If you’re looking to combine your next trip with a world-class festival or a mind-blowing carnival, then look no further. Here, from the pages of Make The Most Of Your Time On Earth, we present ten of the best parades, parties and processions across the world.
Walking on the wild side at the Sydney Mardi Gras, Australia
Sydney is probably the world’s most gay-friendly city and its annual Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade is a huge red- (or should that be pink?) letter day, drawing a bigger crowd than any other annual event in Australia. One of the world’s best festivals, it’s a full-on celebration of gay culture, and a joyous demonstration of pride; but it’s enjoyable for people of any sexuality, provided partial nudity, G-strings, wild unleashings of inhibitions and senseless acts of kindness don’t offend.
The parade route runs from Hyde Park, through the city’s gay quarter, to Moore Park. Pumped-up marshals, searchlights, flares, fireworks, strobes and dance music from all the nearby clubs bring the throng to a fever pitch of anticipation – a perfect build-up to the gleaming Harley Davidsons of the Dykes on Bikes, who have heralded the start of the parade for many years. Vast floats, effigies and marching troupes follow in their wake – everything from two hundred drag Madonnas in cowgirl hats, to three hundred Barbara Cartlands in pink-sequined evening gowns, or mist-enshrouded boats carrying Thai princes and princesses.
Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras takes place mid-Feb to early March, see www.mardigras.org.au for full details.
Doing Junkanoo in the Bahamas
The country’s most important and spectacular party, Junkanoo is a blast to the senses. It’s organized pandemonium, held in the pre-dawn hours on two days each year – December 26 and New Year’s Day. It has its roots in Africa, and is reminiscent of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras and Rio’s Carnival, but really, Junkanoo is distinctively Bahamian.
Parades flood the streets of Nassau and various groups and societies compete to have the biggest and loudest floats, which means you’ll see stilt-dancers, clowns, acrobats, go-go girls, goatskin drummers and conch and cowbell players. Behind, in Nassau Harbour, the looming cruise ships form almost a surreal counterpoint to the phantasmagoric crowds, who stamp and clamour in time to the music.
See www.bahamas.co.uk/about-the-bahamas/junkanoo/what-is-junkanoo for information.
Dancing with the Maya, Guatemala
A riot of colour, music, dance, alcohol, religion and tradition, every Maya village in Guatemala celebrates its patron saint’s day with a life-affirming festival. You’ll find the village square packed with trinket-selling traders, a fairground with dodgy-looking rides, festival queens wearing exquisite huipiles (blouses made from hand-woven textiles) paraded on floats and an endless array of machine-gun-style firecrackers and bombas (ear-drum-splitting fireworks).
Alongside standard-issue bands (complete with a strutting lead singer) belting out the latest Latino hits, traditional dances are performed. Masked performers wearing fantastical plumed headdresses and elaborate and gaudy costumes skip to the beat of the marimba (a kind of xylophone), flute and drum. As a spectacle, Maya fiestas are a total assault on the senses as dance and custom, noise and costume combine in an orgy of celebration, which is as much about honouring highland ritual as it is about having one hell of a party.
Succumbing to the frenzy of Boi Bumba, Brazil
One of South America’s best festivals, Boi Bumba is a riot of colour, dancing, pageantry and parades on Parintins Island, deep in the Amazonian jungle, and as remote as any major festival, even in Brazil, gets – it’s a two-day boat journey from “nearby” Manaus. Surrounded by more than 1000km of rainforest on all sides, the isolated location is key to making the festival special. Whereas party-goers in Rio or Salvador gather for the parades and disperse anonymously into the city afterwards, in Parintins the sixty-thousand-plus crowd is contained by the Amazon itself – over the three-day frenzy, the festival becomes a private party of familiar faces and dancing bodies.
Boi Bumba takes place for three days every June. Visit www.boibumba.com for more information.
Admiring the Oruro Carnival, Bolivia
It might not have the glamour of Rio, but the Andean outpost of Oruro can lay claim to the most outlandish carnival in all Latin America, a fiesta where the devil really is in the detail. This is a place where roots run deep, far below the city streets, where the pre-Columbian god of the underworld, Huari, holds jealous dominion over a mine-shaft labyrinth. When the week before Lent rolls around, Orureños bring that kingdom to life with an unparalleled eye for the satirical and the grotesque, lolloping through the crowds amid a cacophonous siren of Ben Hur-scale brass bands.
If the bulging, bloodshot eyes and slavering tongues of the morenada dancers – representing African slaves forced into lung-searing labour in the city’s silver mines – affect a comic-book suffering, you can be sure the guy propping up the costume’s incredible weight is suffering in turn, and will even have paid for the privilege. You can’t take your eyes off the slow, hypnotic stomp of the choreography, but even this pales next to the diablada, the showpiece showdown between Lucifer – a riot of demonic kitsch with antenna-like horns and medusa hairdo – and the Archangel Michael, accompanied by packed ranks of no-less-outrageous demons and libidinous she-devils.
