Don’t let that winter blues bring you down: Better enjoy floats’n’festivities during carnival season 2024 in Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao! In this post, I’m telling you a bit about the history, I give you tips on where to see the best events and what to bring so you can enjoy the parades to the fullest.
The charm of the Caribbean carnival is immediately apparent to everyone: Dancing exuberantly on the streets in the sun while wearing tight, beautifully glittering costumes. Relishing delicious snacks and tasty cocktails: You can experience the authentic carnival on many Caribbean islands. In addition to the world-famous Brazilian carnival in Rio de Janeiro – about which I wrote a very critical post some time ago – the home of the Caribbean carnival is undisputedly Trinidad and Tobago. Sadly, I have read in several reliable, official sources that travelling to these islands can be indeed dangerous – and we’re not talking about petty pickpocketing here. After reading about how careful you need to be and that women travelling alone are particularly discouraged from staying in Trinidad and Tobago, I actually changed my travel plans for 2024 at short notice. But more on that another time.
Fortunately, Carnival is celebrated in many regions of the world in January and February of each year. The extremely colorful, extravagant, and therefore most popular celebrations undoubtedly take place on various Caribbean islands. Here, you can immerse yourself in a spectacular atmosphere and cultural diversity. The exciting parades in beautiful costumes and an ambiance characterized by happiness and exuberance are great reasons to spend these weeks in the Antilles.
The Caribbean Carnival is one big party!
Small street parties, the so-called jump-ups, take place in every neighborhood. But under no circumstances should you miss the highlights such as the election of carnival queens and kings and the spectacular parades!
The Caribbean is known for music like soca and calypso that leaves no one standing still. There are songs with subtly political lyrics that comment on social injustices. On the other hand, songs accompany the parades with their catchy rhythms and cheer the marchers up with cheeky lyrics. Mind you, they often have to endure hours in the blazing sun in magnificently feathered and sequined costumes.
Most often, a parade consists of up to 15 groups. Each group defines its own theme. Then, they decorate their floats and design their costumes accordingly. Some groups have up to a hundred members! They spend months devotedly practicing formations and crafting their magnificent glittering costumes. Some of these costumes are so huge and heavy that their wearers have to pull them behind them on small wheels.
Each group is stepping to the rhythm of its own band, which slowly rolls on a truck in front of or behind the dancers. Spectators from the side of the road cheer as the parade passes by. Especially when they spot friends in the crowd, the praise is deafening.
Yes, sometimes viewers have to wait up to a few hours for the parade to start. Finally, you should be there as early as possible, namely when there is nothing going on, to secure the best spot. Snacks’n’drinks and merry encounters make the waiting time a breeze.
In short: The Caribbean carnival is way too much fun to miss!
Aruba was actually one of the first islands in the Caribbean that opened its hearts’n’harbors to international visitors by installing well-working touristy infrastructures. Today, Aruba is an absolute A-Lister when it comes to a perfect vacation in the West Indies.
Most visitors are coming for the dreamy sand beaches. Nevertheless, Aruba is also a prime destination when it comes to powerful street art and carnival, obviously.
People of 108 different nationalities reside in Aruba. Each one of those different ex-pats had brought their national and even regional traditions and customs with them. And it was also the migrants who founded Aruba’s carnival!
Latin American immigrant workers introduced the first carnival celebrations in the former industrial town of San Nicolas. What back then began with a series of small street festivals became a huge extravaganza organized mainly by Caribbean-English immigrants celebrating the end of WWII.
However, the first traditional grand parades were organized only in 1957. Since then, there have been grand parades in two places, one in the capital Oranjestad, and another one in San Nicolas.
The official start of carnival season is in November. The majority of events, however, are held in January and February. Apart from the major extravaganzas, carnival mainly means weeks of smaller parties and celebrations. After the burning of King Momo on Sunday evening, the following Monday, the entire island goes on hiatus. As a matter of fact, it is an official public holiday.
Unfortunately, you cannot expect to experience carnival whenever you choose to visit the island since it’s a seasonal thing, obviously. But maybe you have the chance to plan your trip accordingly.
In 2024, the most important events are
- Saturday, February 10: Grand Carnival Parade in San Nicolas
- Sunday, February 11: Aruba’s Grand Carnival Parade in Oranjestad
- Sunday, February 11: Burning of Momo in Oranjestad
For the complete carnival schedule, check VisitAruba’s official website.
