Welcome to Soca Kingdom! A First Timer's Guide to Trinidad Carnival

Photo Credit: @yumavibe

From costumes to fetes, Trinidad Carnival is truly the greatest show on earth.
Anquanette Gaspard Feb, 12, 2019

One cannot say they’ve experienced a true Caribbean Carnival until they’ve been to “The Mother of all West Indian Carnivals” – Trinidad Carnival (February 27 – March 6, 2019)! Infused with the rhythms of soca, this electrifying genre of music is the soundtrack to this travel bucket list event that combines East Indian and African rhythms with Calypso. From masquerade and J’ouvert bands to boat rides, cooler fetes, and all-inclusive parties, this is the ultimate guide to everything there is to know about Trinidad Carnival.

Photo Credit: @hello_thevito

Preparing to Go

RELATED: A First Timer's Guide to St. Croix Carnival

RELATED: A First Timer’s Guide To Visiting Miami Carnival

Now that you’ve made the decision to attend Trinidad Carnival, it’s important to get prepared for this trip because it will challenge you both physically and mentally. Remember this a marathon, not a sprint. There will be nonstop partying from 4 am to 12 pm followed by another party from 5 pm to 1 am. You’ll be drinking copious amounts of alcohol and getting little to no sleep. It’s important to pace yourself during carnival. Speak to your doctor about ways to build up your immune system, many people take extra doses of Vitamin C, multivitamins and Echinacea leading up to departure. Dr. Rhadi Ferguson, author of The Ultimate Road Ready Guide: PACE!, recommends walking a half marathon training program to prepare for Trinidad Carnival. This might seem like an extreme measure but it is imperative to have high metabolism in order to survive the entire event.

Photo Credit: @trinidadandtobagorocks

Arrival

RELATED: Global King of Carnival DJ Private Ryan's Best Advice On Visiting Miami Carnival or Your First Fete

Nonstop flights from the states and Canada to Trinidad’s Piarco International Airport (POS) are the norm from major cities like New York City, Toronto, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, and Houston. If traveling from other locations in the U.S., you’re almost guaranteed to have a connecting flight either in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, or New York City. American Airlines, JetBlue, Caribbean Airlines, and United Airlines are a few of the major carriers most visitors book for their trip. Believe it or not, the cost of the flight is often the cheapest expense of the trip with advanced planning. However if you haven’t purchased your ticket by now and can still find an available seat, expect to pay upwards of $800-$1200+ round-trip per person.

Photo Credit: @j.audain.photography

Bonus Tip: Roaming charges are no fun to return to after an epic Trinidad Carnival experience. Be sure to get a local SIM card from one of their mobile carriers within the airport terminal. Your phone must be unlocked in order to use a foreign SIM card. Purchase an unlocked phone on eBay or Groupon instead of using your regular phone in the likely event you lose it. Also, grab a few bottles of your preferred spirit from the duty-free shops in the airport because they’ll be more expensive if you purchase it within the city. You’ll need these bottles for the cooler fetes you’ll be attending while you’re here. More on that later!

Photo Credit: @siriandavis_

Where To Stay

Supply and demand is the name of the game for Trinidad Carnival. This means finding accommodations will be one of the trickiest parts of planning your trip (the other is securing fete tickets). Well-known hotel chains such as Courtyard by Marriott Port of Spain, Hyatt Regency Trinidad, and Hilton Trinidad are usually sold out approximately 3-4 months before carnival begins. Luckily, there are some smaller boutique hotels like Kapok Hotel, Monique Guest House and Coblentz Inn Boutique Hotel that are available for bookings during the season. However, your best bet would be securing a villa, house, or apartment for rent and splitting the costs with your group. Carnival concierge services like Carnival Jumpers and  The Carnival Connection can make the hunt easier with packages that include your accommodations, transportation, fete tickets and much more.

