Curacao Carnival is one of the largest such events in the Caribbean. It certainly is the one that lasts the longest, lasting through the entire month of January and most of the month of February. Preparations and Curacao Carnival parties begin even earlier than that, as various krewes (teams responsible for parade floats) begin decorating their parade floats and the bands sponsored by the krewes hold competitions to see who gets the privilege of participating in the first- and second-line parades. Musicians and schoolchildren across the island begin practicing for the all-important tumba (a unique form of music peculiar to Aruba and Curacao) contests. Resorts and beach bars decorate and spruce up so they look their best for the Carnival events in Curacao held at their venues. Even deep-sea fishing gets into the act as anglers from around the world begin to gather and prepare for the International Blue Marlin Release Tournament that is held in March.
The Curacao Carnival has its origins in the same colonial history and traditions that form the foundation of similar carnivals throughout the Gulf of Mexico region and the Caribbean, from New Orleans to Jamaica. The word carnival most likely comes from the Latin carne vale, which literally means farewell to meat, a practice of Catholics during the Lent period prior to Easter. It was a tradition across Europe to put on masquerade balls and other celebration prior to Lent, and they brought these customs with them when they colonized the West Indies.
Wealthy plantation owners celebrated with their Curacao Carnival parties and their slaves began to imitate them, weaving their own African traditions into the celebrations. After slavery was abolished in 1863, the slave celebrations spilled out into the streets. Because of uniquely diverse mix of ethnic cultures here, Carnival events in Curacao now include traditions from Europe as well as other far flung parts of the world like Indonesia (which also spent a lengthy time as a Dutch colony). There are numerous Indonesian dining spots on the island, and the Carnival season is one of the best times to sample the dishes from this region—particularly Rijsttafel, an elaborate Indonesian feast adapted by the Dutch that you will find in Amsterdam restaurants as well as in Curacao. The staple is rice, usually surrounded by as many as 20 to 40 side dishes from all over Indonesia.
Carnival events in Curacao include an exuberant four-day Tumba Festival in which the best of the island's musicians compete to have their creations selected as the official Carnival parade song. The winner of the competition becomes Rei di Tumba (King of Tumba) and the grand finale of the festival is an extravagant parade ending with the ritual burning of the straw Rei Momo representing the elements that must be cleansed and destroyed before Lent begins. Curacao Carnival parties occur throughout the Carnival months of January and February, but the parties during and after the Tumba Festival are the most exciting, marked by fireworks and lasting sometimes until dawn. The place to find the best of these is popular Sea Aquarium Beach, which has numerous beach bars with live music. If you're enjoying family vacations, you will appreciate the fact that there is also a Tumba Festival for children and teenagers with attendant parties and events more suitable for children. Most of the main events occur in and around the capital city of Willemstad, but resorts and villages across the island also have celebrations. The three main island parades are more than ten miles long.
Many of the large passenger ships on Caribbean cruises offer special Curacao Carnival departures that take advantage of the two-month-long party atmosphere, and the Bon Bini (welcome) festivals held in the Punda shopping district every time a ship pulls into port are more elaborate. Accommodations in hotels are at a premium during this time period, so make arrangements as far in advance as possible in order get reservations at your preferred property.
Image: Curacao Tourist Board