Carnaval is made up of three things:
1) Brightly coloured costumes with an excess of feathers and plenty of bare skin
2) Loud, spirited music with a salsa/samba beat and
3) Fake snow.
When we were originally planning our trip to South America, we had (very reluctantly) decided to skip out Brazil and focus on the Spanish speaking countries. This meant that instead of landing in Rio for the first week of carnaval we were going to miss out on experiencing carnaval at all – or, at least, this is what we thought would happen since we (foolishly) thought that the Latin American carnaval was limited to Brazil!
Our Carnaval experience happened in the little town of Corrientes – known as the home of the Argentine carnaval. Due to some last minute decisions and not quite realising that the city’s hotels would be full over Carnaval weekend, we ended up staying in the spare room of two wonderful Corrientes locals, Pedro and Estaban. (Thanks to www.couchsurfing.org for putting us in touch!) We are not sure how our whole experience would have gone without them. They took us to buy tickets, told is where the best place to sit would be, explained the rules and the different comparsas, gave us towels to dry our faces when we were caught in a fake snow attack and kept us dancing till 6am!
How it happens:
– Carnaval takes place on 4 or 5 successive weekends in January and February. It culminates in a long weekend when there are 2 public holidays just for the country to celebrate carnaval. This weekend falls just before shrove Tuesday every year.
– The Corrientes Carnaval takes place on a ‘runway’ of sorts just outside the city. There is tiered seating along both sides of the length of the runway for the 1000s of spectators who attend each night.
– The Carnaval is essentially a competition. Each entry is known as a comparsa. Each comparsa has a minimum of 230 individual participants larger ones have 1000 participants. The smaller ones take about 20-30 minutes to pass through and the larger ones can take over an hour.
– Each procession includes a mixture of walking dancers and floats. At the end of each procession is a percussion band and then a final float with a live band that has played the music for entire procession. Each comparsa has a ‘queen’ – you can usually spot her fairly easily as the one in a white costume that barely covers her lady areas.
– There is generally a theme (we saw nature, the history of Argentine, theatre etc) but it is mostly about who has more feathers on their costume. Some of the fathers cost 100/200 pesos per feather. As Pedro pointed out, you could own one of the grander costumes or buy 2 cars. The participants spend the whole year leading up to the Carnaval designing and making their beautiful costumes.
– Two of the main comparsas in 2013 were Ara Bera (the 2012 and 2013 champions and one of the oldest – I think they’re been competing for 50 years) and Sapucay (another well established one – some of Pedro and Estaban’s friends were taking part in this one) Apparently, some people in Argentina are as fanatical about Carnaval comparsas as they are about football teams. Each comparsa has a theme song and everytime that song is played, the crowd’s singing and dancing definitely becomes more frenzied!
– The judges sit in the middle of the runway. When the percussion band gets in front of the judges the procession stops for about 5 minutes and the band and dancers (those that are still left in view) do a performance with the hope of scoring enough points to be crowned the champion.
– The crowd at this event is incredible. People just spent the whole time dancing, singing (even when the song were in English and clearly not understood!) and spraying each other with fake snow. Thank goodness we had those towels!