Photo Credit: Carnival Jumpers

Transportation

There is no shortage of drivers for hire in Trinidad during carnival season. Once you exit the terminal at POS, there will be a myriad of drivers waiting to transport people to their accommodations. Taxis are not metered; therefore confirm your fare with the driver in advance. Carnival-goers can secure a driver(s) during their stay so they can have a go-to arrangement to take them from one fete to the next. Chat up your taxi driver and see if they’d be willing to offer this service to you. Another option would be the use of rideshare apps such as Drop TT . It is highly discouraged to rent a car during Trinidad Carnival. Between the constant traffic, driving on the left, and the limited amount of sleep you’ll be getting, it’s a recipe for disaster.

Photo Credit: @teamdwp

Carnival Costumes

You can’t come to Trinidad Carnival and not play “mas” on Carnival Monday and Tuesday. “Playing mas” is where you get dressed up in a masquerade costume complete with feathers, jewels, beads and more. Registering for an all-inclusive band is the way to go for Trinidad Carnival. The cost includes costume, food, alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, security, music, and on-site paramedics.

Photo Credit: @adashoftwo

The larger all-inclusive bands such as Tribe, Bliss, and Fantasy are difficult to get into as a first-timer because registration is via a committee member. This means you have to know a committee member, know someone who knows one, or using a concierge service like the ones mentioned above, in order to register. Costumes in these bands sell out quickly but there are a number of other reputable bands carnival-goers can join. Harts, Paparazzi Carnival, Passion Carnival, and Utopia Mas are a few of many options to choose from.

If you have your heart set on playing with one of the sold out bands, a quick scroll through FineAhBan.com will often reveal a number of costumes for sale. This resale website is used when travel arrangements fall through and someone is unable to attend Trinidad Carnival for unknown reasons. They use this site to resell costumes or fete tickets in an attempt to recoup as much money as possible.

Photo Credit: @nutrids

Fete After Fete

You came to Trinidad Carnival to FETE aka to party. The fetes will most definitely be the highlight of your carnival experience. All-inclusive fetes average around $125-$150 US Dollars. These parties often feature an assortment of food options and premium alcohol, which is what demands the steeper ticket price. Other fete options include boat rides, cooler fetes (where you bring your own alcohol and ice) and drink inclusive fetes (where food is available for sale). Ticket prices for these will range from $65-$100 US Dollars.

Photo Credit: @teamdwp

Keep in mind that soca music is the soundtrack to the carnival season. You’ll want to brush up on all the new songs for the season. Download and listen to mixes like Soca Starter 2019 from DJ Private Ryan or 2019 Soca Switch from DJ Jel.

Much like carnival costumes, some fetes are almost impossible to get into unless you have a connection with a committee member or purchase early. For example, Soca Brainwash hosted by DJ Private Ryan is one fete that sells out within minutes after tickets go on sale online. However, there are fete tickets that you can easily purchase without needing an “in.” For the most comprehensive list of all Trinidad Carnival events, check out Ticket Federation for links to purchase and reserve tickets online. Tribe Ignite, A.M. Beach, Phuket, and Sunny Side Up are great fete options with online tickets still available.

Photo Credit: @hello_thevito

Bonus Tip: Be sure to dress for comfort. You’ll be jumping and dancing for hours on end so you’ll want to wear comfortable shoes at all times. Also, leave the camouflage attire at home because it is illegal to wear camouflage or other military attire in Trinidad and Tobago. This is attire is reserved only for local police officers.

Photo Credit: Carnival Luxe

J’ouvert

Trinidad Carnival is incomplete without the mud, oil, paint, and powder that accompany the bacchanal of J’ouvert morning. J’ouvert (pronounced jou-vay) is a large street party that is the official start of the two-day carnival celebrations. The word derives from the French phrase “jour ouvert” that means dawn or daybreak. At 4 am on Carnival Monday, revelers take to the streets before the parade to jump, dance and get on bad alongside music trucks blasting the intoxicating soca music you’ve been inundated with all carnival season.

