So You Wanna Go to Trinidad Carnival? Pro-Tips for Carnival Virgins

It has been a week since I came back from Trinidad Carnival and since that time I have been hit with a barrage of questions about how I did it, how much it cost, and how I managed to get the costume–among other things. So I decided to compile my responses to those questions. This is the account of someone who managed to plan and execute the trip of a lifetime twice and now I want to share some of my tips. So here goes…

Tip #1: Get Your Money Up!!!

Trinidad Carnival is not cheap–there are other inexpensive Carnivals that you can check out such as Cropover, Jamaica, Caribana, Miami…But Trinidad is where you want to set your sights to experience one of the original Carnivals. Yet, the “greatest show on earth”–after Brazil–is an enterprise of globalization and because of that, as its popularity increases among foreigners, so do the prices. It is not lost on me how this manages to isolate some Trinidadians from the festivities (so much so that banks in Trinidad create loans that citizens can take out for Carnival) but that is another post for another time. In general, Trinidad Carnival is not cheap so whether you are playing backline or frontline, staying at the Hyatt, Hilton, or a bed and breakfast, going to Machel Mondays, Soca Monarch, a fete a day or two, be prepared to shell down your shekels. In the spirit of full disclosure, my first trip was about $5000 which is on the high-end of the Carnival budget because I treated is as if I may never go again. I had a frontline costume (more on this later); I purchased Monday Wear from a local designer; I had my makeup professionally done for Carnival Tuesday; I went to roughly one fete a day (and there are no “Ladies free before” parties during Carnival); I stayed at the Hyatt, one of the most expensive hotels Trinidad; I secured a driver, and the flight was not cheap.

So, when you factor in all of those costs (and that doesn’t even include the cooldown trip some people take to Tobago) you are looking at about $5000 give or take. You can cut costs by lodging at a bed and breakfast or an AirBnB with a few friends–my cousin, who goes every year, told me he and his friends pay about $65USD/day for a bed and breakfast. You can also cut cost by doing a backline costume which usually doesn’t exceed $800USD–or by doing no costume, by attending one fete a day or a fete every other day, and maybe by arriving on Saturday before Carnival–but keep in mind that the later you arrive other things will be thrown into turmoil such as costume pickup or you’ll pay a lot more for the plane ticket to fly in at the height of festivities. If you get nothing else from this post, get the fact that you need to get your money up and get it up early. In Carnival you must count the costs because this is not your average vacation. In many ways, you must pay to play. So a quick breakdown of costs would look a little something like this:

Airfare: $700-1200 (this will depend on where you are flying from and how early you buy your ticket. It can be more of less than this range. Flights from Florida and NY tend to be direct and are a little cheaper than flights from elsewhere such as Atlanta.)

Lodging: A hotel such as the Hyatt is approximately $500 USD per night during Carnival week and most people stay on average 6 nights. $500 x 6 = $3000 before hotel taxes and fees. So if you are splitting this with someone expect to pay $1500+. As I said earlier, you can cut costs by staying in a bed and breakfast or AirBnB. Consider the fact that during this week, you won’t get much sleep and your hotel will essentially be for naps and changing clothes, so think about how much you want to pay for that and govern yourself accordingly.

Fetes: There are all-inclusive fetes which are usually over $100 USD, with some topping $180. Non-all inclusive fetes are under that but really, you’ll want to go to mostly all-inclusive fetes because they minimize the number of times you have to reach in your pocket once you touch down.

Costumes: I’ll talk more about this later but just for primer’s sake, a woman’s costume can run anywhere from $700-$1600.

Transportation: Life is easier if you hire a driver during your time in Trinidad and a driver for a week who will take you to and from all the fetes and to the road on Monday and Tuesday will probably run you about $150 USD per person.

Makeup: If you want your makeup professionally done, there are many makeup artists who fly into Trinidad for the occasion. Expect to pay about $125 for an appointment.

Incidentals: After you’ve taken care of all of these costs over the course of your planning, you’ll find that there’s not much you’ll need money for when you are in Trinidad. But, this does not preclude you from walking with money for other incidentals. I recommend you have about $500 USD with you for the week. You’ll spend less than that for sure, but have it just in case.

 

 

Tip #2: Get Your Planning Skills Up

Executing a good Carnival experience necessitates getting your logistical intelligence quotient up. I am not the best planner but when it came to this trip I managed to have my ducks in a row thanks to a few good friends and a good concierge service–concierge services, for a fee, help you get tickets to fetes, get your costume, secure ground transportation, and lodging, etc. If you are seriously considering going to Carnival you should not only be saving your money but plan to start paying on things around July/August when bands launch their themes and costumes. So about the costumes…

img_0852.jpgThe costumes that you see during Carnival season are the creation of designers in a “masquerade band” or “mas band” for short. They are not costumes you commission someone to make for you. You DO NOT order costumes off of Etsy or Party City. You DO NOT look at a band’s costume and design your own–that is disrespectful to designers and it is the preference that, if you see a costume and want a modification, you discuss that with the band or the designer and they will try to make arrangements for modifications. Your costume is created by a designer who designs for a band and you pick and purchase it through a band and that is what you play mas in. Playing mas has a rich history, one that situates it as a practice of resistance for enslaved persons whose masters were having lavish masquerades that the enslaved couldn’t participate in, thus they created their own celebration called Canboulay. Canboulay experienced several transitions including when it was celebrated, and part of those traditions included the timing of Carnival as many of us now know it falls right before Lent. Playing mas has experienced an evolution with costumes that have gone from stock characters to “Pretty Mas” where intricately bedazzled costumes now mark the occasion.

