Caribbean Carnival

Practical Tips

Everything you need to know about carnival in the Caribbean

I have been fortunate enough to experience firsthand the magic and excitement of a Caribbean carnival. The vibrant colors, infectious music, and energetic dance moves all come together to create an unforgettable celebration of culture. From the world-renowned grandeur of Trinidad & Tobago’s Carnival to the more laid-back festivities in Jamaica and Barbados, the joy and spirit of the Caribbean carnival is something that can’t be missed. While the experience can seem overwhelming at first, it helps to have a carnival glossary to understand the various customs and traditions that make each celebration unique. So if you’re looking to immerse yourself in the colorful and dynamic world of Caribbean carnivals, check my practical tips, read the glossary below, pack your bags, and get ready for a journey filled with music, dance, and endless fun.

Get ready for the Caribbean carnivals

Now, if you’re new to the scene, it’s important to understand the terms used during the event. Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered with a carnival glossary to help you navigate the festivities.

If you are ready for your once-in-a-lifetime carnival experience, check out my insider tips on how to carnival in Jamaica:

About Caribbean carnivals bands

At the center of it all Caribbean carnivals are the carnival bands, well-oiled machines composed of talented designers, artists, DJs, and bartenders, all dedicated to giving you an unforgettable parade experience. As a masquerader, you’re in for a treat. You’ll be decked out in a costume that brings a unique theme to life, and you’ll enjoy all the amenities that the band has to offer, from food and drinks to music and security.

Jumping with a band

“Are you jumping this season?” Is quite a frequent question during carnival season. It means “are you joining a band for the mas”.

Soca Music

Originating from Trinidad, Soca is the perfect blend of calypso and soul music, which has become an essential part of the Caribbean culture. The iconic rhythms of Soca can be heard in various Carnivals around the world, but it all kicks off in Trinidad. Each year, Soca artistes release new hits to keep the crowds dancing all throughout the Caribbean Carnival season. Soca music brings people together and creates an unforgettable atmosphere that celebrates the vibrant cultures of the Caribbean.

Steel Pan

When I first witnessed a steel pan in Tobago I was absolutely mesmerized. The history of steel pans can be traced back to the African slaves that were brought to the islands in the 1700s. These individuals brought with them their love for music, and often played hand drums during celebrations like the Caribbean carnival. However, the British High Commission banned the use of all skinned instruments in the Caribbean after several unsuccessful revolts were organized through drum communication. Thus, this setback led to the creation of the steel pan – a testament to the resilience and creativity of the enslaved Africans in the Caribbean.

Carnival in Kingston, Jamaica 2023
Us at mas camp devon house Carnival in Jamaica, Kingston

About Caribbean road marches


Mas is the energetic and vibrant street parade that marks the exciting culmination of Carnival festivities in the Caribbean.

Playing Mas

“Are you playing mas?” Means “Are you going a band to parade on the streets?

Mas Camp

The meeting point of the bands during the road march. At this year’s carnival in Jamaica, Devon House made for a stunning mas camp!


People dressing up to participate in mas


Basically a different term for masqueraders

About Caribbean Carnival costumes


Are you ready to take your carnival costume to the next level? A backpack will do that for you! While they are undoubtedly pricey and somewhat uncomfortable, wearing a backpack is a pretty cool experience! So a backpack in the carnival sense refers to the feathers which can be added to your costumes.


While the frontline is the star of the show, Backline is a pared-down version of the section. Don’t mistake Backline for a lesser version of the costume, though. These costumes still boast impressive detail, just with a more pared-down look. It’s a true art form, with designers and artists pouring their hearts and souls into every stunning piece.


Frontline costumes are the dazzling stars of the show, with their elaborate designs and attention to detail. These creations are the epitome of extravagance and creativity, with intricate designs that are sure to turn heads. From feathers to beads to sequins, these costumes are decorated to the nines, and there are often multiple variations of the designs for each section.


Frufru refers to all the little embellishments and extras that make a carnival costume truly stands out. Whether you’re a veteran or a newbie, one thing’s for sure: you need a costume that’ll make you stand out from the crowd. And what better way to do that than with a carnival costume that’s loaded with frufru?

me at Jamaica's carnival in Kingston wearing an Xodus costume

Caribbean carnival season

Pre-carnival parties are not your typical evening out. They are not just about good music and drinks; they are about letting loose, feeling alive, and experiencing the ultimate expression of Caribbean culture. There are tons of special events going on in the weeks leading up to the big road march. Personal tip: Try to attend as many different kinds of fêtes as possible!

