All across the Caribbean, hundreds of major events are held each year. These events include colorful carnivals and a range of festivals focusing on art, music, food, rum, film, sports, etc., which showcase the Caribbean region’s rich culture and heritage. One of the more popular carnivals is Antigua Carnival which has been held for over sixty years and brands itself as the Caribbean’s Greatest Summer Festival. Below I provide insight into the history of Antigua Carnival along with tips on how to make the most of your experience when attending!
1. History of Antigua Carnival
Antigua Carnival has been held annually since 1957. Before this, a one-day carnival was organized in 1953 to commemorate the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Before then, as on most Caribbean islands, there was a Christmas festival that was celebrated annually and had many of the carnival elements, including a parade with iron bands and masqueraders.
Levering the history and experience of the Christmas festival, the first Antigua Carnival was held in 1957 to help attract tourists during the summer months, which is traditionally the low season. Another primary reason for having Antigua Carnival during the summer is to commemorate the emancipation from slavery. Slavery was abolished in Antigua & Barbuda on August 1st, 1834, and during that time, thousands of newly freed slaves took to the streets of the capital city of St. John’s to celebrate their freedom.
2. Antigua Carnival Logo
Antigua Carnival, which has been held for over 60 years, is one of the oldest summer festivals in the Caribbean, and its creative display of culture, music, revelry, and mas is showcased in its logo. In fact, there are four key elements to look out for in the Antigua Carnival logo. Specifically revelry, music, culture, and the general spirit of Antigua & Barbuda.
- Revelry is symbolized by the Carnival Man dancing on one foot and swaying to the right.
- Music is symbolized by the steel pan around his waist.
- Culture is expressed by the dynamic and festive colors in the back and headpieces of the costume.
- The Spirit of Antigua and Barbuda is symbolized by the figure carrying the Antigua and Barbudan flag.
3. When is Antigua Carnival held
Antigua Carnival is traditionally held from the end of July to the first Tuesday in August. From its humble beginnings, it is now a 13-day affair with a wide range of events for all age groups, including competitions and parades. The 2020 dates for Antigua Carnival are Thursday, July 23rd to Tuesday, August 4th, with most events taking place at the Antigua Recreation Ground on Factory Road in St. John’s.
Besides the local population, Antigua Carnival is particularly attractive to Antiguan and Barbudan nationals living abroad as well as regional and international visitors who have a passion or interest in culture and Carnival-style events and festivals. In fact, Antigua Carnival attracts visitors mainly from other Caribbean islands, plus the United States, Canada, and Europe. At some shows/events, attendance can soar as high as 15,000 participants, and for the road parades, as many as 18,000 participants.
Planning Tip: Book your flights and hotel for Antigua Carnival as early as possible as prices increase closer to the event. If you’ve never been to Antigua before and want to do some traditional sightseeing like exploring St John’s or visiting Stingray City Antigua, arrive a few days before or stay a few days after Antigua Carnival ends. You really won’t have must time during the carnival.
4. Antigua Carnival Events
Antigua Carnival events can be broken down into three main categories: pageants, music (calypso, soca, steel pan), concerts/competitions, and parades.
Pageant events have been included in Antigua Carnival since the first edition of the Queen of Carnival in 1957. The focus then as now is not just on beauty but showcasing the participants’ culture, talent, and general knowledge.
The Antigua Carnival pageant events include:
- Queen of Carnival
- Mr & Miss Teenage Pageant
- Jaycees Queen Show – regional competition with delegates from most Caribbean countries.
Many of the leading events at Antigua Carnival showcase steel pan, calypso, and soca music which is a staple in the Antigua & Barbuda music industry. The full lineup of music events at Antigua Carnival includes:
- Ricardo Drue presents Drue’s Day – this is a concert with some of the best soca artists from across the Caribbean region.
- Caribbean Melting Pot – this is an evening showcase of the best calypso, soca, and reggae artists from Antigua and across the Caribbean region.
- Junior Calypso Monarch + Calypso Monarch – these two events showcase calypso music. With its political and social commentary, calypso is the original music of modern Caribbean carnivals, and the competitors sing two songs as they vie for the calypso crown. The Antigua Carnival Calypso Monarch winner ultimately goes on to represent Antigua in the Leeward Islands Calypso Competition.
- Panorama Competition – this is a competition to be crowned the best steelpan band of the Antigua Carnival. Steelpan, also known as steel drums, is a musical instrument invented and popularized in Trinidad & Tobago.
- Junior Party Monarch + Party Monarch – these two events showcase soca music with its more upbeat and party tempo, which has surpassed calypso in popularity at most Caribbean Carnivals, including Antigua Carnival. This competition in two halves crowns a Groovy as well as and Jumpy Soca Monarch.