As I said, there is much to do besides lazing on powdery beaches. For inspiration and information, rush over to my post What Not to Miss in ARUBA, the Caribbean A-Lister.
Bonaire is the easternmost and middle-sized of the three ABC islands. With an area of almost 290 square kilometers, Bonaire has a population of about 20,000 people and 10,000 flamingos.
The island consists almost entirely of coral rock and is surrounded by reefs made up of about 60 different coral species. No wonder Bonaire is particularly famous for its rich underwater world and is therefore popular among divers.
Under normal circumstances, Bonaire is certainly not the right place for you party-seekers. But this changes during carnival season, obviously. Whereby, also this extravaganza has a rather private and cozy feel to it in Bonaire. The annual Carnival is a festival that grants locals and visitors an unforgettable traditional celebration.
The carnival season in Bonaire begins in early January when kids and adults participate in several activities and events such as the election of the Reina di Karnaval, hence, the carnival queen, and the Prens ku Pancho, which are the King and his sidekick. However, all these events finally climax in the Grand Parade.
Go With the Flow
During the entire carnival period, there are so-called jump-ups and jump-ins everywhere in Bonaire. These are public, more informal gatherings where people eat, drink and, above all, dance all night long to music from DJs and live bands. The Jump Ups will take place on February 2nd, 9th and 17th in 2024 with a Jump In taking place on February 10th.
Another highlight of the carnival season is the so-called Tumba Festival. Although Tumba songs have an upbeat, catchy rhythm, their lyrics convey socio-political messages regarding Bonaire.
The winning song of the Tumba Festival is played again and again during all festivals and of course in the parades. Here, you’ll understand the true meaning of the saying, when the song is nice, we have to play it twice. Oh, if only it stayed at twice!
In 2024, the Tumba Festivals will take place on February 4th and 5th.
The entire carnival season lasts from January 26th to February 21st.
Since the carnival is a seasonal thing in Bonaire, you might want to check out what there is to do on the island year-round. For inspiration and information, rush over to my post One Week in Bonaire – the Best Activities.
Curaçao is an island in the Caribbean that simply has it all. There are idyllic coves and secluded beaches, a fascinating history, great contemporary art, amazing food, and a capital city that UNESCO put on the list of World Heritage. Although Curaçao does not have those endless sand beaches that you’ll find in Aruba, there are tons of small bays and some very cool beach clubs where you can relax and go snorkeling right from the shore. Obviously, Curaçao is also famous for a liqueur that proudly bears the island’s beautiful name.
Like everywhere in the Caribbean, Carnival on Curaçao is a big celebration of music, dance, colors, and joy. In addition to smaller parties, the big parades are the most important part of the carnival season in Curaçao.
Carnival in Curaçao dates back to the early 20th century. Venezuelans, whose homeland is only around 60 kilometers away from Curaçao, brought this celebration from the South American mainland to the island. In 1901, they celebrated the first carnival on Curacao soil in a private, exclusive club. Word quickly spread about the uniqueness and exclusivity of this event and participation was very popular.
In 1947, the carnival moved to the streets of Curaçao. Today it is hard to imagine that it was a simple procession rather than an hour-long parade. Because of the enthusiasm of the people, the carnival quickly developed into an event that many people look forward to all year long. Today there is an extensive carnival in Curaçao that is brimming with creativity and joy of life. Every year, Curacao Carnival attracts thousands of locals and visitors from all over the world.
The traditional carnival season in Curaçao lasts six weeks in January and February in the weeks before Lent. During this time, various parties, shows and competitions take place on the island. Here too, the carnival is crowned by endless, magnificent parades.
In 2024, carnival season in Curaçao takes place from January 6 to February 24 with the main events being scheduled from February 9 to February 13. The biggest parade will be on February 11.
Yes, the carnival in Curaçao is without a doubt the highlight of the year. But the largest of the ABC Islands has much more to offer! Therefore, you shouldn’t miss my post CURACAO – The Caribbean Island That Has It All before planning your vacation there.
5 Things to Bring to a Parade
The parades go on for hours, and if you don’t find a spot in the shade, these hours will be very long. But as you can easily get a sunburn even in the shade, make sure to smother entirely in sun protection and to have a small bottle of sunscreen on you.
