My full Trinidad Carnival costume from Rogue
My full Trinidad Carnival costume from Rogue

The Ultimate Guide to Trinidad Carnival as a Tourist

It’s that happy time of the year – Carnival! I’m suffering from a bad case of Carnival tabanca right now after seeing all the posts and pictures from this year’s Trinidad Carnival. Tabanca is Trinidadian (or Trini) slang that refers to a strong heartache and longing for anything you love. The word is mainly used for when a person is pining for an ex after a breakup. But when Carnival ends and you have to wait a whole year until the next one, it’s almost like a breakup…

So I figured now was as good a time as ever to share fond memories of my first ever Trinidad Carnival experience from last year. Welcome to the ultimate guide to Carnival in Trinidad! I’ll give you the complete low-down for what to do or not do as a tourist. It’s a long read so bookmark and refer back to it. Now where to even begin??

First, that’s right ladies and gentlemen, Carnival happens outside of Brazil too. Yes, it also coincides with the Monday and Fat Tuesday / Mardi Gras before Ash Wednesday and Lent. Trinidad is the bigger island of the dual-island Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago. It is located ~7 miles off the Northeastern coast of Venezuela. Trinidad Carnival is known as one of the biggest street parties and parades in the world! The festival has people flying in from all over the world. It’s Trinidad and Tobago’s biggest tourism event. It’s the mother of West Indian-style carnivals throughout the Americas (e.g. New York, Toronto) and beyond like London.

I can definitely say that this was one of the wildest, craziest, and most fun parties I have ever experienced. It’s definitely a do-at-least-once-in-your-lifetime experience! Everyone is happy and for a few days, you don’t have a care in the world. There are nonstop vibes and pumping!

There aren’t many photos since I was too busy having fun to remember to take pictures and videos! But with the limited footage I have, I created this short highlights video reel.

Here’s everything you need to know to ensure a good time like what I had in the video!

Know the local lingo

Anyone you meet will ask “where are you playing mas?” or “who are you playing with?” They’re basically asking which mas band you are a part of.

Carnival is one big competition between all the bands to win recognition and some prize money. There’s one main stage located at Queen’s Park Savannah where the judges and spectators can watch a parade of the bands on Carnival Mon and Tues. “Cross the stage” or “cross the Savannah” refers to when the band parades across the stage.

“On the road” refers to the parade days of Carnival Monday and Tuesday where you walk, dance, and party through the streets with your mas band.

Liming (lime-ing) or to lime is essentially hanging out. Often, people will hang out in front of bars liming.

Choose the right mas band for you and your crew

Mas means costume, and each band has its own vibe and reputation. Some tend to have more couples participate. Others are LGBT-friendly while others are more focused on their costumes, music, and/or party vibes. Who is performing live on the music/band truck can also be a factor in the decision too.

The big well-known bands are Bliss, Tribe, Fantasy, and Yuma. I played in Rogue. Last year was their first year and their whole idea is being the alternative concept by going against some of the more common aspects of Carnival. They are all about non-stop party vibes so starting later to give you a chance to sleep in and not having a long stop for lunch. Every year, each band will have a theme for that year’s Carnival featuring a historical, mythological, or tropical concept to participate in the competition. This year, Rogue’s theme is the Rise of Mars.

On Carnival Monday and Tuesday, the mas band will have one or two music trucks, bar trucks, a bathroom truck, and a food truck. These are huge massive semi trucks! As the trucks move along the specific route throughout the city, you will walk alongside and dance through the streets. So it’s one big parade of bands and a giant street party during those two days. People who are not playing or participating in a band will often go to the streets to watch the different bands parade by and maybe even dance a little to the music as the bands go by.

Pick a costume that you like

Each mas band will have multiple sections. A section is a costume to fit in with the band’s Carnival theme. There’ll be different sections for men and women. In each section, there will be a frontline or backline option. Frontline means a more elaborate costume – think bigger and more everything – so more feathers, bigger wings or capes, etc. The frontline costumes will also be more expensive as a result. The backline is a simplified version of the frontline costume.

For women, the costume is basically a bikini with lots of accessories such as arm pieces, leg pieces, hand decorations, a fancy belt, and sometimes a feathered collar and/or a headpiece (crown). The collar and headpiece may cost extra. For men, it’s usually board shorts with accessories like a belt, necklace, wrist and leg pieces, and potentially a headpiece and cape.

