Ponce’s carnaval starts one week before Ash Wednesday, a tradition that goes back officially to 1858, making it the oldest in Puerto Rico. It’s nothing like the crazy celebrations in Rio or New Orleans (this version is more family oriented and a lot more local – you won’t see many foreign tourists), but still loads of fun: just make sure you book accommodation well in advance.
The carnival opens with a procession of masked figures known as vejigantes. The original purpose of the vejigante was to scare people (they traditionally represented demonic Moorish warriors), and these days you’ll see them merrily thwacking kids that line the streets with a vejiga, a dried, cow’s bladder blown up like a balloon. Vejigantes wear incredibly ornate masks made of papier-mâché and embellished with outlandish colours and devilish horns.
The programme of week-long festivities includes a danza competition, the unveiling of Miss Ponce Carnaval (chosen from a local high school), concerts and special exhibitions in Plaza Las Delicias. The merrymaking ends on Shrove Tuesday with the Entierro de la Sardina (Burial of the Sardine), a mock funeral procession attended by hyperbolic cries and wails from everyone in sight. A dummy is symbolically burnt at the climax, signifying the purging of sins before the beginning of Lent. For more information call t787/841-8044 or check wwww.visitponce.com.