What is carnival in El Callao?
Venezuela is a country that likes to party which can be demonstrated by their numerous festivities. From grand celebrations of local patron saints, to the Feast of Corpus Christi or the African drum dancing celebrations that honour Saint John the Baptist, Venezuela loves to celebrate and there is one celebration that beats them all, this is the Carnival of El Callao!
What is carnival?
Traditionally carnival is a Catholic festive season of merrymaking that occurs before the onset of Lent. Carnival celebrations occur all over Latin America before the onset of Lent. El Callao Carnival holds a lot of significance not just for the town of El Callao but for all Venezuelans.
El Callao Carnival is unique because of its incredible history, carnival costumes, carnival characters and incredible music and rhythms that have evolved from its African roots. UNESCO recognised El Callao Carnival as being Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity because of the incredible and important ancient traditions that are being kept alive in Venezuela at the El Callao Carnival.
Where is El Callao Carnival?
Carnival of El Callao is an amazing carnival celebration held in a small mining town in Bolivar state which is located in the South of Venezuela.
When is El Callao Carnival?
The El Callao Carnival is a pre-Lenten carnival which occurs in the lead up to lent. The 2021 Ell Callao Carnival officially begins on Thursday 11th February 2021 and finishes on Tuesday 16th February 2021.
What is the history of the Carnival of El Callao?
The origins of carnival in Venezuela has over 150 years of history. Carnival was brought to Venezuela by the Spanish back in the colonial times.
The El Callao Carnival is unique because it celebrates old cultural traditions that arrived in Venezuela by the English and French speaking Caribbean islands. Predominantly it was the Trinidadians that influence carnival as large numbers relocated to El Callao around 1850 to take advantage of the gold rush.
At this time El Callao had turned into the leading gold producer in the world. However slowly the gold production in El Callao began to slow down by the mid-1880s and by the end of the century it was all over, and El Callao slipped back into obscurity.
Today it’s hard to envision this tiny town with a population of 39,000, and a city backed with ramshackle tin roof dwellings, and tiny gold shops was once a rich town that was a source of so much wealth. But during carnival, El Callao swells four times in size, giving a tiny snapshot of what its glory days were like.
How is El Callao Carnival celebrated?
El Callao Carnival runs from January to March and is full of parades featuring different people dressed as historical or mystical characters. There is lots of calypso music, dancing, concerts, and street festivities.
However, it is the four days prior to Ash Wednesday when the carnival peaks and culminates in four crazy rum-soaked days of parades and parties. The El Callao Celebrations has only one requirement and that is that you give into the Calypso rhythms and get your body moving.
The Carnival of El Callao also has many other cultural events that are held to highlight its Callaoense history and diversity and honouring its Afro-Antillean roots. El Callao Carnival is about reinforcing cultural identity by promoting younger generations to connect with their heritage.
The Carnival of El Callao traditions are practices that occur within families and schools where children learn skills like singing, dancing, mask making, playing instruments and writing songs.
Celebrating its African Roots
The Carnival of El Callao combines traditions from Europe, Trinidad, West Indies, French Antilles along with local Venezuelan traditions. El Callao carnival has a strong African influence because the population of El Callao are mainly descendants of African slaves who were brought to Venezuela by the Europeans to mine gold.
The African influence dominates many aspects of the El Callao carnival from the colourful elaborate costumes, music and rhythmic beats. The Carnival of El Callao has close ties with to Cannes Bruees which are emancipation celebrations that occur in the French speaking Caribbean islands. The Carnival of El Callao is also about promoting unity.
The Carnival of El Callao starts with some beauty and calypso competitions with the big processions starting on the Saturday and being held every day till Shrove Tuesday. The Carnival of El Callao hosts many musical concerts throughout El Callao with thousands of people attending and dancing the night away to the Caribbean music.
The Carnival of El Callao sound systems make the carnival more participatory in nature letting everyone who can play an instrument join in a calypso group or dance along.
El Callao Carnival has created unique and colourful carnival characters who are special to the El Callao Carnival some of these carnival characters include:
- Las Madamas are woman that lead the parade and considered pillars of Callaoenese identity who dance and wear incredibly colourful 19th century costumed dresses and turbans from the French Caribbean. Las Madamas are considered the communicators of carnival tradition.
- La Negra’ Isidora Agñes was an individual who lived from 1923-1986 and was actually the person who founded the Calypso Carnival. His presence is still felt today as he is one of the colourful carnival characters that make up each sound system entourage.
- The Medio Pintos are men who cover themselves in tar, paint or some sort of available black substance and wander around the festival asking for a coil called a ‘medio’ or they will paint you with sludge, similar to Halloweens trick or treats they have a phrase that is “medio o te pinto“, meaning money or paint.
- The Diablos meaning devils are men who dress in devil masks and costumes who keep the crowds back from the parade along the carnival route by using their short whips.
- The mineros represent gold miners and parade in the carnival procession.
Carnival of El Callao Main Parade
The Carnival of El Callao parade is led by the madmas who with their amazing colourful costumes, dance and entertain the crowds. The medio-pintos go around and smudge black stuff on people who don’t give them a donation.
The red, black and white diablos dance and crack their whips to maintain order. These are followed by the Calypso groups and different pumping the music tunes out of sound systems. There are also numerous other carnival groups of people who also wear costumes and carnival outfits that join in the El Callao parade.
The celebrations don’t stop after the parade, they run all through the night and way into the next morning. By this time, you can’t distinguish between the carnival revellers and the medio pintos because everyone is covered in black. Everyone dances the night away on the streets to the calypso music and the rum flows freely.
Those who are still awake at 4am will meet in one of the streets and wait for the ‘Agricultura’ parade group. The Agricultura Parade Groups parade through the town until sunrise while carnival revellers dance and hold up branches to the sky. This is done to celebrate the sowing of the seeds.
When the sunrises there are benches, pavements and tents in the football stadium that provide shelter to those without lodging. There are also public showers and restaurants serving chicken soup to cure the hang over.
Shrove Tuesday is the last day of The Carnival of El Callao celebrations. It sees a few smaller street parades and street parties. However, when the clock strikes midnight all the sound systems are shut down and the town returns to silence after a week of rum soaked partying.
How to get to El Callao Carnival?
El Callao is around 270km away from Bolivar City. It is easily reachable by road along the Carretera Truncal 10. Venezuela has a public transport network however it is not so reliable these days.
Is El Callao Carnival Safe?
Thousands of Venezuelans from all over the country will travel, to celebrate carnival in El Callao. However, Venezuela is not recommended for foreign tourists due to its current economic and social problems. Most governments consider Venezuela a dangerous place to visit.
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