniseed cane.
The Dance of the Devils in Oruro, Bolivia
In Oruro, we find an example of a much more deeply grounded indigenous religious celebration being accepted, retained, and neatly folded into the Catholic church calendar by the Spanish missionaries. Oruro is one of the most ancient cities in the Andean world, a populous place of pilgrimage and worship for at least 2000 years before the Spaniards showed up. And every late summer/early fall (in the southern hemisphere), the ancient Uru people had a festival in which they danced in costumes as the llama llama, “dancing demons”, led by the deity Tiw, the protecter of the men who mined silver. The Jesuits see this, and presto-chango, Tiw becomes El Tio (Uncle), a demonic character marching in Saturday’s parade to whom miners offer donations for safety.
Today’s parade goes on for at least 24 hours, and features 28,000 dancers, 150 bands, magnificent costumes, all manner of frolic. At least 400,000 spectators take part in the fun – effectively doubling the size of this mountain city for 5 days. The day of parades ends Sunday morning with a choreographed battle between Lucifer and the Archangel Michael, who defends the Virgin of the Miners (Virgen de Socavón), and everyone gathers for mass at the Church of the Virgin.
In addition, of course, there are water balloons.