The footpaths and road margins are packed with elated spectators, picnickers, and tailgate partyers…
Temporary barriers keep enthusiastic revellers from spilling out into the streets as they watch the empty Belize City roads in anticipation.
The excitement is palpable… the chatter of the crowd swelling from a murmur all around you. A wall of sound approaches…
Fast-paced beats and rhythms pound down the road from out of sight, and the crowd strains to see the first floats of the parade. Adults and children alike shout and dance…
The country unites each year for this, the brightest pageant, the biggest parade, and the best street party: carnival in Belize! “Karnival da cum” is Creole for “carnival is coming,” and you’ll hear it throughout the country.
The celebration is inspired by the Creole proverb, “One han’ kyaa clap” (one hand can’t clap). Cooperation is the core of the Belizean carnival spirit.
This visual spectacular is a collage of street theatre, music, costume, and dance.
Quick gyrations, explosive movements, and stunning costumes dazzle the eyes. Music enters your body through the soles of your feet and shakes you to your core as it deafens.
If you’re within a mile of the parade, it’s impossible to not get involved—even if you didn’t want to be. Tooth-jarring music, all-day street partying, and scantily but fabulously dressed adult participants make this show an orgy of the senses.
Let’s Not Get Confused… Belize Has Two Carnival Seasons
The first Fiesta de Carnaval follows the traditional Latin American festival and falls in the Catholic Lenten calendar on Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras).
While the rest of the world goes all out for Lenten carnival, it’s actually Belize’s less spectacular show, much more subdued than September’s Independence Day carnival. Lenten carnival is mainly celebrated in San Pedro Town on Ambergris Caye and in Corozal in the north.
Belize’s unique end-of-year carnival is the dominant holiday here, held Sept. 10 each year, and is mainly celebrated in Belize City—that’s where all the best events are anyway.
Unlike the Cristian carnival, Belize’s second carnival is a Creole tradition and is as much a celebration of the country’s Afro-Caribbean heritage as it is about independence.
Belize’s Carnival Origins
Belize’s carnival tradition in its present form is thought to have been imported by students who went to study in Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica.
J’ouvert—originally from Trinidad and Tobago—is now a part of the Belizean carnival tradition. It is the warm-up party. Starting at dawn, people cover themselves in colourful paints and mud, while dancing to the rhythm of calypso, soca, and reggae music.
J’ouvert ends at 9 a.m.—before the sun gets hot—to allow carnival dancers and performers to rest before the main event, the parade, at 1 p.m.
The Party Goes On
Picnics, barbecues, and coolers full of beer and rum are openly shared. The parade participants are organized into groups that practice the dances for months as they make their fabulous costumes.
While the ladies have spectacular costumes, the men are not to be outdone. They wear full peacock-like regalia.
Gyrating, scantily-clad ladies admittedly pique my interest while I slowly lower my hands over my 3-year-old daughters’ eyes for the more provocative contortionist manoeuvres.
Children participate in groups of their own, usually tied to an adult group. For decency’s sake, they wear more conservative costumes for now… in a few years they’ll be able to make their own costumes as they like.
Spot prizes are issued for the best performers and groups in the parade. The parade takes hours to pass, stopping every hundred yards so the paraders can perform their dances. It seems everyone in Belize is participating in the parade, which always makes me wonder where all the spectators come from…
They come from every corner of Belize, and, in fact, from all corners of the world. The September Independence Day celebrations are a beacon for the Belizean diaspora.
Just as many of us plan to return home for Christmas, September is when Belizean-born and first-generation emigrants from Belize come home.
It’s a long day for the performers, dancing in the heat of the city for hours on end. By the time it ends, many look ready to collapse—some do! End of parade does not mean end of carnival, though. Now is the short break before the nighttime festivities.
The King And Queen Competition
One of the biggest events at any carnival is the annual king and queen competition…
After Belize’s parade and after the sun sets, there’s a full pageant performance in the Marian Jones Athletic Stadium (named after Belize’s only famous sporting figure). Here, the competitors put their most dazzling foot forward to wow the judges with their performance.
The king and queen competition is a stunning experience, full of music, dance, and costumes. Sponsors are an important part—these elaborate costumes take real money to prepare. Depending on how big the donation, some dancing groups adopt the names of their sponsors.
Parade floats abound, too, but these are likely not what you’d expect. Supporters usually ride on the colorful creations, which have built-in bars. The passengers sit, drink, and dance, becoming a part of the celebration itself. The more visually arresting and active participants are usually on foot, giving them more room.
As the frenzy, the music, and the colors fade, the crowds slowly disband.
The city seems like a ghost town by comparison… the silence is loud and everything is still other than the few moms carrying sleepy children and dads bringing back empty coolers…
The celebration is over—for now. Luckily, Belize has 13 national holidays so you only have to wait a week or two for the next one!