- Breakfast Fete – this is a privately organized all-day festival that showcases some of the best local and regional calypso and soca artists. Held at Antigua Carnival for the past 17 years, the ticket provides all-inclusive food and drinks.
The highlighted events are all held at the Antigua Recreation Ground (ARG) Stadium in St John’s. The only exception is the Breakfast Fete which is held at the Splash Antigua venue, Fort James.
When most think of carnival, parades are what come to mind, and Antigua Carnival does not disappoint, as even before its inception, parades have been an integral part of celebrations on the island. To date, there are seven parades with crowds as large as 20,000 participants and a huge number of onlookers from the sidelines.
The list of parades includes:
- Opening Parade & Ceremony
- T-Shirt Mas
- J’ouvert Morning
- Junior Carnival
- Carnival Monday
- Carnival Tuesday – Parade of Bands
Planning Tip: The majority of the events detailed above are the official events for Antigua Carnival. There are many more parties and fetes for Antigua Carnival, which can make the whole experience overwhelming. Thus for someone attending for the first time, here are what should be on your must-see/experience list: T-Shirt Mas, Caribbean Melting Pot, Breakfast Fete, Panorama Competition, Party Monarch Competition, J’ouvert, Carnival Monday and Parade of the Bands (Carnival Tuesday). These events take place towards the end of the festival and so are great for those who can’t commit to the full 13-day Antigua Carnival experience.
For ticketed Antigua Carnival events, including pageants, concerts, and competitions, the leading retail outlets are located at the Antigua Recreation Grounds and the Office of the National Festivals Commission during the Carnival Season. You can also purchase your tickets online via the Ticketing App.
5. Participating in Parades at Antigua Carnival
Antigua Carnival is not just a spectator event; visitors can take part in most of the parades via one of the mas bands, including Beautiful People, Myst Carnival, Insane Carnival, Barefoot, Dumztree Carnival, Misfitz Carnival, and Xklusive Carnival. Participating in Antigua Carnival Monday and Tuesday in full costume would be the ultimate, or visitors can test the waters by participating in Jou’vert or T-Shirt Mas.
As a warm-up to Antigua Carnival Monday and Tuesday, there is a J’ouvert event that symbolizes the emancipation of slavery dating back to 1834 in Antigua & Barbuda. J’ouvert starts early in the morning – around 3 am to 10 am with thousands of revelers taking to the street to follow trucks with live bands or sound systems to jump up, dance, and celebrate. Some J’ouvert mas bands not only provide music but also an all-inclusive J’ouvert experience with a t-shirt, paint, powder, food, and drink.
T-Shirt mas bands are quite common in most Caribbean carnivals, but Antigua Carnival is the only one that has an entire parade just for T-Shirt mas bands. So instead of elaborate traditional or modern feather costumes, the only requirement for those who take part in the parade, which goes through the streets of St John’s, is a troupe T-shirt. The T-shirt mas bands are not just colorful but also fashionable, and many women modify their T-shirts to make bikinis, dresses, and rompers. Some men also alter their T-shirts though the designs are not as elaborate. To find a mas band to participate with, check out the Antigua Carnival website.
Planning Tip: The ultimate experience for Antigua Carnival would be parading with one of the masquerade bands in a colorful costume on Carnival Tuesday. Depending on what costume you select, along with the road services provided by the masquerade band, this can cost anywhere from US$500 to US$1,000+. An alternative to this is to participate in a Jouvert Morning, or Carnival Monday T-shirt masquerade band. With either of these options, here are some tips for selecting a masquerade band:
- Make sure that the masquerade band is listed on the official Antigua Carnival website.
- Research the masquerade bands via Google and social media channels like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook to make sure that reviews are positive.
- Don’t make a decision solely based on how pretty the costumes or T-shirts are for the masquerade band. Find out about the additional services like the number of trucks with music and DJs along with food and drinks to be provided. Also, ask if they will have portable toilets following the music trucks. All of these are important to ensure you have a fantastic experience during Carnival Monday and Tuesday.
- Give serious consideration to those that have been around for many years and have won awards like Insane Carnival, which won the Antigua Carnival Band of Year three of the last five years. Also, Myst Carnival, which I jammed with on Monday Carnival, was the Monday Wear Winner. They have been around since 2008 and typically have one of the largest groups of revelers.
Note: Most Antigua Carnival mas bands launch their costumes in February or March.
6. Spectating the Monday + Tuesday Parades at Antigua Carnival
The Parade of Bands on Carnival Tuesday is the highlight of Antigua Carnival. On average, between 25 and 30 mas bands and groups participate in the Antigua Carnival parades. The modern-day feather costumes, which are all beautiful, get much of the attention during the Parade of Bands, but it is essential to look out for more of the traditional elements of the parades, which pay homage to Antigua’s Caribbean and African heritage.
