The Newbie's Guide to Caribana Festival
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The Peeks Toronto Caribbean Carnival, also called Caribana, is one of the livest and largest celebrations of Caribbean heritage in North America. The past couple of years, I passively enjoyed Caribana by scrolling through Instagram and screaming "Yass Girl" to all of the beautiful colorful costumes lighting up my feed. This year, I finally made the trip happen and became one of the girls in the parade living their best life whining in a costume.
Here's a newbie's guide to enjoying the Caribana festival in Toronto:
1) But First…
You should know that you do not need to be Caribbean to be a part of the carnival. Everyone is welcome! While I did used this as an opportunity to represent my 1/8 Jamaican and Nevisian heritage, there were plenty of non-Caribbean people celebrating. Also, if soca and reggae aren't a part of your daily playlist, I recommend priming your ears before you attend carnival. It will get your energy right where it needs to be and you will hear it the entire weekend!
2) Know the Caribana Parade Date
Caribana is always the first weekend of August starting on Thursday. The Parade is always on Saturday.
3) Getting There and Around
We flew into the Toronto Pearson International airport (XYZ). Toronto has an extensive public transportation system. You can take the shuttle train to Union station to connect to the metro or take a taxi to your accommodation. We primarily used Uber and Lyft to get around during the weekend.
4) Learn the Must-Know Caribana Terms
One key way to navigate Caribana with finesse is to familiarize yourself with the lingo. Here are the most common words you'll hear:
Short for masquerade, a.k.a. the big parade that happens on Saturday.
Bands are organized groups of parade-goers who paid for a costume created by a designer.
Parade participants in costume. You will commonly here people in the parade say they are "playing mas".
The parade route is known as the road. You will here a lot of people saying “meet me on di road”.
Fete is French for festival. These are an array of parties that include performing artists that take place days before and after the parade.
A massive paint party that happens the night before carnival. If you plan on participating, it's best to wear all white and something you don't mind getting ruined. You'll leave drenched in colorful paint, baby powder, and mud!
Terms Specific to Caribana Costumes:
These are the more extravagant costumes. They come with the largest feathers and tons of jewels.
Mid line costumes usually have more gems, bigger feathers, and larger attachment pieces.
Back line costumes tend to have less attachments, feathers, and jewels. The best thing about these costumes is that you can move around way easier than the front line costumes. Also, you can buy additional attachments if you want to add a little more to your costume.
Hot shorts are the boy short option for costume bottoms. Costumes typically come with regular bikini cut swim bottoms.
These are the feather pieces that connect to the back of your bikini bottoms.
5) Book Accommodations ASAP
I strongly advise booking your hotel or Airbnb accommodation in or close to the ‘entertainment district’. This is the downtown area and everything nearby is walking distance or a short taxi ride away. If you choose to stay in an AirBnB, you may not want to disclose to your host that you are coming for Caribana. We've had a host cancel on us, after we said we were coming for Caribana. Some hosts have a preconceived idea that all carnival goers are rowdy and irresponsible guests. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise because we ended up staying at a beautiful condo and had a gracious host Jay who was really excited we were coming for carnival.
6) Decide Whether or Not You Want to Play Mas
I wasn't going to go to Caribana and not play mas because I felt like it was an obligatory part of the experience. But I'm not going to lie, I was taken aback by the cost of the costumes. These things are not cheap. Our backline costume was $233 USD. Costumes can go upwards of $1,000 USD. I wouldn't normally spend that amount on something I would only wear once. But after my friend Jordan and I thought about other potential dress-up options for our costume (unicorn, ice angel, fairy, mermaid etc.), I felt much better about the purchase.
5) Mas 101
Order your costume sooner than later
There are several bands that participate in Carnival and each band tends to spilt into sections. It's definitely hard to choose because the majority of the costumes are stunning! We ended up going with Saldenah because they win Band of the Year practically every year (including this year)! It's always nice to be a part of the winning team.
If you want to look at all the bands' costume offerings, visit the Caribana Official Website to see what bands are participating and then visit the bands’ website/ IG to see their different sections. All costumes are hand-made. If you have any costume-related questions, you can email the section leader. A lot of the popular costumes sell out fast. We purchased ours on June 20th and the available options were limited.