In general, it doesn’t matter which section you’re in. You don’t need to be in the same one as the rest of your crew. The only time that it could matter is when each section crosses the stage. Otherwise, everyone in the band is partying together in one big party in the streets parading along their band’s specific route. Rogue allows you to cross the stage together with your friends as one big group so no need to split into the different sections.

So once you decide on a band, pick your favorite costume to slay in! Provide your measurements since the costumes are more or less handmade to your size. Multiple sections in a band will sell out so you need to register early. You can also check @ttccp on Instagram for photos and videos of costumes to help you decide. Or alternatively, you could make your mas band choice based on the costumes offered.

First unboxing reveal of my Trinidad Carnival costume from Rogue

Start planning super early

Carnival is usually in February or March but you need to start planning months and months out. Bands release information about their themes and sections starting in July and August. So that’s when you’ll need to decide which band to play in and register for the costume you want.

Accommodation, as you can imagine, will get booked out and is priced up especially if you’re looking for a place that’s centrally located. Check Airbnb. We paid a bit of a premium to stay at Woodbrook, which was central to everything and gave us opportunities to stop at home for a quick break as needed. Some things to consider in terms of location is your mas band route and getting to and from all the fetes.

Participate in the endless fetes

Fetes (based off the French word) are parties leading up to Carnival Monday. They start after Christmas and build up in intensity as it gets closer to Carnival, especially the last weekend right before Carnival Monday and Tuesday. The entire week before is when there’ll be multiple fetes happening every day. The whole island gets into the party mood especially in the capital, Port of Spain, where it’s Carnival central.

I loved the fetes! You are literally partying non-stop. The fetes feature live performances from the soca musicians and bands. Music will be pumping nonstop the entire week before starting from early mornings with sunrise fetes and go late into the night. At the sunrise parties, you party, watch the sunrise, and then dance some more. Sometimes there is a water hose or foam machine to drench the crowds and help you cool down from the heat of the sun and dancing.

All-inclusive fetes are parties where all food and drink including alcohol is included. Cooler fetes are BYO so you bring a cooler full of your own alcohol. There are also boat cruise parties too. Some of the popular fetes are Soca Brainwash, Vale Vibe, Punchy Punch, Tribe Ignite, Suits (boat cruise), and Candy Coated. Each fete will have their own theme and party vibe. I recommend planning ahead and buying your tickets early for these big fetes. If you have local connections and prefer the smaller fetes, you can be more spontaneous. Trini Jungle Juice and Trinidad Carnival Diary are two great sources of information about all the fetes and Carnival in general.

Soca Brainwash fete 2018 – theme was Alice in Wonderland

Listen to soca and steel pan music

The music that is blasted throughout the city and week is soca music. Soca is derived from calypso but with much faster beats. The lyrics can also be a little instructional like jump, wine, and wave. Machel Montano is the king of soca. DJ Private Ryan is also extremely well known.

Some will say you should listen to soca music to get acquainted with the songs before you go. Unless you are accustomed to listening to soca music, it’s hard to get used to at first. I didn’t really get into the music until I got there and started learning all the songs and how to wine. At each of the fetes, there are live performances by soca bands and musicians as well as hype men to get the crowd on their feet. By the end of the fetes, you’ll have a good idea of what you’ll hear on the road. By the end of Carnival, you’ll know all the popular songs since all the parties will play mixes of the same songs. Now, I listen to soca music whenever I’m feeling tabanca for Carnival.

The steel pan is the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago. There’s a big competition during Carnival called Panorama between all the steel pan bands. Musicians will beat their pan sticks against the steel pans to create music. There are different types of steel pans that will create different notes. Similar to watching a symphony orchestra, it’s amazing to watch all the steel pan musicians beat in time to create a melody. You can go visit the panyards to listen to the different bands practice for Panorama.

Dance like you’ve never danced before

The most important word to know when it comes to dancing is wine or wining. It’s all about dem hips. Wining is basically like sex with your clothes on. It’s an incredibly sexual dance where you’re more or less grinding up on each other. It’s in the culture to dance super close (like skin-on-skin close) even with people you don’t know. There’s twerking everywhere too. So shake those hips and butt and groove to the music!

After a super sweet wine, you may think there’s a special thing going on between you and your partner but no, it’s just a dance. You or your partner can walk away at any point in time and there are no hard feelings. It’s extremely common to have a sexy wine and not even speak a single word to each other before you’re off to dance with someone else. However, if you’re ever feeling uncomfortable, just walk away.

