Antigua is a small Caribbean island renowned for their 365 white sand beaches, however, the beaches are just the beginning. I had the good fortune of growing up on the island and every year I have observed or partaken in the yearly summer festival. Carnival consists of two weeks of music, vibes, colour, energy and dancing in the capital, St. Johns, Antigua Carnival is like no other. Carnival in Antigua is a celebration of emancipation, a notable event celebrated across the Caribbean with a public holiday. Traditionally it involved revellers in traditional costume, stilt walkers and “jumbies” taking to the streets in a parade. Though still rooted in its traditions, carnival has evolved into two weeks of feting (partying), competitions and parades where thousands take to the street to celebrate. There is also the daybreak celebration J’ouvert to partake in to kick the two main days off. I have played mas (two days of parades on the first Monday and Tuesday of August) in Antigua for three years running and I can truly say that it is one of the best experiences of my life. Time after time it never ceases to amaze. If you are looking for a great summer adventure, you’ve found it.
How Carnival Works
The general festivities leading up to the two days of mas are generally open to the public. They consist of pageants, concerts, parades and parties. They are not to be missed as they help you prepare and build up excitement for the final two days of Carnival where you can take to the streets of St. Johns. It is particularly fun to take part in “Prep” also known as t-shirt mas.
This happens two Saturdays before Carnival and really does prepare you for what is to come during carnival. You can sign up for various troupes (organisations) where you pay a fee to take part, get all-inclusive drinks, a t-shirt (that you can customize) and a day of fun. This is where they practice the route for carnival. I usually go with the troupe Myst, as they donate the proceeds to charity (cancer research/care) and have a really good reputation.
If you want to take part in the actual two days of mas, you do have to sign up in advance. To take part in mas, like with t-shirt mas, you choose a troupe. I go with a troupe called Myst as it is one of the biggest and safest, with some of the best music, costumes, food and drink offer. You can sign up online, or through their app, where you pay a deposit via PayPal and choose your costume that you want to be in for Tuesday and your Monday wear. It’s best to sign up in early spring as often the best costumes sell out quickly, however, there are often costumes still available in the months running up to it. Also keep in mind that if you are doing it with friends, you want to be a part of the same section (i.e. wear the same costume). For J’ouvert, there is a similar process for signing up with a troupe but this can be done in the two-week build-up to carnival, I usually play with a troupe called Caution, run by Project Sync, who donate their profits to a different charitable cause each year.
The Big Finale – The Last Two Days Of Carnival
The Beginning: J’ouvert
The two days of parades start at 3:00 am on the first Monday in August with a daybreak celebration known as J’ouvert. J’ouvert involves getting dirty, so you are given a t-shirt that many choose to customize and make their own. There is paint and powder similar to that used in Holi celebrations, one troupe even bathes in this mud coloured paint concoction! Although last year a water truck made a surprise appearance dousing everyone in water, which was a welcome refresher. Starting in the dark we parade into town as the sunlight rises on the City of St Johns. It is messy, chaotic, but amazing. This lasts well into the morning when the band makes its way back to the starting point for food, hydration and in my case to wait to get picked up in order to get ready for the afternoon.
It is time to go home get changed and move out for Monday Mas if you have braved J’ouvert. Monday’s outfit typically consists of a pair of bikini type bottoms in a variety of styles and a top, though many customise their Monday wear with wire bra tops, or leotards and monokinis. Many people get their makeup done for Monday, but I usually do my own, wearing bright eyeshadows and gems and glitter all over my face. You will be exhausted but ready to go once you arrive at Police Recreation Grounds and begin to feel the palpable excitement. You jam to the food park, where you are served food to help soak up the copious amounts of alcohol already consumed and to be consumed. At this point, you will definitely be ready to go having gotten a second wind of energy after the long morning. This is when the fun really begins; the dancing and the music have everyone feeling the vibes, dancing to the beat. You chip into town past many onlookers making your way to the Antiguan Recreation Grounds to dance across the stage to then move on and jam back to Police Recreation Grounds. You’ll be ready for bed, and the next day’s festivities by the end.
Tuesday is the big day when everyone is out in their costumes and all their glory celebrating life and the end of the two weeks of festivities. Most people get their makeup done for this, as you want to be out in your best to end the two weeks with a bang. This all starts at the Myst Capitol (or you troupes base) and moves on to the food park where food is served and everyone turns up. You then jam into town, where the crowds and judges await. It is a magnificent display of feathers and glitter as everyone is in full costume, some lucky bystanders get the remnants of back pieces and headpieces that those taking part could not withstand any longer. I always cling to my feathers despite my sl
ight annoyance as I keep each years as a reminder of amazing times on the road. As you come down to Market Street you assemble into your sections to be judged (remember I mentioned staying in the same section as your friends), to determine the best troupe of the year. You jam past the judges and made our way to the Antigua Recreation Grounds to take to the stage yet again. You then leave to take part in ‘Last Lap’ where everyone truly lets lose to celebrate the end of carnival and the announcement of the winners.
It is a beautiful celebration of a key part of Antiguan and Caribbean history that never seizes to amaze. No matter your size, or shape mas is for you, a time that anyone and everyone can feel truly beautiful. So long as you can handle your rum and brave the hours of dancing I encourage all who visit Antigua to consider making carnival a part of it. If it doesn’t quite sound like “your thing” come out and watch and you’ll still have a blast, and probably a hangover the next day. Just remember to stay hydrated and wear suncream!