These elements include Stiltwalkers (Moko Jumbie), John Bull, Sensei, Masqueraders, Majorettes, and Cultural Dancers. More traditional aspects of the Antigua Carnival include Skellihoppers, The Cultural Carnival Divas, Iron Bands, Steel Bands, African Mas Troupes, and Traditional Mas Bands. These more traditional and cultural elements of Antigua Carnival are typically at the start of the Parade of Bands.
Carnival Tuesday is a holistic parade that encompasses all of the elements of carnival, including floats, steel bands, jam bands, cultural elements, and masqueraders in their full costumes (traditional and party costumes). The Carnival Monday parade begins at 2 pm, and the route is close to 1.5 miles through the streets of the capital city of St John’s. The parade on Carnival Tuesday starts at noon and is a little longer, approximately two miles, also through the streets of St. John’s.
Planning Tip: To watch the Antigua Carnival Parade of Bands, most people will line the High Street and Independence Drive in the middle of St John’s close to the ARG Stadium. I would recommend picking a spot at the start of the parade near the corner of Factory Road and Parliament Drive. You’ll get the best views and be able to move about more freely to watch and dance as the masquerade bands pass. Once most of the bands have passed, head to the ARG Stadium to see each band cross the stage.
7. General Tips for Enjoying Antigua Carnival
Along with the history of Antigua Carnival and the planning tips provided above, below are some more general tips for enjoying this event based on attending last year!
Build up your stamina with regular exercise and workouts prior to attending. You don’t need to be supermodel fit, as all body types are welcome at Antigua Carnival. However, as Antigua Carnival is a 24-hr affair with events day and night, you want to be sure that you will have the energy and stamina to go the distance. No one likes a party pooer who wants to sleep at midnight when the event/fete/party is just getting started!
Pack smartly with lots of cute summer clothing and comfortable footwear, as whether you choose to participate in a mas band or not, you will be doing a lot of walking. Also, if it rains (typically only for short periods!), the ARG Stadium, where most of the events are held, can get a bit muddy, so ladies — leave the fancy high heel shoes at home. It is all about cute and comfortable carnival chic!
Bring plenty of cash, as with the influx of people, it can be difficult to find a working cash machine. So come prepared so that you can partake of all the amazing local food and drinks. There will be many food vendors at ARG Stadium as well as along the parade route. Try the national dish, fungee with pepperpot. Or have ducana with JOhnny cakes or saltfish. Also consider rice pudding (blood pudding), goat water, and souse. Along with rum punches, try local drinks made with fresh fruits like mangoes, tamarind, golden apple, and Antigua’s famous black pineapple, etc. This all enhances the experience of carnival in Antigua.
Embrace the true spirit of Antigua Carnival. Antigua Carnival, like most in the Caribbean, is a celebration of freedom linked to Emancipation from slavery. Freedom to make choices with regards to what to wear, how to dance, and generally live life. Thus, you’ll find revelers from all walks of life on the road. People are letting loose and simply having a good time while, of course, being respectful to one another. So leave all judgemental thoughts at home!
Make time to explore Antigua. Whether your first or hundredth time in Antigua, make time to explore the island. Sure, they’ve got 365 beaches for lounging and relaxing, but as Antigua’s tourism slogan states, that is really just the beginning. Popular tourist attractions in Antigua I would recommend include a tour of the capital city of St John’s and exploring Nelson’s Dockyard National Parks in English Harbour, a UNESCO World Heritage site. I would also recommend a visit to Stingray City Antigua and Antigua Rainforest Zipline Tours along with a general island-wide tour.
How to get to Antigua
To get to Antigua, search for flights arriving at the V. C. Bird International Airport (IATA: ANU) located 5 miles northeast of St. John’s, the capital of Antigua and Barbuda.
From Canada, search for flights to Antigua via CanJet and Air Canada.
From within the Caribbean, search for flights to Antigua via LIAT and Caribbean Airlines.
From continental Europe, search for flights via Alitalia, which has a direct flight from Milan, and Condor Airlines from Frankfurt.
From the United States, search for flights to Antigua via Delta, US Airways, United Airlines, WestJet, and JetBlue.
From the United Kingdom, consider flights with British Airways, which has daily flights from London Gatwick to Antigua. Or you can search for flights via fly to Virgin Atlantic which fly to Antigua three times a week from London Gatwick on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.
For more information on visiting Antigua & Barbuda, check out the official tourism website.
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Note: This blog post was initially published in April 2019 and updated in January 2020 with additional planning tips and new imagery.