Rules of engagement

Note that PDA isn’t huge in Trinidad so if you think you’ve found a soulmate on the dancefloor and do decide to get a little frisky in public, you will get looks and people will probably comment. Random hookups are unlikely to happen since that’s not what people are there for. People are there to have a good time and dance! In general, random hookups are not recommended so don’t go around leaving with randos.

Get your outfits ready and be extra AF

You need multiple outfits for all the fetes and Carnival Monday. There is literally no such thing as too much during Carnival. Feathers, sequins, rhinestones, glitter, body/face jewelry, bright colors, temporary tattoos – accessorize and wear it all! Anything neon will fit into the bright colorful atmosphere. Show as much skin as possible. Those bright gold glitter booty shorts or super neon pink cut out tank top you eyed in a store but never knew when you would ever wear such a thing? Answer: Carnival. You can also get arts and crafty by bedazzling up your outfits to give them an extra oomph.

The fetes tend to be slightly more casual so think comfy but cute aka rompers, crop tops, booty shorts, and bodysuits. The boat cruise fetes will feature people wearing cute cover-ups over bathing suits. For men, it’s super easy where tank tops, t-shirts, and shorts are just fine. Note that camouflage is illegal for non-military people to wear so don’t bring any.

Make sure your shoes are comfortable. Nice flats, sandals, or wedges are recommended for the fetes. Nobody wears heels since you will be dancing nonstop. Some women will wear dresses but will usually also wear hot shorts underneath to facilitate movement and in case the dancing gets wild.

For Carnival Tuesday, many women wear boots. If it’s a new pair of boots, definitely make sure they are broken in well before. You will be walking non-stop. Lots of women will buy boots that are in a color that matches their costume and can be ankle, calf, or knee high.

Don’t worry about feeling hot either since 80% of you will be exposed and your feet will be the most clothed part of you. Round toe is usually better than almond shaped or pointy so your toes have wiggle room. Flat or a slight wedge would also be better than heels.

At some point at many of the fetes, the musicians or hype man or MC will ask where people are from and start calling out the names of the countries of the flags they see in the crowds. So if you feel like sporting some national pride, bring a flag to wave around.

Bandanas are also useful for Carnival Monday and Tuesday. You may also get a towel in your mas band’s swag bag. They’re good to use as something to wipe your sweat away and doubles as a waving device and something to spread on the floor to sit on during breaks.

Prepare to get dirty at Jouvert

Jouvert (based off “open” in French and pronounced jouvay) marks the official start of Carnival at dawn on the Monday before Carnival Tuesday. It’s almost like the Indian Holi festival. To participate, you choose a band to play with and from pre-dawn around 4am until 8-9am, you’ll walk around the city, dance to music, and throw paint, powder, mud, dirt, chocolate, or oil on each other. Breakfast and unlimited drinks are included in the all-inclusive. I played with Dirty Dozen, which was a ton of fun!

You will literally get covered from head to toe in paint. Definitely plan on leaving the party one big hot mess. If you try to keep yourself pristine, you only draw more attention to yourself as a target for everyone to throw stuff at you. Be open-minded and get into the festive spirit!

Plan to throw everything you wear away. A tank top or shirt will be provided. But everything and I really mean everything will be destroyed – sunglasses, bra, panties, shoes, shorts. The paint soaks through the shirt and shorts you wear. I wore pasties, panties, tights under cheap shorts, and old sneakers I didn’t want anymore and chucked everything out afterward.

No need to be fashionable since you’ll be covered in paint. Be comfortable to walk and dance a lot in your shoes. Also, make sure shoes have some traction since the streets can get slippery with paint and mud. Keep your phone in a Ziploc bag and leave the rest of your valuables like jewelry at home.

Pro tips: I recommend wearing a headscarf, bandana, wig, hat, or shower cap so you don’t get anything in your hair. Then, you can avoid washing it before the Carnival Monday parade since it’s a tight schedule with little turnaround time to get ready. You can also wear a pair of nude stockings under your shorts to minimize the amount of paint actually on your skin. Cover yourself in baby oil to make the cleanup process afterward much easier. Don’t forget the tops and insides of ears!

Remember to be respectful of people’s property as you walk around the city. Keep in mind how you’ll get home at the end since taxis may not want your paint and mud inside their vehicles. And also figure out any rules your accommodation may have for post-Jouvert such as walking through their lobbies or taking the elevators.

Aftermath of Jouvert with Dirty Dozen

Carnival Monday is the longest day ever

Right after Jouvert is the Carnival Monday parade. That’s why it’s important to minimize the amount of time you need to clean up after Jouvert. Be ready to get out on the road and join your mas band whenever they start, usually around 1-2pm going late into the evening. For the ultra hardcore, it’s possible to go from a fete to Jouvert to Carnival Monday!