Photo Credit: @teamdwp

Much like “playing mas”, revelers can “play J’ouvert” by joining a J’ouvert band. The cost of registration includes a t-shirt or bodysuit outfit, breakfast, unlimited alcoholic, and non-alcoholic drinks, music, and of course, paint and powder. One band, Cocoa Devils, uses a cocoa powder mixture (yes, you read that correctly) in lieu of paint and powder. There are a number of J’ouvert bands to consider but online registration might be a challenge after a certain time. If you still haven’t registered by the time you read this, you might have to wait until touching down in Trinidad to determine which bands still have spots available and go from there.

Bonus Tip: Wear shoes and clothing you won’t mind throwing away when it’s all over. The last thing you want is your favorite pair of sneakers to be destroyed after J’ouvert.

Photo Credit: @trinijunglejuice

Local Foods

Trinidadian cuisine is some of the best in the Caribbean. There are often a number of street vendors throughout the island selling an assortment of mouthwatering local dishes. Take a quick stop around Queen’s Park Savannah to get your fill from anything ranging from doubles and roti to corn soup and aloo pie. Doubles are considered the ultimate street food in Trinidad since you literally eat it on the spot. It consists of two pieces of fried bread (hence the name) filled with channa (curried chickpeas). The handheld sandwich is then topped with cucumber slaw, delicious mango or tamarind chutney, a cilantro-based sauce known as shado beni and your preference of hot sauce: no pepper, slight pepper or plenty pepper!

Photo Credit: Carnival Luxe

Another must when in Trinidad for carnival is a bake and shark. Locals will tell you the best ones are found on Maracas Bay Beach but you can find it just about anywhere on the island. This Trini sandwich of sorts is made with a light, airy bread and pieces of perfectly seasoned fried shark meat. Your choice of toppings is endless with lettuce, slaw mix, tomato, pineapple and an assortment of sauces like tamarind, garlic, and shado beni. Pair this with a Red Solo – a saccharine sorrel soda – and you’ve got yourself a meal.

Photo Credit: @BlissCarnivaltt

Carnival Monday and Tuesday

The climax of Trinidad Carnival is finally here – Carnival Monday and Tuesday! These are the days when you chip and dance down the road with your masquerade band for the parade. For two days, you dance through the streets of Port of Spain alongside your band as various DJs and artists perform throughout the day. The drink trucks provide you with alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks all day long. A stop for lunch midway allows for masqueraders to recharge and freshen up. After lunch, the party continues along the parade route until 8 or 9 pm.

Photo Credit: @nutrids

On Carnival Monday, the festivities usually begin around 10 am. It was previously known to be the casual day where masqueraders can wear basic shorts and a t-shirt or tank top. In recent years, Monday Wear has erupted on the scene. Ladies wear decorated monokinis and bikinis designed by the region’s most fashion-forward designers.

Carnival Tuesday is the showstopper day where masqueraders don their beautiful costumes embellished with feathers, beads, and jewels. Many women get their makeup professionally done to ensure they look their best on the road. Some men get elaborate airbrush designs done along their arms and back.

Photo Credit: Carnival Luxe

For many, crossing the stage is the highlight of their experience on the road for Carnival Monday & Tuesday. This is when each masquerade band gets to display their costumes to judges in their quest to claim the Band of the Year title. For masqueraders, this is their opportunity to “get on bad” as the season’s most popular soca songs blast from oversized speakers. Put on your best wine and have the time of your life as you jump, dance and wave with your closest friends.

Photo Credit: @jason.portraits

Bonus Tip: You cannot outdrink the drinks truck; it will always win. You need not try and drink all the alcohol available while on the road. Although alcohol is pouring freely at all times, it is important to remain hydrated throughout the day. Follow the 1:1 rule – one bottle of water for every alcoholic drink consumed. Also, keep in mind that 35,000+ people descend onto Trinidad and Tobago for the carnival season. Remain safe; travel in groups and be aware of your surroundings at all times.

Photo Credit: Carnival Luxe

Finally, remember to have fun! This carnival is the greatest show on earth, so go on an live your best life enjoying every second because trust us – Trinidad Carnival will be an experience unlike any other you’ve ever had.