Getting naked in Inazawa, Japan
Old men start to scream as the crush of naked flesh becomes so intense that steam is rising from the enormous crowd. It’s only lunchtime and everyone’s liver is saturated with sake. The chants of “Washyoi! Washyoi”! (“enhance yourself”) rises to an ear-rupturing crescendo from the nine thousand men, all dressed in giant nappies, or fundoshis. Finally, just when it seems that the entire town of Inazawa is about to be ransacked by the baying mob, the Naked Man appears.
On the day of the festival, the volunteer Naked Man, minus even a fundoshi, must run through the crowd, all of whom are hoping to touch him in order to transfer all their bad fortune and calamity. The ordeal is terrifying. The crowds punch, kick, drag and crush anyone in sight in order to get near. The Naked Man himself disappears under the tidal wave of nakedness. It is only twenty minutes later that he emerges at the end of the temple lane: his hair ripped out, nose broken and with scars all over his body. The spectacle is intense, frightening and utterly unique. Only a handful of Westerners have ever been brave enough to compete.
The Naked Man festival generally falls between Jan and March; confirm dates at www.seejapan.co.uk.
Elbowing through the crowds for Esala Perahera, Sri Lanka
Kandy’s Esala Perahera takes place over the last ten days of the Buddhist lunar month of Esala (usually between late July and mid-August) to honour the Buddha’s tooth. The festival involves a series of spectacular night-time peraheras (parades) with drummers, dancers, torch-bearers, whip-crackers, fire-eaters and over a hundred costumed elephants. The parades start between 8pm and 9pm, and as dusk approaches, the flood of humanity lining the route turns into a solid, almost impenetrable mass. The smell of jasmine, incense, frangipani – not to mention the spicy picnic suppers everyone is tucking into – is intense, and the trees, shop fronts and streetlamps drip with tinsel and coloured lights.
You’ll hear the perahera before you see it. Depending on the night, there might be up to a thousand drummers, heightening the sense of anticipation that precedes the elephants – scores of them, decorated in golden balaclavas, beautiful silks and silver thread. Surrounding them are brightly attired dancers, drummers or torch-bearers. Troupes of dancers, acrobats and musicians accompany the procession, along with men wielding huge whips, which they crack every minute or so to scare away demons.
Observing rhythm madness at the Thrissur Puram, India
Kerala is famous for its extravagant festivals, and none is more grand than the annual Puram in the central Keralan town of Thrissur. Caparisoned elephants, ear-shattering drum orchestras, lavish firework displays and masked dance dramas are common to all of them, but at Thrissur the scale of proceedings – not to mention the suffocating pre-monsoon heat – creates an atmosphere that can, to the uninitiated at least, seem to teeter on the brink of total insanity.
Two rival processions, representing the Tiruvambadi and Paramekkavu temples, form the focal point. Each lays on a phalanx of fifteen sumptuously decorated tuskers, ridden by Brahmin priests carrying silver-handled whisks of yak hair, peacock-feather fans and bright pink silk parasols. At the centre of both lines, the elephants’ attendants bear golden images of their temple deity, like soccer players brandishing a trophy from an open-top bus victory parade. Alongside them, ranks of a hundred or more drummers mesmerize the crowd with rapid-fire beats, accompanied by cymbal crashes and wailing melodies from players of the double-reeded khuzal.
Puram usually takes place on one day in April/May; check with the state tourist office, www.keralatourism.org, for exact dates.
Partying at the At-Atihan festival, The Philippines
You need serious stamina for the three days and nights of non-stop dancing that mark the culmination of Ati-Atihan, the most flamboyant fiesta in the fiesta-mad Philippines. No wonder the mantra chanted by participants in this marathon rave is hala bira, puera pasma, which means “keep on going, no tiring”. If you plan on lasting the course, start training now.
Don’t expect to just stand by and watch – the locals have an unwritten rule that there are no wallflowers at Ati-Atihan – and if you don’t take part, they’ll make you. Even if all you can muster is a drunken conga line, you can take the edge off your nerves with a few glasses of lambanog, a vigorous native aperitif made from leftover jackfruit or mango fermented in cheap containers buried in the earth – the “zombie flavour” is especially liberating.
Dancing under a full moon, Thailand
The tourist party season in Southeast Asia traditionally gets under way at the end of the year with huge, head-thumping parties at Hat Rin Beach on Thailand’s Ko Pha Ngan island. Hat Rin has firmly established itself as Southeast Asia’s premier rave venue, especially in the high season around December and January, but every month of the year at full moon travellers flock in for the Full Moon Party – something like Apocalypse Now without the war.
To make the most of the festival, get yourself to Hat Rin at least a couple of days in advance. That way you’ll be able to make the most of the stunning beach location, soak up the growing buzz as the crowds pour in and, more importantly, snag yourself somewhere to stay. Most party-goers make it through to the dawn, and some can still be seen splashing in the shallow surf towards noon, when the last of the beach DJs pull the plug.
What’s the best festival or carnival you’ve experienced on your travels? Share your memories below.