How I Planned My Jamaica Carnival Trip — and What You Need to Know About the Caribbean Celebration
Learn more about how to plan a carnival trip that's both educational and respectful.
On a random Sunday morning in Jamaica last month, I was contemplating the virtues of a nearby mimosa wall when two men approached me with a microphone and camera to ask about something far more important: What makes Carnival so special?
For someone whose job is to put words together, it took me an embarrassingly long time to answer — a delay I’ll blame on either the merciless overhead sun or on the aforementioned mimosa wall depending on who’s asking. But even under perfect conditions, it’s hard to convey just how euphoric — how freeing — the experience can be.
Like many cultural traditions across the African diaspora, much of the revelry that constitutes modern Caribbean carnivals largely emerged during, and in direct resistance to, enslavement.
In Trinidad and Tobago, the festival’s epicenter, Carnival rites trace their roots to the 18th century, when enslaved people intentionally set fire to sugarcane that European colonizers intended to sell. Destroying the commodity produced by their own forced labor was a powerful rebuke. The practice, which became known as Canboulay — the word stems from cannes brûlées, French for burnt cane — stood in stark contrast to masquerade balls held by plantation owners before the start of Lent, which neither enslaved nor freed Black people were permitted to attend. Canboulay was a rebellion worthy of celebration.
The percussive music and electric energy that characterized Canboulay’s earliest iterations still pulse through what’s now Carnival, nearly two centuries after Trinidad’s emancipation. The traditions have spread, too: in the 1950s, students at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica organized celebrations inspired by Trinidad’s, an annual event still referred to as “UWI Carnival.”
But the inaugural staging of an official Jamaica Carnival was just over three decades ago, in 1990. The late Jamaican musician Byron Lee, bassist and bandleader of The Dragonaires, traveled to Trinidad for Carnival in 1974, a trip that deepened Lee’s love of the sister island’s music. The Dragonaires would go on to perform in Trinidad during Carnival season for more than a decade before Lee, along with the famed Trinidadian bandleader Stephen Derek, brought a Trini-style Carnival to Jamaica.
Though it did face some opposition within the country, Jamaica Carnival drew massive crowds, who danced and celebrated as soca and calypso (the sounds of Trinidad) played throughout the streets of Kingston. Less than a decade into Carnival on his own island, Lee attributed its success in Jamaica to the power of soca.
“Reggae is an implosion, soca is explosion,” he told Caribbean Beat magazine in 1998. “Soca music takes all your pains out of you.”
It was hard not to think about Lee’s enthusiasm for soca the entire time I was in Jamaica last month for Carnival. Everywhere I looked, people seemed to be letting go of everything from their mundane everyday worries to the distinct sadness of missing Carnival during the height of the pandemic.
It’s been six years since I’ve experienced Carnival in Trinidad, a flurry of activity and soca-inflected joy that remains among my most treasured memories. Planning out my Carnival trip this time, I was excited to play mas on different ground, and to hear soca blaring through the air in Jamaica.
How I Planned My Jamaica Carnival
To experience the full range of Carnival activities, you’ll generally need to pick a band well ahead of time. Bands provide everything from food and drink during festivities to the glorious costumes Carnival is famous for.
Your band will be your home base, whether you’re dancing in the light of the sun or gathering in the dead of night for J’Ouvert, the ecstatic pre-sunrise ritual that symbolizes enslaved people’s perilous journey to freedom. My partner and I joined GenXS Jamaica, but revelers could also choose from Bacchanal Jamaica, Ocho Rios Carnival, Yard Mas, or Xodus.
We stayed at the ROK Hotel Kingston, a beautifully appointed modern hotel right in Kingston’s downtown art district. (The acronym in the property’s name stands for the “Revival/Rebirth/Renaissance of Kingston.”)
The hotel offers an extensive breakfast buffet, as well as dishes made to order. For lunch, dinner, and snacks throughout the day, there are two on-site restaurants where we had our fair share of perfectly crisped wings with jerk aioli and red stripe with fresh lime juice while recharging on the pool-side cabanas. Across the street, Kingston’s waterfront and harbor also boast a handful of restaurants, including a small pizza shop and ice cream parlor that have some more affordable (but no less delicious) offerings.
Not everyone wants to — or can — play mas. If marching in the sun for hours isn’t your speed no matter how much soca or rum punch is fueling you, there are still plenty of events to check out during the season.