Carnival party in jamaica

Caribbean carnival parties


If you’re not familiar with the term, a Fête is more than just a party – it’s an experience. In the Caribbean, a Fête is synonymous with carnival. Fêtes are the hallmark events of any carnival season in the Caribbean, and they are not your typical parties. They are not just about good music and drinks; they are about letting loose, feeling alive, and experiencing the ultimate expression of Caribbean culture.

Cooler Fete

Cooler Fête are parties to which you bring your own cooler including hard liquor. A lot of times tickets for cooler Fêtes will be more expensive for that reason. It’s very much fun to go as a group!

Carnival cruise

Cruise parties are super fun and beautiful. As a result, they are usually the first ones to be sold out. So make sure to get the tickets early!

Everything you need to know about J’ouvert:

Derived from French and Creole, the name J’ouvert means “Daybreak” or “break of dawn.” J’ouvert is the kickoff to Carnival in the Caribbean and to me, it’s the highlight of carnival season – a time to let your hair down and fully embrace the party atmosphere. J’ouvert you are waking up at the break of dawn to partake in a celebration that involves getting dirty with paint, mud, and powder. The celebration usually starts at 2 am and ends with sunrise. J’ouvert is a truly unique expression of Caribbean culture and heritage, and a testament to the resilience, creativity, and spirit of its people.


The Caribbean Carnival is a monumental celebration of culture, vibrancy, and diversity, and J’ouvert stands as one of its most iconic components. But few celebrations are as steeped in tradition as J’ouvert, a pre-dawn street party that originated in Trinidad in the 1800s. The festival evolved from the Canboulay celebrations, where landowners imitated their enslaved staff. Following emancipation, the formerly enslaved turned the tables, imitating their former masters imitating them. Today, J’ouvert is a highly symbolic and deeply rooted celebration of Caribbean culture and heritage. Mud mas is one of the most popular ways to participate, where Jab Jabs cover themselves and others in paint, mud, or anything they can get their hands on. 

me at Jouvert in Jamaica

Caribbean carnival characters

Caribbean Carnival is not simply about the music and the revelry. It’s about the traditions and stories behind the unique characters that participate. The striking and often surreal masquerades give cause for fascination and exploration into their backgrounds, which are often passed down through generations. Each portrayal has its own tale, long-established customs, and specific traits. For many individuals who don the costumes, playing a specific character is a lifelong dedication and a tribute to their culture’s values. The masquerades can be traced back to times when “mas’ for money” was the norm, with some masqueraders using skills such as humor or theatrical performances to earn some cash. From the sly and cunning Jab Jab to the brave and heroic Jab Molassie, each character brings their own tale to life and offers an entertaining and dynamic experience that everyone can enjoy. Here are some well-known charcters:

Jab Molassie

A devilish figure covered in tar, grease, lard, and bright dyes. This particular version of devil mas is a staple in Trinidad and Tobago Carnival, where it roams the streets of Port-of-Spain in all its fiery glory. Grenada even has its own version of the Jab Jab tradition.


This character is also known as the Gownman or the Ruler, and his costume is awe-inspiring. Dressed in Tudor-style pants or a richly embroidered gown made of velvet and satin, the Bookman carries a pen and a large book, wherein he inscribes the names of prospective souls for the devil. But it’s his oversized head mask that captures your attention, with its small horns and demonic expression. The face of this mask is meant to mirror that of the devil himself, and the Bookman’s waltz-like movements add to the eeriness of his character. The accompanying orchestra, playing conventional tunes on trumpets, saxophones, bass, and drums, only adds to the atmosphere. Seeing the Bookman in all his splendor is an experience you won’t forget.

Dame Lorraine

At the center of it all Caribbean carnivals are the carnival bands, well-oiled machines composed of talented designers, artists, DJs, and bartenders, all dedicated to giving you an unforgettable parade experience. As a masquerader, you’re in for a treat. You’ll be decked out in a costume that brings a unique theme to life, and you’ll enjoy all the amenities that the band has to offer, from food and drinks to music and security.


The bat costume is a truly striking sight, with its tight black or brown fit, swansdown headpiece, and wire and bamboo wings that can extend up to an impressive 12 to 15 feet. The masquerader’s arms are fastened to the wings to help them flap and fold in choreographed movements that mimic the real-life bat’s flight. The dance that accompanies the costume is a marvel to watch, as the masquerader crawls, dances on their toes, and morphs into the bat through the power of their performance.

