11 Rollicking Pre-Lent Parties Around the World

Three people attending a masquerade

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Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Carnival, Carnaval ... The festivities preceding the Catholic season of Lent are known by different names in different parts of the world. The most spectacular fest is in Rio de Janeiro, where 587 different street parties, blocos, lead up to a massive samba parade through a purpose-built stadium. Locals celebrate Carnaval alongside more than a million tourists who come to the Brazilian city specifically for the event. The New Orleans Mardi Gras celebration, meanwhile, draws an average of 1.4 million revelers with its floats, street parties, and raucous atmosphere.

What about the rest of the world? Plenty of other places host noteworthy pre-Lent parties with descriptions that range from extravagant to weird to enjoyably casual. The best of these events has a local flavor and elements that make them different from carnivals in other parts of the world.

Here is a sampling of these other colorful and fabulous celebrations.

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Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago

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It's not the most popular tourist destination in the Caribbean, but Trinidad and Tobago, just off the coast of Venezuela, hosts the largest Carnival in the West Indies. Locals take to the streets in Port of Spain, the nation’s capital, for parades, music and impromptu dancing (known colloquially as wining).

The attraction of this particular celebration is that it is not as touristy as others in the region. Hotels and resorts may host high-end carnival balls, and parades featuring extravagant costumes are the most popular happenings, but BYOB street parties are also on the agenda. Events take place on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. It is, quite literally, a non-stop party, kicking off before dawn on Monday and continuing until midnight Tuesday.

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Binche, Belgium

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Binche, a town of 30,000 in Belgium, has a completely different kind of celebration. You won’t find revealing costumes and mobile DJs here, but you will witness what UNESCO has described as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.” The details of Binche’s Carnival have not changed much since it was first held sometime in the 14th century. Some historians say the fest has its roots in pre-Christian times.

Celebrations start on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. Many of the town’s male inhabitants become gilles, costumed characters with Guy Fawkes-like wax masks, period dress and wooden clogs. They parade around town stomping their noisy footwear in unison to chase off winter. On Tuesday afternoon, the gilles leave the masks behind and don ornate feathered headdresses. They parade around Binche again; this time tossing out oranges to onlookers.

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Salvador, Brazil

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Carnaval takes place throughout Brazil. Salvador, a city in Bahia state, 1,000 miles north of Rio, has one of the largest Fat Tuesday fetes. Organizers claim that an attendance of 2 million makes this the biggest street party in the world. With a week’s worth of dusk-until-dawn block parties, attending the Salvador Carnival (also often called Bahian Carnival) certainly requires a high level of endurance.

The attraction here is that most events are free and open, so there is less touristy commercialism than Rio. Salvador has three carnival “circuits.” These crowded party routes could leave some revelers feeling claustrophobic. The most popular circuits have grandstands, which charge admission but provide more space and comfort for revelers.

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Montevideo, Uruguay

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Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo, boasts one of the world’s longest Carnivals. The festivities are consequential enough that the city operates a museum, Museo de Carnaval, where people can get a taste of the colorful revelry at any time of year. With 40 days of festivities, Montevideo’s event certainly qualifies as “long.” Carnival culminates with an official holiday that lasts two days (Monday and Tuesday), but most shops and businesses shut down for an entire week or longer.

Montevideo Carnival is often billed as a cheaper, more accessible alternative to Rio. It is certainly easier to negotiate for hispanophones, since Uruguay’s main language is Spanish, not Portuguese. Grandstand seats for parades are cheap, and performances such as murga, a form of musical theater, and African-influenced drum groups called llamadas bring interesting cultural elements to the month-long party.

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Goa, India

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Goa Carnival is modest in size compared to its South American counterparts, but it is one of the largest such celebrations in Asia. Carnival traditions were imported by Portuguese colonists who settled in Goa. The celebrations remained after colonialism ended in 1961, and the holiday has become a distinctly Goan tradition celebrated by the entire population regardless of their religious affiliation.

Festivities begin on the weekend before Lent and run through Tuesday. Different cities and towns hold parades each day, so visitors — Goa is a busy tourist destination — can follow the party from place to place, experiencing different towns and villages along the way. A uniquely Goan tradition involves khells, one-act folk plays performed on the street for whoever happens to be nearby.

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Venice, Italy

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Masks play a central role during Venice Carnival. Since the Middle Ages, Venetians have worn masks during pre-Lent parties. The origins of the face coverings are uncertain, but the most common hypothesis is that they allowed people to conceal their identities, which meant, among other things, that the different classes could mingle without the usual social barriers. The masks remain important today, with masquerade balls, parties and contests for best mask and costume judged by famous fashion designers.