This year, we thoroughly enjoyed concerts at Kingston’s Sabina Park stadium. True to the spirit of Carnival, soca and calypso reigned supreme: legendary Trinidadian artists such as Kes the Band, Bunji Garlin, Nailah Blackman, and Machel Montano all performed to crowds of adoring fans from all over the Caribbean (and the world), constantly emphasizing connections across the African diaspora and the beauty of celebrating this moment together. Want a taste from afar? This playlist will keep you moving all day.
No matter how hype the road is, no trip to Jamaica is complete without plenty of time by the water. So a few days before we paraded through the streets of Kingston, we took our energy to the sea — on a sunset beach fete and catamaran cruise by SunKissed Events that also happened to include drinks, food, and a whole lot of good vibes. If you’ve never danced to soca on a boat with a fried plantain in your hand, you’re not living right.
Jamaica Carnival is over for the year, but it’s not too early to start prepping for 2024 if you’re dead set on making it to Kingston or to Port of Spain for Trinidad Carnival, which is even earlier, in February. You can always follow your preferred bands on Instagram to keep up to date on the sign-up windows for next year — and to see the reveal of new costumes.
Concierge services like Carnival Hunters or Ultimate Trinidad Carnival can take even more of the work out of planning your experience by arranging your travel, makeup, and more.
And, thankfully, the Carnival season is still going strong throughout the rest of the Caribbean. If you want to make it out this year, you’ve still got lots of options.
Next up is Bermuda, which will have its Carnival next month, from June 16 - 19. If you want to play mas, you still have time to connect with one of the country’s three bands this year: Party People, Nova Mas, and Code Red. (If you’re more interested in the vibes than the full Carnival shebang, we’ve got you covered — here’s T+L’s guide to the island, which is just a short flight away from much of the East Coast.)
“Vincymas,” St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ Carnival, packs a whole lot of punch on the small islands. Running from June 30 - July 11 this year, Vincymas promises to be a deliciously musical good time. For a rundown of the bands you can march with, visit vincymas.vc. We’re big fans of the relatively secluded hotels on the country’s smaller islands, but for Vincymas, you’ll want to stay on the mainland. The Blue Lagoon Hotel & Marina is a great, affordable option — but book fast, as it’s likely to sell out soon.
And also in July, St. Lucia Carnival runs all the way from the beginning of the month through the 19th. Check out the many bands you can choose from at carnivalsaintllucia.com, and if you’ve got some time to travel around the lush mountainous country, be sure to take a reprieve from the chaos of Carnival by staying at the luxurious cliffside Ti Kaye Resort & Spa.
From July 27 - Aug. 8, Antigua celebrates its annual Carnival. Antigua’s one of my favorite islands, and its Carnival history is rich. This year’s mas bands can be found at antiguacarnival.com. But even if you’re not looking to partake officially, it’s absolutely worth being in town to hear Antigua and Barbuda’s legendary steel bands. Hodges Bay Resort & Spa on Antigua’s north coast is one of the island’s newest and most impressive hotels.
In August, kick things up a notch in Grenada, where “Spicemas” runs from the start of the month through the 15th. In Grenada, you can look forward to an extra high-octane J’Ouvert experience that explicitly emphasizes the tradition’s roots as a rebuke of former colonizers — you’ll see people drenched in black oil with devil horns well before you see the sun. Find info on “Fancy Mas” bands at spicemasgrenada.com if you’re more into feathers than pitchforks. Coyaba Beach Resort is a reasonably priced choice right on Grand Anse Beach.
And, of course, what is any Carnival season guide without a nod to Barbados’s illustrious Crop Over festivities, where Rihanna has been spotted serving looks for what seems like forever. The Crop Over Festival actually runs for about three months, a celebration of Bajan music, food, and arts that culminates in a masquerade parade called Kadooment Day. Grand Kadooment Day will be August 7th this year, so you’ll want to be around for at least a week prior. Mas bands should be announced later this month. Bougainvillea Barbados is a lovely boutique resort on the island’s south coast.
Even if you can’t travel internationally any time soon, you’re not out of luck. The West Indian Day Parade in Brooklyn will be back again in the leadup to Labor Day, and Miami holds its own Carnival in October.
The sun may shine differently, but the soca will hit all the same.
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