There are over a dozen masquerade bands in Trinidad with new ones popping up every year. This means everyone should be able to get in where they fit in. In July/August, these bands begin to “launch” their costumes for Carnival based on a theme. Each band may have up to 12 different costumes (sections) and about two variations on those 12 which is called frontline and backline. A frontline costume is usually the more ornate of the costumes in a band section because it is decked out with feathers and large feather backpacks, jewels, sequins, wire bras, etc. Thus the frontline will run you at least $900 USD. The backline costume is less ornate but equally beautiful and usually caps at about $800 USD. If you are playing with an all-inclusive band, that +/-$800 is not only paying for your costume but your unlimited drinks, food, DJs, and other amenities while you are on the road on Carnival Monday and Tuesday. Some bands have what they call “midline” costumes which offers you a little bit of the glitz of frontline without the high price tag.

In order to register, some bands require you to contact a “committee member” to secure a spot in the band. For those initiated into Greek organizations and secret societies, this may remind you of your intake process and it may cause you no worries. Actually, who am I kidding, the committee process for Carnival is daunting regardless of your previous experience with Greek organizations or secret societies. The committee member is the gatekeeper who stands between you and the costume of your dreams and they may ask for your measurements, pictures, your social media profile or your unborn child (just kidding) in order to grant you entry. And, if I am fully transparent, some of this process is discouraging as some bands have a history of privileging the aesthetics of lighter skin and smaller bodies, particularly in promotional materials for their costumes. So know that Carnival is not an apolitical space and you will have to choose your battles. But do not be dismayed, there are sometimes ways around the committee member process if you use a concierge service who happens to have a relationship with the band you are interested in and the costume you are interested in (this is “if,” keeping in mind that utilizing a concierge service does not guarantee you your choice of any costume.) I was fortunate to get my foot in the door with a new band, ROGUE, which is a partnership between large band Tribe and large event producer Caesar’s Army. I highly commend them to any newbies on the road for 2020 for their great customer service, their beautiful costumes and their non-stop pump on Carnival Monday and Tuesday. ROGUE has plenty vibes. Whatever you do, by July/August, be ready to send emails to committee members or customer service people and be ready to ante-up! Registration for costumes is about a quarter of the costume cost upfront and then you can pay on it up until your arrival.

Pro-tip: Pay off your costume before you touchdown in Trinidad, it makes picking it up easier.

As you can see, procuring a costume alone is quite the event so you definitely need the virtue of patience and a bit of perseverance to get what you want for Carnival. Planning for this is key as is planning for every other dimension of your trip. If you are looking at doing Carnival in 2020, some hotels are taking reservations now and will be taking deposits (it all kinda goes back to getting that money up EARLY). Caribbean Airlines have released flights and others will soon, so set your FareHopper or other notification systems up to watch fares and try not to buy your plane ticket any later than August. As for the acquisition of fete tickets, that happens later in the year so you have time. In the meantime…

Camboulay-2018-11.jpg

Tip #2.5: Know the History and the Culture

I alluded to this a bit in tip #2 and it really should be tip #1, but I hope you’ll understand the gravity of this regardless of where it falls. Many people see pictures of the women and men in costumes or of the dancing and immediately say they want to go to Carnival. Such responses strike me as reductionist as people are only responding to the most salacious part of the experience. Don’t get me wrong, there is immense beauty and sensuality in Carnival to be seen and experienced, yet that is only part of the entire experience. To experience Carnival and love it is to love the history and culture that it springs from. A history steeped in the lives and experiences of African and Caribbean people. It is to be intrigued by more than a glitzy costume and sexy whine, but to be interested in and passionate about the history of a practice that stems from our ancestors crafting practices of liberation in the midst of oppression. It is to feel the spirit of the music from steelpans to soca–this is key especially for Black Americans because there is no “American” music played during Carnival, so if you don’t love soca, calypso, chutney, steelpan, this won’t be for you. It is to savor the flavor and fragrance of Trinidad and Tobago’s food. It is to see the actual melting pot of cultures and ethnicities on an island where many are blended together. It is to immerse yourself in a culture beyond what is promoted.

