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Five things to know before going to Jamaica carnival

Five things to know before going to Jamaica carnival

Jamaica is one of the top tourist destinations in the Caribbean. Known for pristine beaches, delicious food and unforgettable music, this is an island that has something for everyone.  Until relatively recently, one thing it wasn’t known for was carnival. Caribbean carnival is synonymous with soca music and Jamaicans are more known for their love of reggae.

It has become more popular in the last 4-5 years with local soca lovers pushing the envelope with better costumes and bigger fetes. Carnival entertainment groups from Trinidad and Barbados have partnered with local vendors to launch more carnival bands and bring branded fetes to the island. This has to be one of the fastest growing carnivals in the Caribbean, and it is only going to get more popular.

There are many things that make this carnival unique, but here are the top things to know before you sign on.

1) Carnival is in Kingston

Carnival is a city-based event held in KIngston. Far from the lush beaches and all-inclusive hotels in Negril or Montego Bay, Kingston is the financial center of the island. It has popular tourist sites like the Bob Marley Museum, but like Port of Spain in Trinidad, Kingston also has a reputation for crime and petty theft. Unlike Trinidad, the beaches are within reach and in abundance if you have time to seek them out.

If you want to get in some beach time we suggest extending your Jamaica trip and arrive a week early. Easter weekend in Ocho Rios is legendary, with beach fetes and luxurious all inclusive events to get you ready for carnival. They even have their own carnival one week before the festivities in Kingston. Ocho Rios is home to the beautiful beaches that Jamaica is known for. If you still want some sand between your toes after carnival Sunday, popular carnival band Xaymaca always has a beach cool down event the next day. 

2) Soca is King

Carnival and soca music go together like rice and peas. Jamaica is the birthplace of reggae but soca is king for carnival. It is what you will hear most of the time in the fetes and on the road. Reggae will be played, and big dancehall stars like Ding Dong and Aidonia perform, you will hear soca 80-90% of the time.

3) Stage - what stage?

all sections

Machel Montano beware. In Jamaica there is no stage to wait on. The "stage" is a judging area that everyone in a carnival band crosses - showing as much energy as possible in the hopes of winning band of the year. There are modifications at some carnivals (ie the Socadrome in Trinidad), and multiple stages in some places, but it is a element of almost every caribbean carnival. That aspect of the festival hasn’t been adopted in Jamaica.

Taking out the stage element means there is no point where you have separate into sections by costume. Feel free to choose whatever costume you like best. As long as you and your friends are in the same carnival band, you can jump together all day. It also means there is less waiting around, although some people may miss the energy of the stage.

Love it or hate it, the stage won’t be part of your Jamaica carnival experience.

4)  Costumes optional

Although most people play mas in costume, you can also get access to the road without it. Each carnival band has t-shirt mas - meaning that they sell a package that gives you a branded t shirt and a wrist band. This less expensive option gives you the same unlimited access to food, drink and amenities on the road; just no feathery costume. This is great for people who can't imagine being half naked in the streets and also let's you get creative! You can create your own costume with your friends or repurpose the t-shirt into something fun. As long as you have your wristband you have every right to the road! This can make it harder for security to pull stormers (people who haven’t paid that sneak into the band), out of the band, but it does mean you don’t have to go broke to play mas.

5) Exclusive routes

There are four carnival bands in Jamaica: Xaymaca International, Bacchanal JA, Xodus Carnval Jamaica and newbie Rebellion (associated with soca stars Bunji Garlin & Fay-Ann Lyons). Each band takes its own route through the streets, and these routes don’t often overlap. Unless you make an effort to find another band you are unlikely to see them on the road. While you and your friends might choose different sections, choose the same band if you want to play mas together.

Have you been to carnival in Jamaica? What do you want to know?

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