This morning as we were walking the dogs down Paseo Montejo, we noticed names and booth numbers hand-painted in white along the sidewalk, a sure sign that Carnaval is coming. In a week, Paseo Montejo will be mostly be closed to traffic for a week and vendor booths will be selling everything from Coke to cochinita.
If this is your first Carnaval in Merida, get ready because you are in for an experiencial treat. Carnaval in Merida is a week-long party in the Centro, featuring a parade every day, music and dancing all night, and enough food and drink to satiate the most Bacchanalean spirit. Carnaval in Merida is also a G-rated family affair – unlike many of the famous celebrations in New Orleans or Rio de Janeiro – where the children get to share in the fun and even have their own parade.
Carnaval 2007 begins on February 14, also Dia de la Amistad (Day of Friendship, which is the Mexican version of Valentine’s Day), with the Quema de Mal Humor (Burning of the Bad Moods) in the Plaza Grande. Starting at about 7 pm, the zocalo will be filled with dance and music. It will be everyone’s first glimpse of the King and Queen of Carnaval, as well as the Children’s King and Queen. And it will end with an actual burning, as well as a show of fireworks. After that, no one is allowed to be in a bad mood for a week! Okay?
On Thursday, the Children’s Parade starts at 4 pm. It will start on Calle 63 at Calle 62 and proceed around the zocalo and then up Calle 60. This is a newer, shorter route that they tried last year and is a big improvement. The first year we saw the Children’s Parade, the route for this parade was the same as the route for all the parades, and the kids were passing out from heat exhaustion sometimes even before they reached the center of town. It’s hard to say which parade is better, but we are particularly fond of the kid’s version of Mardi Gras. Mothers must spend all year working on their costumes and the mini-matadors, dancers, onions, zebras and other strange characters we have seen are not to be missed.
Friday is the beginning of the main parade, which is repeated four times: Friday night, Saturday night, Sunday at noon and Tuesday at noon. They all have different names, and there are some slight differences, but in our experience it’s the same parade, different day. Which isn’t to say you don’t want to enjoy it multiple times. The parade starts at the Monumento a la Patria (the big monument across from McDonald’s on Paseo Montejo) and ends at Parque San Juan. And usually the entire route, at least all the way to the zocalo, is packed with people. They’re there to watch, dance and scream and to catch the goodies thrown from the floats.
Most of the floats are sponsored by corporations, which initially struck us as incredibly… well, CORPORATE. But now we realize that is just the way it is. The corporations help fund the fun and who are we to complain? So instead of beads, the crowd is screaming for plastic cups with a Coca Cola logo or Donde keychains. One year, someone was throwing out toilet paper rolls. Muy raro, but all in good fun.
Monday night’s parade is called Desfile Regional (the Regional Parade) and it is also well worth seeing. In between the corporate floats, instead of local dance troups dressed in glittery dance costumes, you’ll see groups of local men and women dressed in huipiles and guayaberas, interspersed with calesas, payasos and more, all strutting to old-fashioned Yucatecan music. In the past, the Regional Parade has conjured some charming moments.
The party isn’t all about parades, of course. When there isn’t a parade, Paseo Montejo is alive with food and drink concessions and a different band is stationed every two or three blocks. For those of us who live near Paseo Montejo, the noise just never stops. But don’t let the noise stop you… get into the spirit! Where else can you see so many people having such a good time and not be in any kind of danger? Where else can you find a five-foot tall Mayan woman with green hair who asks you to dance? When else can you stroll up and down Paseo Montejo and enjoy the people and architecture without dodging cars and busses?
Carnaval is a week of fun and entertainment, and has been going on in Merida for decades. Merida is, in fact, one of the few cities in the world with such a big Carnaval celebration. On the official website, Jorge Alvarez Rendón, the official city historian, writes (in Spanish of course) that the parades used to be unofficial and very haphazard. Young people would ride along the avenues throwing out confetti, flowers and sometimes eggs filled with flour or polvo de añil (blue dye). Of course, the blue dye often landed on people’s faces or hair, which wasn’t always appreciated, but it was tolerated, as this was widely accepted as a week of desenfrenos (literally, without brakes, but it means "with abandon").
Interestingly, the city historian mentions that the "abandon" of Carnaval isn’t the same anymore, as we live in a time when so much is permitted and accepted. In earlier times, there were stricter rules and codes that people lived by, so to have a week of unrestraint meant a lot more. From our Working Gringo’s perspective, it seems to us that working at a desk or behind a computer is just a new kind of strictness and a week long party is still a welcome relief.
The last night of Carnaval brings the party full-circle, with the Quema de Juan Carnaval (the Burning of Joe (ok, John) Carnaval). One last conflagration and send-up. Now the party is over… back to work (and on to Lent, if you’re Catholic).
If you’re in town for Carnaval and want to see a parade, try to get to the side of the route at least an hour before it starts. There are some nice places to get above the parade (Ki’bok on Calle 60 is one), but there aren’t many. There are grandstands in the middle of Paseo Montejo which provide a place to sit. We think you can rent spaces with chairs along other parts of the route, but we have no idea how you go about doing that. Wear a wide-brimmed hat or bring an umbrella. You’ll be glad you did.
Over the next few days, barricades will start going up along Calle 60′s sidewalks and concession stands will start appearing along Paseo Montejo. The city is gearing up for – we’re sure – it’s biggest and best Carnaval ever. Each year the parade and the costumes have gotten better, so we’re looking forward to seeing what’s in store this year.
The first year we were here, during one of the parades, the skies poured down rain on everyone. Clouds of confetti shot from cannons on the floats became wads of confetti as they fell in wet clumps on the crowd. Working Gringo donned his wetsuit, mask and snorkel and watched the parade from the sidelines.. and no one even gave him a second look. It was his first week as a resident of Merida and Carnaval was somehow the perfect welcome.
When Carnaval comes to Merida, there really is magic in the streets!
- Merida’s official Carnaval website has maps of the parade routes and more
- Yucatan Living’s Carnaval Video
- Our Photo Gallery has more Carnaval scenes
- Last year’s Yucatan Living report on Carnaval 2006