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The Independent - London

The Traveller - The Complete Guide To - Caribbean Festivals


December 14, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Independent Newspapers (UK) Limited. All rights reserved. 


The Caribbean and festivals go hand in hand. Sun, sea and sand plus a laid-back atmosphere are a recipe for good time. Almost every island has at least one festival during the year. Many have religious connotations: Christmas festivities, carnival, saints' days, voodoo pilgrimages, even Hindi celebrations in Trinidad. Then there are musical festivals - predominantly reggae, steel band and jazz events. These often merge into broader cultural festivals, such as dance jamborees. Food festivals are gaining in popularity, both local and gourmet cuisine: a celebration of Caribbean Creole food in Guadeloupe, the Fete des Cuisinieres, takes place in August.

Summer is the time for the more formal national Independence celebrations - parades, more carnivals, "jump-ups" (street parties). There are some unexpected ones, too, such as an aviation festival in the Cayman Islands in June. Others take place at important moments in the Caribbean calendar - the end of the sugar-cane cutting season around the end of July, for example, is an excuse for yet more festivities.


Gardens in the Latin islands - and especially Puerto Rico - are festooned with fairy lights and illuminated plastic Nativity figures. On 28 December, the Festival of the Innocents takes place: thousands of figures in brightly coloured suits and ghostly masks drive around the countryside, ending up in the main square of Hatillo for a parade (Puerto Rico Tourism: 0800 898 920; In St Vincent, "Nine Mornings" starts today, with carol singing and parades on the streets of Kingstown on nine mornings (020-7937 6570;


Carnival is the biggest festival in the Christian calendar. Carne-vale literally means "farewell to meat". Traditionally, carnival was a final blow-out before Lenten fasting. There are carnivals all over the Caribbean to celebrate Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday, the last day before Lent. And the emphasis is firmly on the partying.

The best example of a Caribbean carnival - and the liveliest to attend - is Mas (from masquerade) in Trinidad, where you can dance non-stop for 72 hours. People have been known to leave their jobs so that they can "play mas". Unofficially it starts a month or six weeks before Mardi Gras. The weekend before Fat Tuesday involves non-stop partying. It's a matter of pride that everything stops on the dot of midnight on Tuesday. Once I saw a man dressed as a bat trying to get home on Wednesday morning (presumably he had fallen asleep on the savannah). He was considered to have let the side down so badly nobody would help him.

The French islands stage mock weddings on Lundi Gras, and continue until Ash Wednesday, Mercredi des Cendres, for the burning of Momo, the carnival spirit. Although carnival grew up around Mardi Gras, nowadays the concept has been extended to celebrate, for example, the end of the cane-cutting season in July or August (the Zafra in Cuba, Cropover in Barbados). Jamaica also has a carnival in April, while Grenada has one in August, and Barbados at the end of July and beginning of August. The Bahamas has two carnival events, Goombay in the summer (June onwards) and Junkanoo in the winter (December-January).


Two parallel calypso competitions are an integral part of carnival. First is the soca (soul calypso) music, the dance music that is the engine of the street parades - the winner is the song that is played most during the parades. The other is for the more thoughtful and theatrical songs that compete for title of Calypso Monarch. These are a combination of Private Eye and Viz set to music, topical, saucy and often scurrilous, in a style that varies from raconteur to slapstick. The early rounds of the Calypso Monarch competition are held in Calypso Tents (like-minded groups of singers rather than actual tents) and then the finals take place over carnival weekend in the main stadia. They are well worth attending, though it helps to have a Trinidadian interpreter to explain all the political references.


Carnival is the biggest, but in the Catholic islands (Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Haiti and the French islands) there are also festivals on saints' days, which involve a blessing in the local church, sometimes processions and then a day's celebration and partying.

Voodoo pilgrimages (in honour of a Catholic saint and their voodoo counterpart) take place year-round in Haiti. The two best are the Saut d'Eau at a waterfall at Ville Bonheur (around 16 July), and the Plaine du Nord (24 July), where sacrifices are dedicated in a mud pool (see, if you read French).

Trinidad's Indian population takes its partying just as seriously as the carnival crowd. Diwali, the festival of light, is celebrated around October time with thousands of candles in deyas (small clay bowls) in gardens. Phagwa (in March) is as messy and colourful as Jouvert (at carnival), with crowds processing through the streets, spattering one another with red food dye. Even Trinidadian Muslims celebrate with customary Caribbean enthusiasm. Hosay, held at different times of the year according to the Islamic calendar, sees processions of tassa drummers, playing the Indo-Caribbean traditional drums, and floats in honour of the death of Hussein, the martyred grandson of the Prophet Muhammad (020-8350 1009;


Musical necessity has been the mother of invention in the Caribbean; islanders have even been known to tune up garden forks (in Curacao) in order to make music. Just consider the steel pan, an oil drum hammered into harmonious shape, for inventiveness.

Music can be heard all over the islands. Sadly Reggae Sunsplash, the original reggae show held in Jamaica came to an end in 1994, so the crown of the Caribbean's coolest reggae festival has been taken over by the Jamaican Red Stripe Reggae Sumfest. This five-night extravaganza takes place next year from 20 to 26 July (00 1 876 953 2933; www.reggaesumfest. com). As many as 15 artists play each night, to a theme - Beach Party Night, International Night and the nigh-incomprehensible Dancehall night.

In Anguilla, the March festival of Moonsplash is now going into its fifth year (Anguilla Tourist Board: 020-7729 8003, The festival is a small affair but it is set in one of the coolest bars in the Caribbean, the Dune Preserve on Rendezvous Bay - all upturned yacht hulls and makeshift huts on thedunes. Artists who have taken part in previous years include Rita Marley (widow of Bob Marley), Jamaican reggae star Freddie McGregor and, of course, Anguilla's own Bankie Banx, owner of the bar.