Remember what I said about being extra? Carnival Monday wear tends to be super extra swimsuits. Think blinged out bikinis and monokinis with cutouts that can be paired with hot shorts. Traditionally, paraders are supposed to wear their full costume on both Carnival Monday and Tuesday. But the costumes can take quite a beating after one day in the hot sun, so it’s become the norm to create your own Monday wear costume. For simplicity, you can wear your Tuesday costume’s bra, tank top, or bikini top with some cute booty shorts. I wore a bikini top with some hot shorts and accessorized myself with tons of rhinestones.

Rogue’s post of me from Carnival Monday 2018 – my rhinestones ended up all over the place!

Go all out for Carnival Tuesday

Carnival Tuesday is when you actually wear your costume. It’s the last day of revelry so everyone is super hyped up! There’s so much energy and excitement everywhere.

My whole Trinidad Carnival costume from Rogue before we headed out for the day and started losing pieces of the costume

Everyone goes all out with makeup. Again, be extra AF – glitter, jewels, fake lashes, bright colors – have fun with it! If you want to, there’s plenty of makeup artists offering their services. I went all out and got it done! I went to Beauty Dreams by Mekelia and it cost $600 TTD (or $88 USD). It looked amazing and lasted all day. Remember to bring your headpiece so they can match and complement the colors of your costume. And try to get an appointment earlier in the morning around 6-7am so that you can get to the road on time.

Trinidad Carnival selfie with close up of my makeup

If you pick up your costume early, you may be able to exchange for different size bottoms, etc. Double-sided fashion tape, paper pasties, a glue gun, and safety pins will come in handy for any adjustments you need to make to your costume. By the end of the day, many pieces of the costume will be falling apart. I salvaged as much of my costume as possible and you betcha I took my feathers onto the plane to bring all the way back home.

At the end of the day, each of the bands will have an after-party Last Lap. It’s one last cool-down party to end Carnival.

Wear tights to feel like you’ve got coverage

For those who feel uncomfortable with the idea of walking around in a bikini on Carnival Monday and Tuesday, most women will wear a pair of nude tights underneath to make you feel less naked. These tights need to be able to last all day where you’ll be on your feet walking and dancing nonstop. Some are cute with rhinestones, gold glitter/thread, or fishnets. They also help pull your entire costume together (jiggle alert!) in photos too.

Buy them in sheer and not too glossy in a color that matches your skin tone so it looks like you’re aren’t wearing any tights. Consider buying one size up to prevent muffin tops. Footless is also a good option to give your toes more wiggle room. Get a couple extra pairs in case of rips and snags from your costume. Peavey and Carnivalista have good options. In the photo of my entire costume, I’m wearing nude fishnets from Carnivalista.

Eat all the food

At some of the fetes like the all-inclusives, food is included in your entry fee. There’ll be food vendors serving up some delicious food to keep you fueled up for more dancing! Must eat bake and shark, doubles, and roti or buss up shut (paratha roti torn into pieces) with curry. Don’t ask why or what it is but just get it. You will not regret it. Chow, corn soup, and souse are also good to snack on too. Curry crab and dumpling is a specialty from Tobago that you may find at some of the fetes. Also warning that the pepper sauce is SPICY!

And surprisingly, the KFC and Pizza Hut in Trinidad is one of the best I’ve ever had – definitely better than the KFC and Pizza Hut you find in the US. KFC and Pizza Hut are great for those late night meals after a full day/night of nonstop dancing and partying.

Pace yourself with drinks

Whether it’s a fete or on the road during Jouvert, Carnival Monday, and Tuesday, there’ll be unlimited drinks. Remember it’s a marathon and not a sprint so pace yourself with your drinks. You’ll be in the hot sun and dancing up a storm so remember to hydrate!

If you’re at a fete or liming at a bar, the local beers are Stag and Carib. For hard liquor, the bar trucks during Jouvert and Carnival usually offer scotch, whiskey, rum, and vodka. I personally liked to order scotch and coconut water or vodka and LLB (Lemon, Lime, and Bitters which tastes like a lemon flavored soda). The coconut water is helpful for keeping yourself hydrated!

Hennessey and coconut water at a fete

Pro tip: Pick up a bottle or two of your poison of choice at duty-free. You’ll need it for the cooler fetes and pre-game drinking between all the fetes.