Especially if you don’t find a spot in the shade, you should make sure to wear a hat with a wide brim to protect your head from the strong sun.
Don’t underestimate the volume of the passing trucks – it’s literally deafening. So don’t be a hero and bring earplugs – actually, many locals use them, too, and they know why.
Believe me, you’ll enjoy the gripping rhythms much more when you don’t have to fear bursting your eardrums. Also, it should go without saying that you need to be extra-cautious if you are watching the parades in the company of children. They definitely need earplugs or noise-canceling headphones.
Prepare for long hours and keep replenishing over the course of the day. Also, be careful with beer and other alcoholic drinks under the scorching sun.
By the way, not only is tap water drinkable on the ABC islands, but it is also very tasty. Therefore, don’t forget to bring your water bottle in order to save yourself a little money and most importantly to save the planet many plastic bottles.
I expected tons of food stands lining the roads of the parade. But no, there weren’t as many places selling snacks as I expected. In addition, many restaurants remain closed during the parade. Locals thoroughly prepare for the hour-long defilee by bringing large quantities of snacks and drinks to the parade. Hence, I highly recommend you follow their example and stock up on snacks before you join the fun. Especially if you’re planning on enjoying some alcoholic drinks, you better make sure to have a solid foundation.
Which Carnival to Choose
Normally, I don’t like to compare, I dislike listing, and I do not want to judge. Also, these things always depend a lot on personal preferences. Although the big parades in the capitals of Aruba and Curacao are impressive and magnificent, they were not my favorites.
Even before the big parades even begin, it’s literally survival of the fittest: Hours beforehand, locals – often using their cars – block strategically advantageous points. They build real barricades and defend the conquered place relentlessly with tooth and nail. Don’t even think about standing in their few occupied square meters. The otherwise relaxed and friendly Caribbeans become furious and determined mercenaries during Carnival season. So if you don’t have family or friends sharing their space with you, it can be difficult to get a comfortable spot with a good view of the parade. That’s annoying, but understandable when you know that, at least in Curaçao, people pay quite a lot of money for the small area they claim for themselves.
Therefore, in my experience, a carnival parade in a small town is definitely preferable to a large parade. For example, I liked the procession in San Nicolas on Aruba much better than the one in the island’s capital Oranjestad.
Which Island is Best
In general, the three ABC islands are quite different. Each of them has its advantages and also its minor flaws. However, as you cannot travel between the islands by public ferry, you have to fly. That’s not only bad for the environment but also remarkably pricey.
A 25-minute long one-way trip starts at about 100 US$. If you fly between Aruba and Bonaire, you inevitably have a stopover in Curaçao which according to the airline makes it two flights and they make you pay for them accordingly; hence, almost 200 US$ for less than one hour in the air!
I knew about these crazy airfares before I went to the ABC islands and they actually made me reconsider. In the end, my healthy YOLO attitude made me bite the bullet and buy the tickets.
Nevertheless, if for any reason – be it time or money – you cannot visit all three islands on one single trip, check out my post As Easy As ABC: Island Hopping Between ARUBA, BONAIRE, and CURACAO where I give you a comprehensive overview of everything to consider before you make your final choice.
How to Get There
All three islands have international airports, albeit, Bonaire doesn’t by far have as many international connections as Aruba and Curaçao.
Apart from regular direct flights to and from the Americas and Europe, there are air connections between the islands by the local companies Divi Divi Air and EZAir.
Although the islands belong in different ways to the Netherlands, they are not part of the Schengen area. Nevertheless, visitors from many countries do not need a visa. You can check this in the Visa and Embassy Information for all Countries section of my post World’s Most Complete Travel Information. Note that a visa for either of the ABC islands is not valid for the European part of the Netherlands!
Albeit, even if you don’t need a visa, you’ll have to fill out landing cards for Aruba and Curaçao respectively pay an entry tax of 75 US$ per person when visiting Bonaire.
How to Get Around
When it comes to public transportation, the islands could hardly differ more. While in Bonaire, public transport is practically nil and you definitely need a car to get around, the bus service in Aruba is actually not bad. If you stay around the western side of the island and don’t intend to travel to remote settlements, you can easily manage without your own vehicle.
