Dos & Don’ts of Spain’s #1 Carnaval
in Santa Cruz de Tenerife
This month begins the beautiful debauchery of one of Spain’s most cherished festivos. If you’re lucky enough to be celebrating in one of the top Carnaval hotspots in Spain – Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Cadiz, Sitges – get ready to be dazzled. From shimmering, sequined gowns and luminous firework displays to blaring Latin beats and the sensation of thousands of people soaking it all in with you, your senses are sure to be on overload.
But remember, as you get down and dirty in one of Spain’s Carnaval capitals over the next ten days, it’s more than just a party. Carnaval traditions are deeply rooted in these cities, and have lasted and grown increasingly important over the years. There’s a story behind everything from the Queen’s 100kg gown to the mocking refrains of the murgas and, of course, the sparks of a papier-mâché sardine going up in smoke.
1. DO dress up like your friends.
11 Smurfs, 7 jellyfish and 23 co-ed Minnie Mouses (Minnie Mice?). No, this isn’t the recipe for a brujas brew, or some crazy Canarian jungle juice. Carnaval in Spain is not the time to see which of your friends can pull together the best glittery tutu/neon wig/spotted leotard combination. The tradition is to dress up with two to two hundred of your closest compañeros and to take on the town like the bad ass band of bumblebees (or Care Bears, or pirates…) that you are.
Especially in the Canary Islands, it’s typical for boys and men to dress in drag, so boys – don’t be shy about flaunting what your mama gave you in that new florescent tutu!
2. DON’T Pack Your Favorite Shoes
Carnaval stages and events are set up all around the city and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll be wobbly by the end of the night next morning, so you’ll definitely be grateful for your comfy kicks. It’s also worth mentioning that days of partying and a shortage of porta potties leaves the streets pretty asquerosa (read: disgusting) so don’t pack any footwear that’s near and dear to you.
3. DO Catch the Opening Parade
(La Cabalgata Anunciadora)
The opening parade is a true spectacle, and the first night of costumes, live music and hedonism is a must for the bucket list. Murgas, musicians, dance troupes, floats, and of course the queen and her runners up all wind through the city to drum beats, Latin sambas, comparsas and more. The parade symbolizes the opening of Carnaval, so energies are high and the excitement is tangible.
In Santa Cruz, the parade will be on Friday, 9th February, 2018. It kicks off around 20:00 near Parque Granja at the Plaza de la República Dominicana, then coils down and over through Calle Ramón y Cajal, on to Plaza Weyler, and finishing at the water on the Avenida Francisco La Roche (near Plaza de España).
I recommend watching the parade from Plaza Weyler, where the atmosphere is a tope. Weyler is in the center of the action, so as the parade tapers off, you’ll find yourself smack in the center of three of the main stages set up all over the city.
4. DON’T Spend All Weekend in Plaza Weyler!
Santa Cruz’ Plaza Weyler is a perfect jumping off point, but it’s definitely not the only place to spend the weekend! There are stages all around the city with DJs, live music, murgas and more. The main stages are at Plaza del Príncipe, Plaza la Candelaria, Plaza de la Concepción and Avenida Francisco la Rocha.
I tend to start at Weyler and work my way down through Plaza Candelaria, rock out on Calle Clavel and then finish up the night dancing myself silly along the marina at the Francisco la Rocha stage.
5. DO Take a Moment to Soak in The Elaborate Gowns of The Queen’s Entourage
Days before the streets fill with merry makers, the Queen of Carnaval has already been selected. The election gala is a spectacle of radiant and intricate gowns adorned with sequins and feathers – some of which weigh more than 100kg! The costumes are so heavy that to move down the runway the nominees require the use of a wheeled mechanism attached from beneath.
As the Queen and her runners’ up float by on Friday’s opening parade and the Coso Parade the following Tuesday, take a moment to appreciate the stunning detail and the months of work that have gone toward it. The Queen’s role is not only to look stunning for the parades, but to promote tourism for the Canary Islands throughout the upcoming year.
6. DON’T Miss the Murgas
Murgas are a tradition at the very heart of Carnaval. Dressed up in clown costumes and makeup, murgas are musical groups who write and preform folk songs mocking politicians and government corruption.
The murgas practice throughout the year and compete for best lyrics, best costumes, and best performance during Carnaval season. You’ll see various murgas performing throughout the festivities, but I’d recommend checking out the phenomenal team from Afilarmonica Nifu Nifa.
7. DO Check Out the Fair
Along the water headed toward the bus station, you’ll find a perfect excuse to get dizzy without even having one too many Doradas (local beer) or Arehuecas con cola – the fair. While it tends to be overrun with local teens, the fair boast a pretty legit ferris wheel, tall enough to get some decent views of the seaside city below.
8. DON’T Be Fooled by the “Family Friendly” Title… Carnaval es Carnaval!
Sunday, 11th February, 2018 is Carnaval del Día starting from 13:00. But don’t be fooled – the only difference between Sunday’s “Family Friendly” festivities and the bacchanal the night before is that the sun is up and you’re in danger of stumbling over baby strollers.
While it’s not necessary to arrive as early as one in the afternoon, be sure to have saved up some energy the night before. Carnaval del día is a highlight of the festivities and definitely something you don’t want to miss!
9. DO Take Notice of the Chicharrero Traditions
Locals take Carnaval seriously, which can be seen even in the smallest details. Every year the local brew (Dorada) creates tons of Carnival-themed promotional materials – billboards, bottles, and even short promotional clips like this one. The town hall chooses a different theme (which people usually love) and a new publicity poster (which people usually hate). I’ts all part of the spectacle!
10. Don’t (Absolutely, Positively DO NOT) Miss the Entierro de la Sardina (Burial of the Sardine) on Wednesday, 14th February, 2018
Without a doubt, this is my favorite Carnaval event. Picture this: It’s Wednesday night. The streets and plazas are slowly starting to fill with Carnaval revelers – only tonight you won’t see groups of minions or Avatars or any of the usual subjects. Tonight, every man, woman and child is dressed in a little black dress, complete with fishnets, heels, pearls, red feathered boas, pill box hats and mourning veils – tonight we’re all widows.
As you join the line of wailing mourners, you’ll find any number of oversized dildos, penis pendants, rosaries and members of the clergy. Follow the irreverent procession of the giant sardine in the direction of Plaza de España, wait around for about 2 hours (hey, it’s island time), and as a crowd starts to build along the water, join up to see the giant papier mâché sardine set alight with fireworks and left to burn to a crisp.
11. DO Be Smart
Santa Cruz is generally a very safe and chilled out town, but when you add thousands of people and loads of booze into the mix, ya gotta be street smart. Watch your valuables and watch out for your friends. Make it a weekend to remember and not one you want to forget!
12. Don’t Just Take My Word for It…
Carnaval de Santa Cruz is hailed throughout Spain, and as any Chicharrero will tell you, Santa Cruz Carnaval is second only to that of Rio de Janeiro. The celebrations have won several awards and in recent years, there’s been a push for UNESCO to declare Carnaval week a World Heritage event.
1980: declared a Tourist Festival of International Interest by the Spanish government
1987: Guinness World Records declared the worlds’ largest gathering of people to attend an outdoor concert (200,000 people getting down to the iconic Celia Cruz)
2000: Voted the Carnaval Capital of the World, beating out London’s Notting Hill and even the revelry in Rio.
Ready to pack your bags?
If you’ve been to Carnaval in Santa Cruz de Tenerife or any other Carnaval capital, I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below!
Party on! Erica
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