Carnival celebrations in South America are traditionally associated with Rio de Janeiro, Carnaval Porteño in Buenos Aires, and Carnaval de Barranquilla in Colombia. The festivities at this time of year in the continent’s smallest country, Uruguay, may be less renowned, yet they remain equally vibrant, colourful, and dazzlingly expressive. While Uruguay Carnival is indeed a countrywide affair, the main revelry takes place in the capital: Montevideo. Thousands get into costume and grace the streets, local and international dancers gyrate in sequined attire, bonfires glimmer in the night air, and drums beat out the thunderous African rhythm known as “candombe” – this annual party brings unrelenting joy to the city.

Uruguay Carnival is a vibrant and expressive affair / Image Source

The history of Uruguay Carnival is rooted in the country’s African culture that first emerged in the mid-1700’s when Montevideo was a major trade port for ships bringing African slaves to the Rio de la Plata region. Despite coming from the same lands, the slaves belonged to myriad ethnic groups and together lacked a common identity. They yearned for their musical heritage, religious practices, old habits, and faraway homelands. Before Uruguay abolished slavery, these men and women would congregate in houses located in poor neighbourhoods and reminisce about their origins through song and dance. Certain masters would also allow their workers to hold extravagant parties in which they could celebrate their African ancestry.

The festivities grew in popularity and once the slaves’ freedom was granted, the African communities began throwing ever more spectacular events in impoverished districts, most prominently Sur and Palermo. The unique candombe sounds – acknowledged by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage of humanity – were used to gather people together, giving birth to Las Llamadas (The Calls) which are an important aspect of Carnival today.

Contemporary glitz and glamour in Montevideo to celebrate together the diversity / Image Source

The modern phenomenon of Uruguay Carnival began back in 1956, and it has, ever since, become a highlight on the Uruguayan cultural calendar. In more recent times, Uruguay Carnival has been garnering attention on the international stage thanks largely to the distinct style of candombe. This recognition has given fresh momentum to the country’s burgeoning black cultural movement and it has also raised awareness about the history of Afro-Uruguayans: present-day Carnival in Uruguay is helping to build bridges.

Much of the contemporary glitz and glamour on display pays homage to the African slave communities of a bygone era – the outfits, makeup and music provide subtle references to stories of repression; white men decorate themselves with black face paint; and white women don traditional African apparel. The ethnic and social classes unite to light up cosmopolitan Montevideo for 40 simply spectacular days and nights.

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If you are visiting South America for carnival this summer, we can help you enrich your travel experiences. Check out our tours and activities in Rio de Janeiro, São PauloChile, Colombia, Uruguay, Buenos Aires, and across Argentina.

By Simon Hall