Moko Jumbie

As a lover of the Caribbean carnival and all its vibrant characters, I have to say that the Moko Jumbie is one of my favorites. It’s amazing to think that this masquerade has its origins in West African tradition, with the name Moko coming from the god and diviner of the Congo language. The added term “jumbie” or ghost by freed slaves only adds to the mystique surrounding this towering figure on stilts. I love how the height of the stilts was believed to be associated with the Moko Jumbie’s ability to foresee evil faster than ordinary men, making it a protector of the village. And let’s not forget about the costume – the brightly colored skirt or pants, jacket, and elaborate hat are all part of what makes this mas so eye-catching. Watching the Moko Jumbie dance through the streets all day, collecting money from people on balconies and upper floors, is truly a sight to behold. It’s no wonder the Moko Jumbie remains a beloved feature of Caribbean carnivals to this day.

Practical travel tips for Kingston & Jamaica

Which language is spoken in Jamaica?


The official language is English, but you'll also hear Jamaican Patois spoken throughout the country. It's a colorful and vibrant mix of English, West African languages, and Spanish influences. Don't be afraid to interact with locals and try out some basic phrases in Patois - they'll appreciate the effort and you may even learn a thing or two.

What is the offical currency in Jamaica?


The Jamaican dollar is the official currency and is accepted everywhere on the island. However, US dollars are widely accepted as well, so it's always a good idea to have some cash in both currencies. You can easily exchange your money at banks or ATMs throughout the city. Just be aware that the exchange rate may vary, so it's best to check before making a transaction. Also, don't forget to tip - it's customary in Jamaica and greatly appreciated by service industry workers. So make sure you have some small bills on hand for tipping at restaurants, bars, and hotels.

What is the best time to visit Kingston?


The climate stays pleasant all year round. It might rain a bit more during hurricane season from June to September, but you still won't get bored on rainy days!

Kingston is home to many festival and events, so if you want to check them out, plan your dates accordingly.

Is Kingston safe for travelers?


Downtown Kingston is not the place to just stroll around without knowing anybody. Uptown Kingston is much safer and easier to move around. Generally speaking, Kingston is not the place for walking anywhere after dark, and its best to move around with a driver you know.

Public Transport in Kingston, Jamaica


Route Taxis are the way to move around Jamaica. Official route taxis have a red license plate. In MoBay, you'll see the route they are catering to written on the doors. Route taxis are the cheapest and most flexible way to move around. Just be careful to enter/exit on the route. Otherwise, you'll be charged as a charter taxi. In Kingston, the Route Taxis are not as obvious, but they drive the most prominent streets and honk to let you know they are available.

Public Bus: The stop for buses to leave from downtown. I couldn't find a schedule. They seem to go more frequently than the Knutsford.
Knutsford: Leaving from from the downtown station, Jamaica's luxury bus connects more significant destinations. Be aware that the time stated refers to calculated driving time and not the actual time to reach a destination. Adding to the driving time are stops and bus switches which are not apparent when buying the ticket. Due to Covid, there are fewer buses than usual, so buying the ticket online is better.

Can I drink tap water in Jamaica?


Even though Jamaica is considered a third-world country, it provides the best water quality in the region. You are, therefore, safe to drink tap water. This is especially true in the cities. However, if it makes you feel uneasy, bring a water purifier.

What's the biggest challenge for the conscious traveler?


Tourism leakage: Jamaica is a tropical paradise that's adored by tourists worldwide, but it has a problem that's hidden from sight - tourism leakage. This phenomenon refers to the loss of revenue that occurs when international hotel chains capture a large chunk of tourist dollars, leaving very little money behind to benefit the local economy. If you're among the millions of visitors who flock to Jamaica every year, there's a simple way to help mitigate the effects of tourism leakage: support Jamaican-owned hotels, shops, and restaurants. By doing so, you can put your money where your heart is - and give the people of Jamaica a chance to thrive. So don't be shy about seeking out local businesses on your next vacation. Your decision to keep tourism dollars within Jamaica could make a world of difference.

Beach access

While Jamaica is known for its beautiful beaches, there have been some issues with access to these public spaces. In recent years, many resorts and private properties have restricted access to certain parts of the beach, making it incredibly difficult for locals to maintain their life and right to the sea. Support public beaches and say no to all-inclusive tourism!


Make sure to bring a foldable food container and cutlery with you! The amount of waste caused by food sold on the street is incredible.


Make sure to protect Jamaica's marine life and bring reef-friendly sunscreen!

tanzania travel Zanzibar beaches

Packing List Jamaica

As you see, there are plenty of things to experience in Jamaica. To come fully prepared, check out my packing list for Jamaica, which includes everything from eco-friendly toiletries to sustainable fashion and even the coolest travel gadgets!

Things to do in Jamaica

No matter how often you return to Jamaica, you will never get bored!