On the weekend, Monday and Tuesday, events take place throughout the city. These include parades and pageants on the water and in Saint Mark’s Square, fireworks, and the strange “flight of the angel,” during which a beauty pageant winner rides a zipline over the crowd. Venice is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, and it gets crowded and expensive (more than usual) during Carnival. Tickets to posh masquerade balls, usually held in hotels, can cost $500 or more, but the public events and happenings in and around Saint Mark’s Square are more accessible.

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Cologne, Germany

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Carnival season officially kicks off when the clock hits 11:11 on Nov. 11 in Cologne, Germany. Celebrations cease during Advent and Christmas, but start up again afterward, culminating in a week of parades, street parties and general merrymaking. During this long weekend, regular rules surrounding pub closing times are suspended.

The main festival, often referred to as the "crazy days," kicks off on “Fat Thursday” on the week before Ash Wednesday. Different events fill the calendar. Thursday’s Women’s Carnival Day is followed by family parades, a ghost parade, and the most popular event, a huge float parade on “Rose Monday.” This particular procession draws about 1 million spectators, and festivities bleed over into “Violet Tuesday.” On Tuesday night, the party ends with the burning of a straw effigy called Nubbel, which is meant to signify the transgressions that carnival-goers committed during the “crazy days.”

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New Orleans, Louisiana, USA

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Let's not forget America's celebrations. The first recorded Mardi Gras in the U.S. was held in 1703 in Mobile, Alabama. Mardi Gras still is held in several American cities, including Mobile; Galveston, Texas; Pensacola, Florida and many cities in Louisiana. The party really started, though, in 1718, when French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville established New Orleans. By the mid-1800s, parades lit by gaslight torches and manned by clubs dedicated to the party (krewes) had been established. Floats — and the trinkets tossed from floats (known as throws) — soon followed.

Today in New Orleans, the real Carnival of Mardi Gras (literally Fat Tuesday, in French) begins on Jan. 6 and runs through Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. Millions will take to the streets of the French Quarter over the course of those few weeks, watch dozens of parades (mostly on the bigger streets in the city, to make room for the floats), eat king cake and get ready to do it all over again next year.

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Santa Cruz, Tenerife, Canary Islands

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Tenerife, the largest and most populated of Spain’s Canary Islands, hosts a Carnival that some attendees have compared favorably to Rio’s Carnaval. This is an apt comparison in terms of elaborate costumes, parades and importance on the local festival calendar. For the island, a popular tourist destination for Europeans because of its tropical location, Carnival is important for economic reasons as well.

Canarians have celebrated the holiday since the 15th century, though the party was sometimes forced underground by Catholic authorities and the Franco regime. Now, the revelry lasts for at least a week and features pageants, parades, street parties, roving musical groups, dances and performances. The show climaxes on Carnival Tuesday with a massive Rio-like parade. The festivities end on Ash Wednesday with a procession to bury a sardine, which symbolizes the hedonistic spirit of the preceding celebrations.

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Cape Verde Islands

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This island nation off the coast of West Africa was once colonized by Portugal and has kept some of its festival traditions to this day. Cape Verde is a growing tourist destination, so its special events are quite accessible to visitors. The capital city of Praia hosts parades and street parties in the days before Lent begins, but the most colorful festivities take place in the historic city of Mindelo on the island of São Vicente.

These celebrations occur on the street, with parades, drum groups, costumed dancers and competitions. A more down-to-earth party is on the neighboring island of São Nicolau, which holds a casual, community-oriented festival that many people consider an authentic Kriolu event that mixes Portuguese and African cultures to create an only-in-Cape-Verde experience.

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Toronto, Canada

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Caribana is Canada’s version of Carnival. Because the tropical-themed happenings would be out of place in Toronto’s icy February weather, this festival is actually not during the traditional Carnival season. Now officially known as Toronto Caribbean Carnival, it takes place in the summertime, which could be good news for people who want to experience a Carnival but haven’t planned far enough ahead to attend one at the above-mentioned destinations.

Started by Caribbean immigrants in the 1960s, this Carnival has become one of North America’s largest street parties. Attendance for the main parade, with floats, costumes and bands, has been estimated at more than 1 million, and the overall headcount for the entire month-long event can exceed 2 million. Caribana also includes food, music, cultural events and parties. Even before it officially kicks off, Caribbean music acts perform at venues around the city.