“Go to Tenerife for the carnival? I didn’t even know they had one,” was my friends’ reaction when I told them where I was heading. Despite celebrations lasting a whole month, Tenerife carnival, which is rumored to be second only to Rio in size and splendor, remains a well-kept secret. Most of the island’s 5 million plus annual visitors come here for the sun, sand and sea, enjoying the year-round pleasant climate at the many resorts, without having the slightest inkling about the island’s most prominent fiesta.
Banned during the Franco regime, the carnival dates back to the Spanish conquest of the Canaries in the 15th century. “During the Franco years,” says a local resident, “we simply renamed carnival ‘the winter festival’ and carried on as normal.” Although smaller, local carnivals take place in many of the island’s villages, it’s the main one, in the nation’s capital, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, that truly pushes the boat out. It’s a spectacular experience whether you’re watching or participating.
Santa Cruz itself is a charming, if somewhat sprawling, city by the sea – a working harbor, rather than a tourist resort, this is where many of the island’s 850,000 inhabitants reside. Although good for shopping and eating out, the capital can come across as slightly nondescript to the casual visitor, but come carnival time, this is the place to be. Spruced up and teeming with excitement, Santa Cruz knows how to throw a party and each January there’s no stopping her.
The main festivities take place the Wednesday and Friday nights of the third week of celebrations. On Wednesday people come out to watch and on Friday they come out to participate in the festivities. Both days are very much the highlight of the island’s social calendar. Old and young people, whole families and their friends, children, couples and wrinkly old grannies, all flock down to the harbor on Wednesday evening to see the coronation of the carnival queen, held at an enormous outdoor stage.
This is no beauty contest, but rather a competition for most amazing costume. Local designers work for months to put together the carnival dresses worn by local women, who are chosen by the designer and his or her team. The atmosphere among the spectators is absolutely electric while waiting for the first contestants to glide gracefully onto the stage in their fantastic dress, often weighing several hundred kilos. Each year there is a theme. 2008’s was ‘magic’ and the costumes were designed to reflect a magical moment or fantasy.
Although the coronation of the carnival queen is of great importance and an honor for the winners, the onlookers are here as much for the main event as for the entertainment provided throughout the evening. Before and during the intervals of the coronation a tremendous crowd of entertainers – the oldest in his seventies, the youngest not yet ten – take to the stage. With so many clowns, singers, dancers, comedians and entertainers of all kinds, it’s amazing there are 9000 people left to form the audience.
Never before have I seen so many men in drag – getting the most enthusiastic response from the audience – so many dazzling dancers, such a display of color, creativity and charisma – all performing while head judges Sophia Loren and Gérard Depardieu debate the election of the carnival queen with the rest of the panel. In the end it’s the Queen Elisabeth design that rules the roost, taking to the stage with the imposing tones of “Rule Britannia” and making the small British contingent of visitors cheer even louder than the native Canarians.
A day of rest, when Santa Cruz seems to hover in a slight daze, preludes the festivities of Friday when it is time to party once again. The procession through town sets off at 8 pm with the carnival queen and her maids of honor, also chosen on the eve of the coronation, accompanied by magic-themed floats, clowns and entertainers, as well as the de
| Travel notes|
||Going to Tenerife Carnival Factbox:
Tickets for the coronation of the carnival queen go on sale about a week before the event and cost about 10 euros. For further information visit http://www.carnavaltenerife.es/ (Spanish only) and
If attending the coronation, bear in mind that it’s usually held outdoors and goes on for approx. 3-4 hours. Even Tenerife can get a bit chilly at night, although it rarely rains, so it’s best to bring a spare jacket for the event. A cushion also comes in handy for sitting on the hard wooden chairs all that time. Most locals do dress up, so make an effort.
On Friday night pretty much anything goes, but to really feel part of the festivities it’s best to wear fancy dress like the locals.
Hotels can get booked up very quickly during carnival, so it’s best to book at least two months in advance. A nice place to stay is Hotel Contemporaneo in Santa Cruz - 0034 922 271571 for reservations.
If Santa Cruz itself is too booked up, it might be worth checking out nearby towns, such as La Orotava, La Laguna or Puerto de la Cruz, that all have a variety of accommodation and are also nice for daytime sight-seeing.
There’s plenty to see and do year-round in Tenerife from climbing snowcapped volcano Mount Teide, to visiting small coastal vineyards. For further information: www.webtenerife.com