There is a cheap service by official buses which is not always that reliable. However, it is supplemented by privately operated minibusses.
Those buses run on the same routes, however, you can ask the driver for additional stops wherever you need them. Obviously, tickets are not interchangeable.
Therefore, just stay flexible and go with the
flow bus that comes next.
On Island Time
Public transport in Curaçao is similar to Aruba, but official buses do not go as often. Some routes are scheduled only a couple of times per day. Also, secluded places like some of the most famous beaches cannot be reached by public bus.
Here too, the official bus system is supplemented by privately operated minibusses but unfortunately only on the most frequented routes. The bus fares in Curaçao vary between 2 and 2.60 ANG depending on the final destination.
On both islands, you can also pay your fare in US$, but you might get the local currency for your change. Also, bus drivers do not accept bills larger than either 25 ANG or AWG respectively 20 US$.
However, during carnival, bus service is limited for the sole reason that roads are closed for the parades, so you better keep that in mind.
By Cab And Car
Cabs are not metered and they are rather pricey. A trip even within the limits of Willemstad sets you back 20 US$. In any case, make sure to agree on the fare beforehand.
To my greatest chagrin, I must agree that a car is pretty much needed to get around the islands easily. While many places are accessible by bus, you either have to stick to the few official bus connections or be streetsmart enough to travel by minibus. And even then it can be very hard or impossible to get to certain spots, especially to secluded settlements and places on the western side of the islands.
Cars can be rented for about 45 US$ per day. There are rental companies for instance at the airport but also across the islands. According to my experience, locals tend to drive a bit anarchistic when it comes to rules regarding giving way and the like. However, they don’t speed like crazy and willingly stop as soon as a pedestrian intends to cross.
During the carnival, however, this dearly acquired freedom of movement is of little value as streets are completely closed for the parades. Also, the search for a parking space then takes infinitely long.
Walking and Cycling
Talking ’bout pedestrians: I was aware that some spots on the islands can be reached only by car. As I’m not driving, I planned on walking – as I do everywhere in the world. Well, I quickly stood corrected. Firstly, it’s a big difference between walking through a European city in the shade of high buildings and an open country road in the Caribbean. Since hardly anyone does it, roads in Bonaire and Curaçao aren’t made for pedestrians, hence, there aren’t sidewalks. That’s quite unsettling. Since where there are no sidewalks, drivers don’t expect jolly walkers. And that’s outright life-threatening.
Nevertheless, it’s a whole different story in Aruba where you have sidewalks and even bike lanes. Also, you can take a long yet very pleasant beach walk from Divi Beach up the coast all the way to Arashi Beach. This takes about two hours in total, but if you get thirsty or need a short break, you’ll find many spots to rest’n’replenish on your way.
As I pointed out, there are many many wonderful spots on the islands, bewildering and wild, waiting for you to be explored. However, many of those places cannot be visited by public transport. Hence, you either need to rent a vehicle or join an organized tour.
The latter will definitely be the less stressful option especially as you are exploring the National Parks and the rough east coasts. Also, you’ll probably need to join an organized tour if you want to engage in activities on the water like sailing or snorkeling from a boat.
Therefore, here are some tours to choose from:
Where to Stay
The ABC islands have been popular tourist destinations for decades. Therefore, you’ll find a great choice of different lodging options on every island. Nevertheless, Carnival is not only the most popular time for international visitors. Also, many islanders who live and work in Europe or the US choose this period to pay their homeland a visit.
All of this means that early booking of hotel rooms is essential, especially for January and February, if you want to get nice and comfortable accommodation at a halfway reasonable price.
You’ll find recommendations on where to stay in my posts on the individual islands. However, click on this link* to find your most convenient lodging options.Booking.com
Map And Places to See
While in this post, I write just a quick roundup of the islands as the main topic is the lively carnival, below are links to comprehensive guides to Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao. In each of those posts, you’ll read inspiring stories and get more valuable information that will make your own trip smoother and more enjoyable:
This map gives you a general idea of where the ABC islands are located:
If you choose to pin this post for later, please use one of these pictures:
* This is an affiliate link. If you book through this page, not only do you get the best deal. I also get a small commission that helps me run this blog. Thank you so much for supporting me!