The Personal Side of Latin America's Carnivals

Every year, before entering the somber and penitential Christian period of Lent, Latin America explodes in a riot of color, costumes, parades, floats, music, dance and raucous partying. It’s carnival time, a great release of pent up energy and tension, and each country has unique ways of celebrating.

The carnival of Rio de Janeiro is the biggest in the world, and probably the most famous. Samba schools, which are like social clubs, work all year to pick themes, compose music and songs, design elaborate dance routines, costumes and floats. Then they compete with each other during extravagant street parades. As soon as carnival is over and the music fades, they begin preparing for the next year.

In Argentina, especially in Buenos Aires and Montevideo, the specialty is murga, or popular musical theatre. In Oruro, Bolivia, the traditional devil dance involves hundreds of participants in grotesque, diabolical masks with horns, fangs and bulging eyes. In El Callao, Venezuela, locals dress up like kings, queens and jesters of a royal European court. In Cozumel, Mexico, costumed figures include bullfighters, gypsies, fairies and harlequins.

Rio's Spectacular Carnival Parade

Rich and poor, young and old spend an enormous amount of time, energy and money preparing for carnival, but no one seems to mind. It’s a rite of Spring that probably came to Latin America from Europe, and goes back to the Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Bacchanalia. It has evolved to reflect the different cultural mix in each country.

Locals and visitors flock to carnival because it is a unique, religiously-sanctioned occasion to throw caution to the wind and indulge in passionate expressions of creativity and joy.

But carnival also has a more spiritual, personal side, and it can be experienced, for example, in Barranquilla, Colombia. The Casa Cultural Torito Ribeño (Calle 29 No 33-26, Barrio San Roque) is in the 134-year old house of a family that has been instrumental in introducing and sustaining the El Torito dance and other carnival traditions for four generations. All year long, community members come to the center to learn dance, music, crafts and the history and heritage of Barranquilla carnival, with its vibrant blend of European, African and indigenous cultures.

The current head of the family, Alfonso Fontalvo, believes that preparing for and participating in carnival keeps the culture alive and passes on to young people a respect for and appreciation of their traditions. In 2003, he was chosen to incarnate King Momo, who leads the carnival parade.

At the cultural center, which is in a very modest neighborhood, Isaac de la Loz, who is referred to as a “maestro,” or master, has been carving carnival animal masks from wood for 25 years. The masks are not just decorative; they contain the energy and spirit of the animals.

The community members help each other dress and put on makeup for carnival. But before they become part of the wild, salsa and cumbia-infused parades, they make a stop at the cemetery.

Brazil's Carnival Going to the Dogs

They pray to King Momo (who is the God of Joy or Happiness) for a good carnival. They also pray and pay tribute at the tombs and crematoria that house their beloved ancestors, who played such a significant role in the history of carnival. Then, they head off for the opening parade of carnival: the Battle of Flowers.  First started in 1903, at the end of the brutal civil conflict knows as The Thousand Days’ War, it is a celebration of joy, and, perhaps most important, peace.

Judith Fein is an award-winning travel writer based in New Mexico and the author of LIFE IS A TRIP: The Transformative Magic of Travel.  Her website is

Follow us on
Like us at