Though carnivals in the rest of Latin America are usually associated with the days before Lent, the Limón Carnival celebrates Columbus’s arrival in the New World on October 12. The festivity was first introduced to Limón by Arthur King, a local who had been away working in Panamá’s Canal Zone. He was so impressed with that country’s Columbus Day celebrations that he decided to bring the merriment home to Limón. Today, El Día de la Raza (Day of the People) basically serves as an excuse to party. Throngs of Highland Ticos descend upon Limón – buses fill to bursting, hotels brim and revellers hit the streets in search of this year’s sounds and style. Rap, rave and ragga – in Spanish and English – are hot, and Bob Marley lives, or at least is convincingly resurrected, for carnival week.
Carnival can mean anything you want it to, from noontime displays of Afro-Caribbean dance to Calypso music, bull-running, children’s theatre, colourful desfiles (parades) and massive firework displays. Most spectacular is the Grand Desfile, usually held on the Saturday before October 12, when revellers in Afro-Caribbean costumes – sequins, spangles and fluorescent colours – parade through the streets to a cacophony of tambourines, whistles and blasting sound systems.
Instead of taking place in Limón’s streets as it has in years past (the national press reported on “sanitation” problems that threatened to bring the whole event to a halt), most of the carnival’s night-time festivities now occur within the fences of the harbour authority JAPDEVA’s huge docks and car park. This might sound like a soulless location, but it’s a well-managed affair, and while you may not be dancing in the streets, you’re at least dancing. The overall atmosphere – even late at night – remains unthreatening, with teens and grandparents alike enjoying the music. Kiosks dispense steaming Chinese, Caribbean and Tico food, and on-the-spot discos help pump up the volume. Cultural Street, which runs from the historic Black Star Line (the shipping company that brought many of the black immigrants here), is an alcohol-free zone, popular with family groups. Kids can play games at small fairgrounds to win candyfloss and stuffed toys. Elsewhere, bars overflow onto the street, and the impromptu partying builds up as the night goes on.