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Carnival Comes To Merida

Next week, a decades-old tradition comes back to the city of Merida: it’s Carnival! Carnival or Mardi Gras, as it is sometimes called, is celebrated in places as culturally far apart as New Orleans, Louisiana, Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and Venice, Italy. Wherever it is celebrated, it’s a party like the city never sees the rest of the year, and it is an excuse to stop working and start dancing.

Merida is no different, though it definitely has its own unique flavor of Carnival.  We must preface our comments by saying that we have never been to Mardi Gras or Carnival in any other city. But we’ve seen videos, photos and even documentaries. We know that the Carnival celebrations in Brazil are accompanied by an amazing amount of live and original music, including some impressive world-renowned drummers. We have seen the elaborate costumes from Mardi Gras in New Orleans, created by the Krewes whose legacies go back for decades at least.

Merida has music to be sure, but most of it comes to us out of huge speakers mounted on the sides of floats or the back of decorated pickup trucks. Merida has lots of costumes, most of them lovingly handmade over the last few months by patient individuals associated with a local school, dance school or business venture. The most elaborate floats and the skimpiest costumes come from the largest corporations in town: this year the big sponsors are Coca Cola (as usual), Sol, Corona (also as usual), Donde, Volaris and Cristal (same as Coca Cola). Telcel, Axtel and other communications companies usually promote themselves through teams of dancers or drummers. And many smaller companies add groups of dancers or floats to the show.

When Carnival first started in Merida, it was definitely a more humble affair with a lot of personal touches and no corporate sponsorships. For many years, in the mid-twentieth century especially, Carnival in Merida was not organized. Instead, roving bands of young people on pickup trucks would roam the streets, throwing confetti, flowers, streamers and in some cases, eggs, water or blue powder.  There were sometimes problems when the raucous young people clashed with more conservative citizens, but in general it was a party that was tolerated by the entire city. Eventually, the traditions of throwing anything that might harm people was put to a stop. Of course, that hasn’t stopped the Donde float from throwing out cookies or the Super Willy’s float from (once, we swear…) throwing out toilet paper. Mostly, though, people on the floats throw beads, candy, flowers and promotional products like hats and tshirts with company logos on them.

The official Carnival in Merida website quotes one of the Merida historians as saying that these days, Carnival has lost its essence. In these modern times, with so much social and cultural freedoms, a week of anything goes is not as special as it used to be. He also mentions that Merida’s Carnival is very family-oriented, an observation to which we would have to agree. Unlike many Carnival celebrations around the world, the Merida parades and activities are well-attended by families with children of all ages. Public drunkenness is definitely more observable than any other time during the year here, but public debauchery is well hidden, if it happens at all.

Carnival in Merida takes place, until further notice, along Paseo de Montejo and in the Plaza Grande in the center of town. It begins with a ceremony on Wednesday night, March 2. Thursday is the Children’s Parade in the afternoon (before their bedtime…). On Friday and Saturday, there are big parades at night. On Sunday, the same parade takes place in the middle of the day. Monday night there is a Traditional parade where many of the participants sport traditional Mayan dress (huipiles and guayaberas), and Tuesday afternoon is the final, biggest parade. Wednesday night, to finish the week, there is a Burning of Juan Carnival ceremony, again in the Plaza Grande.

If you are coming for Carnival, we highly recommend the Children’s Parade, especially if you are a photographer. The Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday parades are pretty much the same thing, with a slightly different cast of characters but a lot of the same floats.  Monday night is fun, and not generally as crowded.

Merida Carnival is a unique Yucatan experience, and we highly encourage you to go out there, buy some beers and hot dogs and get into the swing of it!

Merida’s Official Carnival website