I am BEYOND excited to share my very first Carnival experience with you!! This has been one of my dreams for the past 11 years – and it was everything and MORE!!
As we all know, rarely does a dream come true without hard work, planning, communication, and most of all – an amazing group of friends by your side. So here it goes!
I came into Carnival with a million questions, wrote everything down for you, and I am here to share every single mistake we made along the way (boy, were there plenty), every adventure (luckily, more adventures than mistakes!), and every detail in between to prepare you for the time of your life!!
Are YOU ready to play mas?!
What Is Carnival? What is J’Ouvert? What Is Soca? What Does It Mean To “Play Mas”? What Is A “Fête”?
Carnival, in essence, is a gigantic party in the streets. In Trinidad, different organizations (called bands) create unique parade experiences. Each band (Tribe, Harts, Bliss, Fantasy, etc.) creates their own costume theme, provides their own set of amenities, and has their own parade route. The price of your costume includes access to everything your band provides: meals, drinks, the band’s street party, security, restrooms, etc.
On Carnival Monday and Tuesday, people from all over the world wear their costumes while dancing through the streets alongside trucks with DJs playing soca music, a type of calypso originating in Trinidad, short for “Soul of Calypso”.
“J’ouvert” is a derivation of the French phrase jour ouvert, meaning day break or day opening, and signals the start of Carnival early on Monday morning.
“Playing mas” is short for masquerading, or wearing a costume, and a “fete” is a party.
Easy, right? Let’s dive in deeper!
Which Band Do I Play With?
There are many options, and each band has a certain style and type of person they naturally attract. I had the most amazing experience playing in the Flaunters section designed by Ruana Evans, with Tribe. Not only did I love the costumes, but I truly appreciated how professional and organized they were!
I did have the opportunity to glimpse a few bands passing by on Carnival Tuesday. Harts and Bliss both seemed to have fun, young crowds with beautiful costumes, and from the looks of it, they were providing a wonderful carnival experience!
From my own experience though, I can only speak to playing with Tribe, and I would love to play mas with them again in 2020!
How Do You Choose A Costume?
Costumes are revealed at the highly anticipated Band Launch in July. There are typically two versions of a costume: Frontline and Backline.
– Frontline costumes are grand, and typically what we imagine of carnival. It may have an elaborate feathered back piece (aka wings), feathered arm and leg bands, a large headpiece/crown, and a bejeweled bodysuit/bikini. (The pro: it’s the carnival costume of your dreams, the con: it’s the most expensive option, and it may be heavier/harder to navigate the roads with)
– Backline costumes are a paired down version of frontline, with a smaller back piece, a smaller headpiece, and a bejeweled bodysuit/bikini. (The pro: it’s the least expensive option, and much easier to wear all day, the con: not as elaborate as the frontline costumes.)
Typically, only the Frontline version of the costume is revealed during the Band Launch, and the backline will follow within a few weeks via the band’s website. Both versions of the costume are customizable, for example: there are different one-piece/bikini styles, varying headpiece sizes, and arm/leg feather band options available.
A Few Things I Wish I Knew While Purchasing My Costume:
– Private vs Normal Sections: Certain costume sections are managed by the designers and are designated private sections, while others are managed by the band. A private section comes with the added benefit of exclusivity and contact with the designer.
– Bra Fit: Cup size is the only measurement that truly matters when giving your bra size, as the backs of the bras are adjustable with string.
– Stockings: Nude, fishnet stockings/pantyhose with glitter or rhinestone details are optional. (I’ll discuss this a bit later!)
– Headpiece Size: The large headpieces are amazing for photos, but a tad impractical for the road. Either opt for the smaller headpiece, or ensure you also receive a smaller headpiece option along with your large headpiece purchase.
– Headpiece Fitting: Try your headpiece on immediately upon pick-up and ensure there are no metal pieces pieces pushing into your head. Someone can adjust the metal for you on the spot. (I made this mistake and had a lovely big bruise on my forehead, my mistake for not trying it on soon enough!)
How, When, And What Do I Register For?
The key phrase here is “REGISTER!!!” Carnival in Trinidad is organized to the nines (something I did not fully realize while planning) and it is essential that you register for every fete, j’ouvert, and carnival event you ever imagine you could ever want to attend. You can always cancel, but its extremely difficult to get tickets last minute.
