If you happen to be in Belize on the days leading up to Lent, you'll want to make arrangements to be on the island of Ambergris Caye. Three days prior to Ash Wednesday, the entire island comes alive as they celebrate Carnaval.
Carnaval in San Pedro is a bit of a departure from the traditional carnival celebrations you are likely familiar with in other parts of the world. This celebration includes some messy fun, so pack a set of old clothes you don't mind throwing away at the end of your vacation.
One of the main events of Carnaval in Belize is three days of "painting." Venture over to San Pedros Central Park and other designated areas to see kids and adults covering each other in water-based paint. By the end of the night, it's not uncommon to see kids covered in paint from head to toe.
The festivities usually start in the afternoon and run well into evening time. If you don't want to get painted, it's best to avoid the Central Park area those days. Most people are pretty respectful to tourists if you advise them you don't want to get painted, but it's not uncommon to get some overspray on you nonetheless.
Kicking off in the afternoon on all three days, local groups come together and perform choreographed routines called comparsas. These are very entertaining you'll find men dressed as women in many cases, some brave ones even wearing heels for the many hours of dancing.
Groups sing original songs in Spanish and dance along Front and Middle Streets. These are all volunteers who participate to help raise money for various local groups and charities. Each day the routines are different and on Tuesday, judges announce an overall winner at an evening ceremony in Central Park.
The legend of Don Juan Carnaval dates back to the 1930's. He is believed to be a rich man who had a number of girlfriends, breaking hearts everywhere he went. He started the festival of Carnaval and, after his death, the village continued celebrate in his honor. They made an effigy of Don Juan, a figure with a carved coconut face and clothes stuffed with grass.
On Ash Wednesday, there is traditional Catholic mass. To pay respects to the folklore and religious aspects of Carnaval, there is typically a skit or presentation on the marriage and funeral of Don Juan Carnaval following mass. After the presentation, Don Juan is taken and burned, signaling the end of Carnaval. It is believed that not completing the ceremony would bring bad luck to the entire village.
Carnaval may include additional events and festivities, some which vary from year to year. As Carnaval draws closer, check the local "Ambergris Today" for the official schedule.
Is this special event on your travel bucket list?
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Erin is a travel and food writer who currently splits her time between the Netherlands and Belize. She's traveled to 60+ countries on 5 continents with a passion for culinary travel, luxury hotels, and all things Disney. Her writing has appeared in numerous online outlets including Gadling, BootsnAll, CNN, Art of Backpacking, TravBuddy, CBS, and more. She was the major author of Belize's official visitor magazine, Destination Belize 2013; wrote the official AFAR Guide to Belize; and is also AFAR Magazine's local Belize expert.. In addition to writing for other publications, Erin maintains several blogs, Our Tasty Travels, No Checked Bags, Pooh's Travels, and the brand new Caye To Belize. Follow Erin on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Google Plus.
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