Costumes are not shipped to you. Once you purchase your costume, close to the parade date your section leader will provide you with details on where to pick up your costumes. Pick up is typically at a warehouse a day or two before the event. It's a quick process (no more than 20 minutes). The costumes come packaged and ready to be handed away. We were also provided with a goodie bag that came with hair gel and a phone pouch which was a nice surprise. You will be instructed on how to properly assemble the costume. Unfortunately, since everything is made to order, switching sizes is often not allowed. Sometimes you may luck out and they will have extra or you can swap with another person, however I wouldn't count on it. If you have any questions about sizing, contact the section leader before submitting your payment.
You will be walking and dancing for miles so I recommend wearing comfortable shoes. Wearing sandals or cheap shoes is just inviting blisters and sore feet. People commonly wear tennis sneakers or boots. It’s best to wear sneakers that have already been broken in.
A lot of women wear fishnet stockings with their costumes. I intended to wear them but the ones I ordered didn't mesh well with my costume, so I went without them. If you do end up wearing stockings, keep clear nail polish with you on the road in case your stockings start to run.
Make-up & Accessories
Women tend to wear bright colored eyeshadow and a lot of glitter and gemstones on the face. Hairspray and vaseline help the glitter stay on, and eyelash glue is great for added security for the gemstones (otherwise, they are guaranteed to fall off your face at some point). Also, don't forget your flag to wave on the road!
There is no place to store your belongings. I recommend buying a fanny pack, small backpack, or phone pouch to store your phone, money, and small items. Only bring your most essential items.
Monitor the weather as you get closer to the day of the parade. The weather was extremely hot and sunny the weekend I participated, but I heard it was rainy for a few Caribanas before that.
Food & Drinks*
Each masquerader receives a wristband which allows you to get free food. They provide breakfast in the beginning before the parade starts and also a meal after the parade. Both meals were rice and stew chicken. Be prepared for crazy long and unorganized lines. There are other vendors you can buy food from if you are not about the standing in long lines life.
Make sure you have your tumbler ready for the road with your drink of choice because Toronto doesn’t supply alcohol to masqueraders. You can buy mini bottles from the liquor store to easily store in your pouch. You are provided with an ample supply of water and coconut water along the parade route. There was even pizza going around during lunch time.
Parade arrival: We arrived by 9 am and the parade started at 10:30 am. It’s better to arrive as early as possible so you aren’t scrambling to find your band. Every band has a space number which helps you find your way to it. Arriving at 9 am was perfect because we had plenty of time to eat, touch up make-up, and take pictures.
The Fence: In recent years, fences have been placed on the road to keep non-masqueraders off it. However, the parade fences are about 4-feet tall so many non-masqueraders are known to jump the fence to join the festival.
During the parade: During the parade, it can get a little confusing where you’re suppose to stand. Ideally, you want to be with your section but in actuality all of the section costumes get mixed along the way. The section leaders tried to control this, but everyone inevitably mixed.
End of Parade: The band competition happens at the end of the parade. Each band section crosses the stage to show off their costumes to the judges. After the competition is over, masqueraders and general attendees all turn up together in a giant block party. The winner is announced a few days later.
Don’t forget sunscreen! I was rushing in the morning to get ready and forgot to put sunscreen on my face before I placed my gems. Needless to say, my face was a little splotchy when I took them off. Gem tan lines aren’t cute. Thankfully they quickly went away!
Stay hydrated! Drink a lot of water to help you get through the 7+ hours of dancing in the hot sun.
What I loved most about the parade was the body positivity that was displayed. People of all sizes were in their costumes dancing and celebrating without judgement from others. It was a very empowering vibe.
Although I was super excited to dress up for carnival, as I got closer to the event I was slightly worried about being half-naked in a big crowd. But those worries went away as soon as I was on the parade road. Everyone is scantily-clad, but also everyone is respectful.
Make sure you have Canadian cash handy. One USD is 1.30 Canadian Dollars. Even if you pay with USD you will be given change in CAD, which means you will lose money.
If you enjoy being surrounded by beautiful people, positive energy, and Caribbean culture, Caribana is definitely a move to make at least once in your life!