Costume registration typically begins in August, and I suggest purchasing your costume on the first hour of the first day registration begins. Scheduled payment options are available, however if possible, I recommend paying in full immediately, or as soon as you can, for peace of mind.
*Note: almost every event selling tickets requires you to know a committee member*
When is Carnival?
The dates of Carnival are determined by Easter. Carnival Monday and Tuesday always precede Ash Wednesday. As this changes annually, be sure to check when Carnival occurs before you book flights and accommodation.
Where Do I Stay?
We stayed at the Hyatt Regency, and although I saw numerous other accommodation options, I absolutely loved the location, the design, the hospitality, the amenities, and most importantly, the safety that the Hyatt Regency provided. To ensure you will have a room, please book far in advance: anytime between February – August of the previous year.
Book your flights at the same time as your hotel. If you can, try to sit as close to the front of the plane as possible, as the customs and immigration line can be extremely long (it took us 45min to get through) and ideally you want to be the first person off the plane. If they had a VIP service to help get through the line, I would surely love to know!
What Can I Do To Prepare?
Now that you’ve selected your band, purchased your costume, and booked your flight/accommodation, you now have two missions before you’re ready for Carnival:
1.) Hit the gym. Carnival is a marathon, completed in what my mom refers to as “ribbons” (aka our costumes). There is no room for self-doubt, body image concerns, or low self-esteem! Everyone of all shapes and sizes are on the road, having the time of their life! It’s a time of celebration, a time purely dedicated to happiness, joy, and lots and lots of dancing – so hit the gym, look and feel good, and get ready to dance! With that said…
2.) Learn the music. Soca hits begin releasing as early as November – look for songs by Kes, Kerwin Du Bois, and my all time favorite (and I’m sure everybody else’s), Machel Montano. Spotify makes it incredibly easy to keep up with songs by constantly updating their Trinidad Carnival Soca Playlist – that was my life saver! Familiarity with the songs will make your carnival experience a million times better – trust me! It’s way more fun when your whole group arrives already knowing the lyrics, the rhythm, and the dances!
Your Year At A Glance:
March – July: Book Accommodation + Flights
July: Band Launch (Costume Reveal)
August: Costume Registration
September – February: Gym + Soca music
How Long Should I Stay and How Should I Plan My Days?
Shortest length of stay: 4 days, 3 nights
Ideal length of stay: 8 days, 7 nights
We nailed our length of time there! We stayed 7 days and 6 nights – giving us plenty of time to recover from our travels, enjoy Trinidad’s sights, and indulge in Carnival. In an ideal world, this would be our itinerary for next year:
Fly in Thursday afternoon, check-in to the hotel, and immediately head to collect your costumes at the distribution center (you will receive an e-mail prior to your arrival with information about when and where to pick-up your costume).
You must try your costume on for fit at the hotel (there are A LOT of strings to figure out! I put some pieces on up upside, hint: use the image of the costume to help figure it out, and if you’re in a private section, send photos to your designer for help!), and request any alterations immediately.
Along with your costume, you will receive a packet with your wristband (the most important possession to take care of!), a goody bag with towels, gifts, and a cup (be sure to bring that cup with you to both Monday & Tuesday), and a brochure containing ALL the information you will need to know about parade routes, start/end times, lunch break, etc.
In the evening, go to a fete!
Take all photos in your Carnival Tuesday look! Next year, I would love to shoot my costume in a beautiful location in Trinidad. This will also make getting ready on Tuesday morning a little less hectic.
In the morning, afternoon or evening, go to a fete!
Saturday & Sunday:
We used these two days to tour much of Trinidad (as it was almost everyone’s first time there!), see “10 Things To Do In Trinidad & Tobago That Aren’t Carnival” to see everything we did and everything we still want to do!
Saturday: Go to a fete!
Sunday Evening: Try to get a little rest in before Monday! Lay out your J’ouvert outfit + Monday Wear, and organize your make-up/hair station for your Monday preparations after your return from J’ouvert.
3:30am – 8:00am: J’OUVERT! We missed j’ouvert this year (because I failed to register!), but I learned the lesson the hard way, and there is no way we are missing it next year!
10:30am – 6:00pm: Carnival Monday! (Knowing myself, I would clean up from j’ouvert, have coffee + breakfast, get in my Monday Wear, and join Carnival Monday from the early afternoon) *p.s. don’t forget your cup!*
6:00pm – onwards: Lay out your costume and prepare your make-up/hair station for an easy start the following morning. Clean your cup from Monday’s use and set it to dry.
