Carnaval, Latin America’s Biggest Party

You might have heard about how big carnaval is in Latin America, but do you know its history or how it is celebrated? Keep reading to know more about it!

By Pierina D’Amico

Although there are many theories about how the term carnaval (or “carnival”) was coined, the most widely accepted is that it comes from the Late Latin expression carne vale (“farewell to meat”). Given that carne also means “flesh”, and that carnival is celebrated prior to the Christian season of Lent, this festivity was seen as the last opportunity to indulge in any and all desires before entering the 40-day restrictive period.

Now, if so many countries around the world celebrate this festive season, what makes Latin American carnivals so special? The answer is mestizaje.

When Europeans arrived in America, cultural exchanges with Indigenous peoples were more frequent among Portuguese and Spanish colonizers than others. This included mestizaje, which writer Luis F. Dominguez says “means much more than just crossbreeding. It’s a cultural mix, a fusion of cosmologies; one that gives birth to a new culture that was non-existent before. This mestizaje is the reason why all those Carnivals in Latin America seem so exotic to the Western eye, even when the origins of the festivity are well-known to them.”

Nowadays, the biggest and most famous carnival happens in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Its highlight is the Samba Parade in the Sambadrome where thousands of performers dance and show off the 20-meter-high floats they have been working on for months.

Every year, the mayor of Rio crowns King Momo, who kicks off the carnival. According to the legend, Momo (god of mockery in Greek mythology) settled in Rio after being expelled from Olympus. A Carnival Queen is also chosen through beauty and dance pageants.

But the party doesn’t stop outside the Sambadrome. There are millions of people attending blocos, also known as bandas, which are free street parties organized by neighbours, as well as fancy private Carnival Balls.

Around five million people attend the Rio Carnival every February. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, street parties are canceled this year, while the parade has been postponed until April.

Other carnivals in Brazil include the ones in Salvador which has no parades but holds the Guinness World Record for the biggest street party and where the main music is axé, and Recife where attendees are allowed to join the Parade of the Rooster at Dawn, making it the largest carnival parade in the world.

The second largest carnival in the world attracts around two million people each year and takes place in Barranquilla, Colombia. Declared a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, it showcases a mix of European, Indigenous and African culture like the Rio carnival. Its most popular and oldest parade is the Battle of the Flowers, which lasts for six hours and is followed by all-night parties. The 2022 edition of the Carnaval de Barranquilla has been postponed until March due to COVID-19.

Over a million people travel to Mazatlán in Mexico to celebrate each February. Claimed to be the third biggest carnival in the world, Carnaval de Mazatlán is known for its brass bands, Tambora music and Monigotes, giant colorful figurines that are the highlight of the parade. There are even awards for poetry, art and literature.

Carnaval de Oruro is Bolivia’s biggest tourist attraction, amassing around half a million attendees each year. With over 200 years of history, this carnival is also considered a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. The mixture of Catholic rituals with the worship of Pachamama (Mother Earth) resulted in what Carnaval de Oruro is today. A central figure of the festivities is El Tío (The Uncle), who transforms into the Devil during the carnival.

Uruguay’s Carnaval de Montevideo is the longest carnival in the world, lasting 40 days to compensate for the period of Lent. Here, attendees can see murgas (comedy-filled street performances) and llamadas (drum parades). Candombe, an African-Uruguayan music style, is the star of the festival.

Some other popular carnivals in Latin America happen in Gualeguaychú (Argentina),  Arica (Chile), Guaranda (Ecuador), Mazatenango (Guatemala), Veracruz (Mexico), Las Tablas (Panama), Encarnación (Paraguay), Cajamarca (Peru) and El Callao (Venezuela). There are many other cities and towns that celebrate carnival by incorporating ancient traditions in their own unique way.

“Beyond the sequins, the music and invaluable tradition, carnivals are an expression of the enormous potential of the creative industries, an ecosystem that produces revenues of over US$124 billion a year in Latin America and the Caribbean,” explains Helga Flores Trejo, principal specialist for innovation and creativity at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).

Because of this, the organization highlights how important it is for public policy to boost these celebrations’ impact. It considers national and local governments’ investment in heritage, entrepreneurship, accessibility and sustainability as the next big step in this ongoing tradition.

Finally, inclusion and diversity are core aspects of these festivities. As the IDB’s Daniela Peña Lazaro writes, “From their very origins, they emerged as celebrations for all: the rich and the poor; women and men; the religious and the non-believers. Today, carnivals make all attendees equal, blurring racial, social and gender barriers. Although they represent traditions and heritage, they are characterized by their ability to evolve with the times, expanding to encompass groups that were historically marginalized.”


Carnival in Latina America: History, Tradition, & Party!, Spanish Academy, 25 February 2020

10 Best Places to Celebrate Carnival in South America, Carnivaland, 27 January 2021

Carnivals: A Celebration for Development, IDB, No date specified

Rio de Janeiro Carnival, Carnivaland, 1 February 2022

Rio Cancels Carnival Street Parties but Keeps Parade, The New York Times, 5 January 2022

Barranquilla Carnival, Carnivaland, 24 January 2022

El Carnaval de Barranquilla 2022 fue aplazado hasta marzo, Portafolio, 24 January 2022

Mazatlan Carnival, Carnivaland, 31 January 2022

Oruro Carnival, Carnivaland, 1 February 2022

Carnaval, Wikipedia, 2 February 2022

Carnival, Wikipedia, 2 February 2022

Lent, Wikipedia, 21 January 2022

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