Your Essential Guide to Uruguay Carnival
Uruguay is perhaps best well-known as the host of the longest carnival in world – there are a mammoth 40 days between the inaugural parade and the final celebrations. It is undoubtedly one of the best times of year to visit this tranquil country sandwiched between Argentina and Brazil, for this popular festival coincides with summer, making it the ideal opportunity to enjoy some revelry by night and the gorgeous beaches by day.
It is a common mistake to assume that it is a single festival, when in fact, depending on which part of the country you are in, you can enjoy different carnivals with different characteristics – those in the cities bordering Brazil, for example, combine samba with local rhythms, while the festivities in Montevideo are comprised primarily of murgas and candombe music. Young people looking for a party atmosphere traditionally head to the department of Rocha, specifically La Pedrera, which puts on a Uruguayan version of the Full Moon Party where the main streets become populated by groups of friends adorned in fanciful disguises.
The date of carnival is international and it varies every year, established after the days of the Jewish Passover and the Christian Holy Week are set. The most important date, Resurrection Sunday, is the first Sunday after the first full moon of autumn (spring in the northern hemisphere) and then the date of carnival is set 40 days prior. In Uruguay, there are two public holidays for this celebration, always the Monday and Tuesday of the carnival long-weekend.
CELEBRATIONS IN THE CAPITAL
In Montevideo, there are three types of celebration: El Desfile Inaugural del Carnaval (the Inaugural Carnival Parade), Desfile de Llamadas (The Parade of Calls), and the Tablados.
El Desfile Inaugural del Carnaval takes places down Avenida 18 de Julio in the Centro district, marking the opening of the festivities with performances by a number of bands, murga groups, comedians, parodists and other artists. In addition, the Carnival Figures, Las Llamadas and the Samba Schools that were chosen by the jury that year are those who participate in the parade. Until 2017 that place was occupied by the "queens" of the three categories, but at the moment, people of both sexes can be elected as representatives.
El Desfile de Llamadas, held since 1956, offers a spectacle of over 40 comparsas – groups of singers, musicians, and dancers. This traditionally takes places in the neighbourhoods of Sur and Palermo, commonly down the Carlos Gardel and Isla de Flores streets. Among the most awarded are Yambo Kenya -the champion of the official contest in 2017-, Cuareim 1080 -the winner in 2016-, Tronar de Tambores, La Gozadera, and Generación Lubola. The name, “llamadas” – translated as “calls” – derives from colonial times and can be traced back to an impromptu meeting in which some random comparsa members summoned the rest of the group to start using the same rhythmic language of the tamboril – a type of drum.
"Los corsos barriales" of Montevideo are other Carnival parades to take into account: every year there are 18, spread throughout the map of the city, which provide the traveler with the ideal excuse to know a neighborhood away from the tourist circuit and join to this authentic party.
The Tablados are not parades but outdoor performances. They are usually put on across most neighbourhoods and the programming varies every night, given that they host different groups of artists divided into five categories: comparsas, murgas, comedians, parodists, and revistas. If there is anything in particular that you want to see while you’re in town, keep checking the schedule regularly. The best and most complete tablados take place in Teatro Verano, an open-air theatre in the Parque Rodó neighbourhood where the jury of the official carnival shows is based.
The departments of Artigas, Rivera, and Cerro Largo border with Brazil, and with strong influences from this northern neighbour, they put on combined celebrations featuring samba, axé – a type of Afro-Brazilian music – and other rhythms of the region.
El de Melo, the capital of Cerro Largo, is perhaps the most “show business” since it invites recognised Uruguayan and Argentinian vedettes. Elsewhere, in the city of Artigas, the celebrations are inspired by the Rio de Janeiro carnival and are probably the most professional, with four samba schools rehearsing throughout the year for the performances in February: Barrio Rampla, Emperadores de la Zona Sur, Imperio del Ayuí and Académicos. Each school brings together approximately one thousand artists for their parades down Avenida Lecueder, each one lasting around one hour apiece.
Carnaval de Rivera counts on a strong mix of cultures, mixing candombe and murga from the south with samba hailing from the north. For over a decade, the parades here have been making their way down Avenida Sarandí, replete with comparsas, samba schools from Rivera and Livramento, Carnival Queens and King Momo. The parades always close with a show in a public arena located at the end of the street, in front of the main square.
PARTY ON THE COAST
There is no organisation behind it, but Carnaval de la Pedrera is a phenomenon that is self-generated by the fame of previous years and social media buzz – it is a favourite for young people who want to party until after sunrise and those who don’t fancy taking in parades. Instead, groups of friends dress up themselves, wear spontaneous disguises, and go out into the main street to revel the days and nights away.
Such is the reputation of this fiesta that a couple of years ago, the mayor of the region took to the radio to ask for people to stop coming, such was the overcrowded state of the city. In recent times however, authorities have increased security operations and improved cleaning, public restrooms, and other details to ensure the good atmosphere remains.
TO TAKE INTO ACCOUNT
This 2018 in Uruguay the strict days of carnival (working holidays) are Saturday 10th, Sunday 11th, Monday 12th and Tuesday 13th February, days in which it is celebrated in most departments. However, the carnival’s inaugural parade, down Avenida 18 de Julio, will be on Thursday, January 25th; The Call Parade will be Thursday 8th and Friday 9th February; and the final ceremony of the Official Carnival Contest, on Thursday, March 15th.
If you want to enjoy the carnivals on the border, it is very important to book accommodation in advance, since February is the time when these places receive the most visitors and the hotel industry is often overwhelmed. On the Atlantic Coast, hotels tend to fill up quickly and raise the price of rooms between the Saturday and Tuesday of Carnival.
With the exception of the carnival in La Pedrera, all festivities and parades in the country that take place on public streets are usually fenced off and have varying access depending on the price of your ticket. The Tablados and Teatro Verano likewise have different ticket prices according to the day and the performances on show.
Throughout the last few years, groups of murgas and other artistic styles have been growing in the interior of the country. For this reason, many departmental governments have managed to attract performers from the capital, and so today it is possible to enjoy some of these shows outside of Montevideo during carnival.
10 years ago, a Carnival Museum opened at Rambla 25 de Agosto de 1825 (Ciudad Vieja (Old Town), telephone +598 2915 0807, open from 11am to 5pm), displaying costumes, scenery, and many other historical artifacts. The museum is also a next door to Mercado del Puerto, an old building where several ‘parrilladas’ (barbeque restaurants) offer their spaces as a meeting place for travellers and locals who fancy sampling some Uruguayan delicacies.
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Do not miss the various manifestations of Uruguay Carnival, and, if you’re looking for other things to do during these dates or indeed at any time of the year, be sure to contact us at Uruguay4u. We offer the best tours and activities in Montevideo, Punta del Este, Colonia, and more.
By: Carina Fossati, journalist and author of the blog Hills to Heels