In Trinidad, Tobago and Grenada in the run-up to Christmas you will hear a traditional style of singing called Parang, in which bands play on the guitar, cuattro (a 10-stringed guitar-like instrument), maracas, violin and box bass, while in Barbados each May there is a celebration called Gospelfest, which involves recitals of international and Barbadian church music (020-7636 9448;

On the jazz front, the 11th St Lucia Jazz Festival (the longest established in the islands) will take place from 2 to 11 May 2003 (0870 900 7697; The line-up for next year has not been announced yet, but past performers have included artists as varied as RAM from Haiti, Luther Vandross and Roberta Flack.

In Grenada, the Spice Jazz Festival takes place in June (00 1 473 440 2279). To tune your blue notes before then, head to Barbados from 13 to 19 January 2003 for the island's Jazz Festival (00 1 246 437 4537; Artists include Chucho Valdez, Ernest Ranglin, Spyro Gyra and Al Jarreau. There is also a Blues Festival in St Vincent (1 January-9 February), which includes performances on smaller Grenadine islands including Basil's in Mustique and Bequia (020-7937 6570;

On a classical note, Barbados has an opera festival from 11-29 March, the Holder's Season - mainly operatic performances and Shakespearean plays (Barbados Tourism Authority: 020-7636 9448;

St Barts sometimes includes classical and even baroque music in its broad-based Festival de Musique, 14-25 January.


Well put on your dancing shoes. It's not as if you need an excuse for dancing in the Caribbean, but in the last 10 days of July each year the Merengue Festival in the Dominican Republic celebrates the bustling Latin beat (Dominican Republic Tourist Office: 020-7242 7778; Bands play on stages on the Malecon, the seafront road in the capital, Santo Domingo. Alternatively, just go out any weekend night throughout the year. There are clubs in every town on the island, but the liveliest area is Santo Domingo.


The islands of Dominica and St Lucia were British for many years and so the official language is English, but both have Creole-speaking populations. At the end of October they celebrate Jounen Kweyol, a festival of Creole culture in conte (humorous anecdotes), cooking and dance. In Dominica this runs into the World Creole Music Festival, which includes Caribbean rhythms such as cadance, compas and zouk (Dominica: 020-8350 1000;, St Lucia: 0870 900 7697;

Jamaica stages the Maroon Festivals, held by the once-independent villages of Accompong on the fringe of the Cockpit Country (7 January) and Moore Town near Port Antonio (21 October), which were never subjugated by British rule. Fete-like games of chance, braziers of barbecued food and of course a jump-up (Jamaica Tourist Board 020-7224 0505;

Independence celebrations tend to be more formal, often with marching bands and parades, but they usually culminate in a party. Statia Day, in St Eustatius, commemorates 16 November 1776, the first official recognition of the United States by another power. Eager for trade, the Statians saluted a ship bearing the newly independent United States flag. In celebration nowadays they raise the Dutch Antillean, the Dutch and the American flags (if an American warship is in harbour they each fire a cannon salute) and then have uniformed parades.

In the French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, Bastille Day is enthusiastically celebrated along with the rest of France as these are part of French territory. For more information contact the French Travel Centre (09068 244 123, 60p per minute;


Sailors also know how to party. The sailing season starts in November with the ARC (Atlantic Rally for Cruisers), in which yachts sail across the Atlantic in convoy from the Azores to St Lucia (where there is a three-day jump-up), and finishes with Race Week in Antigua at the end of April (after which the yachts sail back across the Atlantic for the summer in the Med). In between there are numerous smaller regattas, such as the distinctive Yoles Rondes in Martinique.

The most accessible and competitive regattas are on islands that specialise in yacht chartering. So check out the Heineken Regatta in St Maarten, 7-9 March 2003, (00 599 544 2079;; the British Virgin Islands Spring Regatta, 31 March to 6 April 2003 (020-7947 8200;; or Race Week in Antigua, 27 April to 3 May 2003 (020-7486 7073; There is always a need for crew in these regattas, so if you just arrive you can probably find a spot on board.

There are lots of smaller local regattas, some for sailing yachts (eg the Grenada Sailing Festival, 020-7771 7016,, held early in the year), but also on smaller islands with a tradition of boat-building, in which they sail local wooden boats. These include Foxy's Wooden Boat regatta in the Virgin Islands (23-25 May 2003, 020-7947 8200; and the Carriacou Regatta (Carriacou, Grenadines) in early August. Also in August, the local wooden boats in Anguilla are dusted for a fearsomelycompetitive local regatta.

In these smaller regattas you may not be able to find a spot as crew, but you can certainly join in the after-race celebrations.


The cheapest way to get to the Caribbean is usually with a package: with luck you will be able to find one at the time of the festival that you want to visit. Consider Kuoni (01306 742222; and Hayes & Jarvis (0870 8989 8900;, which have a broad selection of hotels on the most popular islands. Other islands are covered by more specialist tour operators, eg Harlequin Worldwide (01708 850300; and Trips Worldwide, which offers some lesser-known islands (0117 311 4400;

If you would prefer to travel independently (or to an island not covered by the UK tour operators), standard air fares are generally cheaper during the winter months (except at Christmas), but there are deals all year round through discount agents. Also consider charter operators; Teletext is a good place to find late-notice bargains. For the French islands, consider going via Paris on Air France and for the Dutch islands via Amsterdam on KLM.

Getting to smaller islands will usually involve a flight in a hopper plane (though some islands are connected by ferry) and these are readily available.

The Caribbean Tourism Organisation website is a mine of information about the islands (020-7222 4335;

James Henderson is the author of the Cadogan Guide to the Caribbean and the Bahamas, now in its fifth edition, price £14.99.

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