February might be known as the month for romance, but travelers to Ambergris Caye will quickly find that El Gran Carnaval de San Pedro takes precedence over any other event on the island (even the lovey-mushy stuff). This year, the long-standing island tradition will kick off from February 10th through the 14th and is usually celebrated to signal the start of the Lenten season (Lent). When it comes to an island with huge personality and character, Ambergris Caye is among the top ten islands in the world. Can you picture men in drag dancing in the streets? How about fully-donned groups performing skits for carnival goers? Or do you fancy a good old paint war? These are all the elements that make up El Gran Carnaval, making February an ideal time to travel to Belize!
What is El Gran Carnaval?
This traditional festival derives from the Mestizo culture over a hundred and fifty years ago, brought down from Northern Belize. The carnival is centered on a character named Juan Carnaval. History depicts that Juan was a rich man who loved to party and was known for breaking hearts of women he came across, with whom he had several children. History also suggests that Juan Carnaval founded the celebration to allow people to have fun before observing the solemn Lent.
The Painting Party!
If you wouldn’t want a fresh coat of paint hues, try and avoid the beach during the last day of Carnaval. This is the part where school children and islanders start their paint wars (usually a mixture of paint, eggs and water). This painting session usually starts after school is out til about 10 at night. During this time, vehicular access to Front Street and a portion of Middle Street are closed. Anyone caught in this zone, along with the beachfront in town, is ‘fair game’ for the painters. Do you want to join in on the fun? It’s advised that you wear old clothes.
What are Comparsas?
Picture groups of men dressed in drag and twirling their stuff in circles as they recite poems and songs… Men in six-inch heels chanting humorous song lyrics. Seems kind of odd doesn’t it? For most, this part of the tradition is the most entertaining and exciting. Island men from all ages dress the part with wigs in tow and put on a show for street spectators in the principal streets of San Pedro Town. Since last year, the comparsas segment have been made a tribute to the late island activist, Felix Ayuso, who was a major contributor in keeping the tradition alive.
The burning of Juan Carnaval?
This event signals of the end of the festival and residents converge to the Central Park for the burning of Juan Carnaval. Juan is a figurine made out of clothing, coconut and grass for stuffing. Legend has it that the burning is necessary so as to cast away any bad luck to the entire village.
While this Carnaval cannot compare to those in Brazil or Mardi Gras in New Orleans, this over a century old tradition remains the number one event for February on Ambergris Caye – A perfect time to travel if you are looking for an authentic island experience!