Tip #3: Get Your Weight Up…Or Off…Or Maintain

There are, of course, obvious reasons that one goes hard in the gym before Carnival and that is to fit perfectly into your costume. Whether you are playing frontline, midline, or backline, you want to look YOUR best in the costume on Monday and Tuesday because those are the two days where you will wear the least amount of clothes alongside thousands of other people wearing the least amount of clothes. Carnival is not a time to be bashful or insecure about your body, it’s a time to celebrate it and have great confidence in it and all that it does for you not just for the time that you are in Trinidad but all year around. Thus, it behooves you to start your workout plan and diet early so that you can pace yourself and get the results you want. But, more than getting to some goal weight and muscle mass, you want to exercise regularly ahead of Carnival because you NEED to build stamina and endurance in general.

Carnival is a marathon, not a sprint. It is non-stop action from the moment you land. If you are about that life you’ll probably have a fete or concert or two a day from the day you land until when you leave. You need endurance for that. You’ll clock less than 6 hours a sleep a night–and that’s generous. Carnival is seriously not for the faint of heart or the unfit–do not read unfit as anything other than not physically fit. You’ll mostly survive on naps and water alone and maybe a double here and there–your eating will get random during your Carnival trip because when choosing between eating and sleeping, you will want the sleep. For example…

On my first Carnival Friday, the day after my friend and I landed, we went to a party that night and then had to do a ticket pickup for a fete. Given all of that, we got back to the hotel at about 10:30PM and needed to wake up at 12:30 for a 1:00am shuttle to a fete in the bushes (Caesar’s Army’s AM BUSH). While my friend retired to the room to nap–and you must be honest about your body’s capacity to push through on little sleep or its need for sleep–I ate dinner because I knew I wouldn’t see food for roughly another eight hours and I needed sustenance if I was about to be partying from the wee hours of the morning until sunrise. I got back to the room at midnight with enough time to casually prepare for the fete which meant cutting up some old jeans into shorts, cutting my t-shirt into something relatively decent and cute, and waterproofing all my belongings (a necessity for any fete or J’ouvert which involves paint, mud, powder, chocolate, and water). And that was just year one, year two was even more intense with going to the same fete, being stuck in traffic for two hours, they taking a 30-minute nap to head to AM BUSH. So, if you follow, there is very little sleep. I was up from about 9am on Friday straight through to about 10pm on Saturday (with the exception of an hour nap between AM BUSH and Soca Brainwash). I survived because I prepared well beforehand with lots of exercise, rest, wheatgrass shots, etc. You need to be healthy to enjoy Carnival, not just for yourself but for your friends, which brings me to my last point.

Tip #4: Get Your Squad Up

You know how they say it’s not about where you are but who you are with? Well, Carnival is equal parts where you are and who you are with. It not only matters that the friends in tow love soca as much as you do or love the idea of being a sleep-deprived soca disciple decked out in feathers and jewels as much as you do, but also that you share similar dispositions about travel and experiencing Carnival together. After all, this is a person, if you choose to share lodging with them, who will see you at your best and your worst and your lowest. They’ll be the ones to hold your hair while you puke from drinking Puncheon, or the one who will wake you up from a nap in the middle of a fete, or the one who will have to help you wash paint off your back, or the one to whine up on you when they sense your energies are getting too low, or the one who can read your energy so well that they know when to leave you alone, or the one who will allow you to put a scarf on the door because you decided to get your groove back, or the one who will help you get into your costume on Tuesday. I promise I list those as general situations and not specific examples of anything that happened on my trip, my travel companion can attest to that. Nevertheless, going to Carnival with the right friends is important. They need to be people you trust, people who you know are responsible and people who are fun and not flakes. Not every person who will express interest in going to Carnival is the right person to go with. Carnival is a for serious inquiries only, so pick reliable, ready friends–that’s financially, physically, mentally, and soca-cally.

Carnival is guaranteed to be the best time of your life if you save and budget well, plan well, exercise well and stay healthy, and travel with the right friends. You can find out more information about specifics parts of planning on the sites below but know that the four things outlined here are integral to even pull this off at all.

For more information on Carnival check out:

A Masqueraders Perspective on the Carnival Experience (Global Carnivalist offer the most comprehensive information on all the Carnivals across the world, you will want to bookmark and follow her on all mediums.)

Guide to Trinidad Carnival Bands (Global Carnivalist’s guide to the Trinidad Carnival bands)

Up Close at Trinidad’s Carnival (An oldie but goodie by Barbara Ehrenreich’s. It documents her experience at Carnival which is well worth reading. This is a good outsider’s perspective.)

Carnival 101 with Fodor’s Travel (This article offers a broad swath of events one can attend during Trinidad Carnival from Panorama to the Canboulay Riot reenactments.)

And of course, feel free to leave your questions and comments below or, if you know me in real life, you can reach out. 🙂

PS: Start planning NOW!

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Hi Nicole, loved your tips and thanks for including the site as a recommendation! I hope you had a blast in Trinidad.

    xoxo

    Like

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