Work out to build up stamina

Again, Carnival is a marathon of dancing nonstop! Make sure you’re in a fit shape not only to look good in your Carnival costume but mostly because you will be walking and dancing everywhere. I don’t think I’ve walked so much in the span of 2 days between Jouvert and Carnival Monday and Tuesday. On parade days there’s hardly any time where you stand still on the road so exercise helps you maintain high energy during those two days!

You will party until sunrise and then keep going especially if you’re going from fete to fete. Some people have sworn by 5-Hour Energy or Red Bull to keep them going.

I was getting a massage at home after I got back from Carnival, and the masseuse commented on how dense and strong my leg muscles wore. She asked if I lifted weights, and I answered no. Her response was “Oh you must walk a lot then!” That actually made me laugh because I remembered all the walking and dancing I did during Carnival!

Everyone is welcome

One of the things that amazed me during Carnival was the friendly spirit of Trinidad! It’s a very open and free culture. I mention working out to look good in your Carnival costume earlier but in all seriousness, you don’t actually need to have a super skinny beach body to fit in with everyone. Bodies of all shapes, sizes, colors, and age are accepted and welcome. Nobody really cares what you look like or how “naked” you are in your costume because everyone is in a similar state of wearing very little clothing. Everybody is there to have a good time and dance with each other!

Keep an eye out for celebrities

Due to the popularity of Carnival, there are actually quite a few celebrities who’ll attend. So keep an eye out! I saw Usain Bolt dancing on stage at one of the fetes. He actually played in Rogue but we didn’t see him on the road. My friends say he attends Trinidad Carnival every year. Also apparently Trevor Noah was there the year I was there but I didn’t see him.

Open up the wallet and purse strings

Carnival is expensive! Your mas costume section will start out around $700 USD for backline and go up to $1000 USD or more for the frontline costume. It sounds expensive for just a costume but the price actually includes a whole lot more.

In addition to your Carnival Tuesday costume, the price includes all your food for Mon and Tues, unlimited drinks, and a super nice swag bag. Rogue gave us a really nice leather backpack filled with goodies such as a cup for your drinks on the road on Monday and Tuesday, a towel, ibuprofen, feminine pads, snack and drink samples, Epsom salt, and more. Keep in mind the money also pays for the band/music truck, security, medics, bathroom truck, and access to the after party.

All the fetes especially the all-inclusive can add up too. And don’t forget about the costs for your outfits and accessories. Of course, there’s also flights and accommodation so start saving early!

Be extra prepared

Many of the fetes will be in the hot sun with no shade. Since you’ll be outside most of the time, bring lots of sunscreen (at least SPF 50 or higher). I brought a wristlet to hold some cash, sunscreen, chapstick, sunglasses, and phone. Definitely bring sunglasses everywhere because you never know when you’ll find yourself going from a party at night and into the morning and mid-day. You won’t need too much cash during Carnival or all-inclusive fetes since your food and drinks are included but it’s best to keep a small bit of cash on hand just in case.

Always ensure safety first and use the buddy system. Set a meeting point such as “right side of the second music truck” to gather at if anyone gets separated which is bound to happen, especially on the road on Monday and Tuesday.

Getting around Trinidad

Traffic will be tricky especially during Carnival Monday and Tuesday when roads are closed for the band parades. It’s easier to walk to meet up with your band.

To get to and from the airport, there is the local version of Uber, which is called Drop. You can book a car several days in advance so you can do this before you land. It will tell you the name and license plate of the driver. You can also pay either by credit card or more preferably in TTD cash.

Recover and get some rest in Tobago

Many people, both tourists and locals, escape to Tobago to recover from Carnival and get some much-needed sleep afterward. Tobago is the smaller island of the dual-island Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago. It’s famous for its wide, sandy beaches and lush tropical rainforest scenery. Despite its popularity after Carnival, the beaches don’t feel too crowded. Pigeon Point, Argyle Waterfall, Pirate’s Bay, and Englishman’s Bay are all worth a visit.

Flights to Tobago are booked out pretty far in advance. You can run the risk by showing up to the airport to go on standby but you’ll need to do the same for your return flight. So I would only recommend doing this if you’re flexible with your schedule.

Pirate’s Bay, Tobago

And last but not least… Enjoy yourself! It’s a fun unique life experience. Be ready to pump and bring your vibes to the biggest street party on Earth!

Special shoutout to the lovely Fana Gibson, my Trini friend and Carnival expert! Many thanks to her for fact-checking this to make sure I got specific things down right. And without her, I wouldn’t have been able to have the most fun and amazing first Carnival experience ever!

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