4:30am: Wake up, have coffee, get hair/make-up/costume ready! The Hyatt Regency has a 24 hour coffee bar (with a soy milk option for my other non-dairy coffee lovers), which made mornings a dream!
7:00am – 9:00pm: CARNIVAL TUESDAY!!!
*p.s. do not forget your cup!*
We picked up roti from Hott Shoppe and spent the day at Las Cuevas beach. It was a calm, go with the flow afternoon, just what we wanted. Anything relaxing is recommended!
We had a perfect Thursday morning leisurely drinking coffee by the pool and slowly packing before heading off to the airport – I think we would do this again! (scroll down for tips on how to fly home with your costume)
Fetes are happening morning, day, and night! You can hit as many as 3 fetes a day! There are boat ride fetes starting from 7am on Saturday, “Breakfast Parties” starting at 3am on Sunday morning, as well as daytime and evening fetes happening each day. Be sure to purchase tickets early! Prices are listed in TTD.
We ate most of our meals at the Hyatt Regency. Our breakfast was included in the price of the hotel room, and the waterfront lounge was an incredibly beautiful and easy way to spend our evenings. Live music was performed nightly, and the menu was delicious and healthy. Prices ran about $35 USD minimum per person for 1 entree and 2 drinks. Meals we grabbed locally, such as roti and doubles, ran from $4-$8 USD per person.
1.) Airport: Taxi’s are readily available outside of the airport. It was $30 – $35 from the airport to the Hyatt Regency, and approximately a 30min drive.
2.) Picking Up Your Costume: The Hyatt Regency provided a shuttle service to Tribe’s distribution center (and even waited for us! We were incredibly thankful!). The bus was large enough to hold ALL of our gigantic feathered wings, as well as a few other girls’ costumes!
3.) Getting To And From The Parade: This was a dream experience from the Hyatt Regency. The hotel provided shuttles to our band’s designated start location on both days (perfect, as our wings would not have fit in a typical car!) They also provided pick-up service throughout the day at designated locations.
4.) Hiring a driver for the day: This was also extremely easy at the Hyatt Regency, as drivers were lined up outside at all hours of the day. Typical rates are per person by the hour. It’s best to discuss the itinerary and set the price beforehand. $150 for five people for the day is an acceptable rate.
What Is The Difference Between Carnival Monday and Carnival Tuesday?
Carnival Monday feels like a dress rehearsal of Carnival Tuesday. Everything is the same (same trucks, same music, same route, same people!), with the exception that on Monday, you will wear your “Monday Wear”, and on Tuesday, you will wear the costume you purchased.
What is Monday Wear?
If I learned anything this year, it is about Monday Wear! Tuesday is the easiest day to understand – we purchased our costumes 8 months ago, and we know exactly what to expect. Monday, however, was a complete enigma to us, but here’s the basic idea: you can wear whatever you want on Monday!
I saw everything from gorgeous neon one-pieces, to bedazzled bikinis, to groups of girls with coordinated outfits, and all else in between. The only thing you can’t be, is boring. For next year, I love the idea of our group selecting a color scheme, and each creating our own look based on the style we like best.
(Check out Everything You Need To Know About Trinidad & Tobago Carnival (pt.II) for to see what we wore to Carnival Monday the next year!)
Tips While On The Road Monday And Tuesday:
– Wristbands: Put your wristband on Sunday night and don’t take it off until Wednesday!
– Walk With Your Cup: Always bring your cup with you!
– Drink Carts: Get your drinks whenever you see the bar carts available, as they tend to disappear throughout the route.
– Stay Hydrated: The road is HOT!! Please remember you are in a tropical environment performing high cardio, and it is extremely easy to become dehydrated! Drink at least 2 cups of coconut or regular water per 1 alcoholic drink, and ensure your besties are doing the same.
– Select A Meeting Point: It’s inevitable to lose someone during the day. Create an obvious meeting point, such as truck #2.
– Lunch: You will get an hour for lunch, use that time to rest your feet and/or take a quick cat nap!
– Sunscreen: Sunscreen up thoroughly, both days!
– Costumes: If your costume happens to snap, don’t stress out! Enjoy the moment and continue to have a wonderful experience!
Tips for Carnival Monday:
– Shoes: Wear your most comfortable shoes on Monday. (if you take away one thing from this post, please make it this one!)
– Hats: Match a cute hat or visor to your outfit to protect your face from the sun.
– Bags: Match a fanny pack to your outfit to hold the essentials: room key, cellphone, and sunscreen.
– Sunscreen: Lather yourself with sunscreen all day long (especially your shoulders). More than likely your Tuesday costume will be of a different style, and you don’t want tan lines from your Monday Wear.
Tips for Carnival Tuesday:
– Take Off Your Wings: The back piece may begin to hurt/bruise/chafe your shoulders after awhile. The good news is, you don’t have to wear your backpack/wings all day long. Bands will tag your wings and hang them on the truck for you to collect later on that evening. (After you pass the stage of course!)
– Bring Your Smaller Headpiece: Switch to your smaller headpiece after you cross the stage.
– HAVE AN AMAZING TIME!!!
The Great Debate: To Wear Tights or Not To Wear Tights?
The easy answer is, there is no wrong answer! It’s completely up to you! I noticed about 75% with tights and 25% without in our band. We forgot to purchase tights (oops!), and therefore went without them this year. I particularly loved the nude fishnet stockings with the hint of gold shimmer. Next year, I will treat them as an accessory and pair them with my Monday Wear.
Let’s chat about shoes, because this is possibly the most important decision you’ll make all week. This was a big deal, and I learned a lot, and luckily for you – you can now run a carnival mile in my shoes. First and foremost, no matter what, your feet are going to hurt! Even in flats. Once you know that, you can try these two tricks to help lessen the aches:
1.) Purchase 1/2 to 1 size up from your normal shoe size (if you’re a 7 US, purchase a 7.5 US or an 8 US), and place a gel insole inside (pre-purchase your gel insole and take it with you when you go to buy shoes!).
2.) Monday, wear your most comfortable pair of sneakers (that match your outfit, of course), and on Tuesday, wear your fancy shoes/boots. (note: you will get hotter in boots, and your knees and calves will sweat) The overall key is to keep your feet feeling wonderful for Tuesday!
You have two options for make-up on Monday and Tuesday:
1.) Hire A Make-up Artist (booked far in advance!)
2.) Do Your Own Make-up (I pulled out all of my Miss Universe make-up tricks!) If you would like to do your own make- up, be sure to pack a shine and sweat proof primer. I linked exactly what I used below:
What Should I Pack?
– Emergency Costume Kit: super glue, hot glue gun, safety pins (in the color of your costume), small scissors, travel sewing kit (with thread in the color of your costume), nude nipple pasties (2 pairs), gel insoles (2 pairs), large flexible bandaids, blister cushion bandaids, and heel cushion bandaids. (If you pack enough for you and all of your besties, they’ll love you forever!)
– Medical Kit: Neosporin, cough drops, indigestion relief, immunity boosters like elderberry syrup and vitamin C spray, thermometer, Advil, melatonin spray, etc.
– Sunscreen: Sunscreen, Sunscreen, and more Sunscreen! (I linked my favorites below)
– After Sun Lotion/Aloe Vera: Lather up every night before bed, as it’s an intense few days in the sun!
– Stockings: 2 x Nude Fishnet Tights with sparkles or rhinestones
– Rhinestones: 3 x Rhinestone Face Sets (1 for Monday Wear, 1 for Carnival Tuesday, 1 for Costume photos)
– Accessories: Coordinating Hat/Visor + Fanny Pack for Monday Wear
– Optional: Mini-Steamer
Before You Go:
– Jewelry: Remove all expensive and sentimental jewelry. Carnival is not the time to flaunt valuables.
– Passport: Take a copy of your passport and put it in your hotel safety deposit box.
– Currency: Trinidad accepts USD, however you can exchange your currency to TTD at the airport upon arrival.
– Cell Phone: Get an international plan for your cell phone, or plan on purchasing a SIM card at the airport. If you only end up using it for social media, that’s great, but it’s always important to be able to make a call in case of emergencies.
Piarco International Airport will fold and wrap your wings for you upon arrive, significantly reducing the size, and allowing you to check in your wrapped costume as luggage. We folded and wrapped all 3 of our wings together to count it as one check-in piece. Price is $40 USD per wrapping.
I hope this answered all of your questions while you prepare for one of the most amazing experiences of your life! If I missed anything, feel free to ask me in the comments below! Wishing you all the most wonderful T&T Carnival experience, and I hope to see you playing mas in 2020!