Trinidad and Tobago carnival is a big deal. And because it is 2 islands one country carnival actually happens in both islands at the same time. Deciding which carnival to attend might seem like a no-brainer to some. But the process of picking which island’s carnival to attend can actually be quite difficult for others. Of course it all depends on your needs, wants and preferences. And there are no set rules but there are a few important factors to take into consideration when it comes to Tobago carnival that makes it stand apart.
So, how is Tobago carnival any difference from Trinidad carnival? Tobago carnival is for those who like the idea of dipping their toe in the carnival pond before jumping in head-first. If you prize sleep over partying then consider Tobago carnival. In Tobago it’s not just about the carnival you can get in some sun sea, sand on your trip too. If you have no Caribbean roots or want to attend Carnival by yourself then Tobago carnival welcomes you. And Tobago gives you 3 bites at the j’ouvert apple plus a bonus opportunity to get muddied on Carnival Tuesday.
Both carnivals are awesome but keep reading for questions that’ll show you exactly why you should care about the differences between the two.
1. Have you ever been to a carnival any where in the world before?
Carnival any where on the planet can be fun but the truth of the matter is, if you have not been to Trinidad & Tobago for carnival it is simply a copy and the experience while on the island cannot be compared to anywhere else. What you might attend in Brazil has nothing to do with what is happening in Trinidad or Tobago. And for sure Nottinghill in the UK, Labor Day in Brooklyn, and Miami Carnival may look like the real thing but it cannot capture the same wild abandon that is a key feature of carnival on these islands in real life.
That being said, if you have been to these Carnivals and think the few hours in the stadium or street or whatever space is provided for Carnival is exhausting and overwhelming then I beg that you start with Tobago carnival.
Tobago carnival is significantly less crowded than Trinidad. You can determine your own pace in Tobago. In Trinidad, Carnival determines everything. The pressure to attend every fete is real. Most people require a quadratic formula to determine which events they will attend for the carnival season.
Now, if you haven’t been to any other Carnival before and have even an inkling that maybe you are not ready for the whole enchilada, the sampling that is Tobago is an easy introduction. The hardest part about Tobago carnival is probably getting to Tobago. Once you get there falling into the activities is as simple as an Instagram, Facebook or Google search.
2. How much sleep is important to you?
Most humans know that sleep is important. But at Carnival time, Trinis act as though getting 7-8 hours sleep is more of an urban legend as opposed to scientific fact. The number of events happening in Trinidad at carnival time makes sleep a luxury. It is not rare to see a person or two propped up and sleeping in a Trini fete.
You have to decide how much sleep your body needs. One of my friends told me flat out, I am not going to Trinidad carnival. The idea of no sleep so scared her that she knew she could never put herself at risk like that. It would drive her crazy to just never be able to sleep. And so she opted out when I invited a few college friends to come home with me for Trinidad carnival that year.
If you can survive for 4-7 days without much sleep especially coming down to the end of the Carnival season then Trinidad carnival is for you. On the flip, if you prize your sleep and look forward to your bed at the end of a hard night into morning then back into night of partying then consider Tobago for your Carnival adventure.
This rings even more true if you are a Carnival newbie AND a Caribbean newbie too. You’ll see why in the next section.
3. Is experiencing something more than carnival important to you?
Most visitors who come to the Caribbean for the first time are usually concerned with sun, sea and sand. That being said, Trinidad carnival offers only 1 of those 3 at carnival time. Many Trinis will offer Maracas Bay as a solution to this problem. However, the problem with that is 3-fold.
- You will not be able to even entertain the thought of going to Maracas Bay until Ash Wednesday which is AFTER carnival.
- It is well outside the city of Port of Spain so it will take you hours to get there.
- Trinidad is not exactly about beach culture. Trinidad may be the epicenter for transacting business in the Caribbean, but it does not offer a traditional tourist experience.
Tobago is the Capital of Paradise. And there are more than 101 things to do in Tobago. There is a little of everything happening there. So once j’ouvert is done you might decide to head to a waterfall. Or you may want to take in a movie. You might head for a drive in the country. Have a meal in a tree. Take an ATV ride through a nature park. Do parasailing. Visit a fort.
It is not that Trinidad does not offer these things. They aren’t as accessible as they are in Tobago. Also, carnival so dominates the atmosphere that trying to do anything else during that time becomes a a herculean feat as you’ll have to contend with heavy bumper to bumper traffic no matter where you are trying to go on the island.
Bottom line if you are trying to get more in than just carnival, consider Tobago.
4. Will you be travelling solo, with a plus 1 or as a group?
Travelling in packs has historically kept humans safe. And for the most part that still remains true. Carnival is a team sport. You can be daring and travel to Trinidad and Tobago by your one-some for carnival and have the time of your life. But for your safety and sanity I would suggest you attend either Carnival with a group.
That being said, Tobago carnival is possible to enjoy alone. From the fetes to live shows and playing mas, you can come to Tobago by yourself and enjoy every moment.
But I am not going to lie to you. Crime is a growing problem in Tobago within the last decade but the same has been true of Trinidad for decades plus. Carnival on both islands have been reported to be incident free in the last 3 years or so. However, Tobago carnival just lends itself to having fun by yourself especially if you use good common sense and precaution while you are there.
5. In Trinidad pretty mas is queen but in Tobago mud mas in king.
Tobago has beads, feathers and bikinis but it is not our competitive advantage. What Tobago does well is mud. Mud is usually associated with j’ouvert. J’ouvert marks the kick off to carnival. Unofficially j’ouvert starts at the stroke of 12:01am on Carnival Monday. Officially though, the powers that be start j’ouvert at 4am.
Now you must remember that Carnival literally means Festival of the Flesh. And so think of j’ouvert as an American Halloween on steroids. Instead of costumes of gore, mud, paint and powder which take centre stage. And the behaviour is what Trinbagonians like to call wotless (worthless).
There’s no violence just a lot of sexual lewdness without actual nudity. Let’s just say you will not leave j’ouvert unclear about what bump and grind means. And of course, it is fun. And having been to many carnivals around the world. I may be biased but Tobago does j’ouvert the absolute best. The reason for this is that in Tobago you can find j’ouvert happening in Crown Point, in Scarborough or in Roxborough. So you just pick which ever one is closest.
And then as if that were not enough, on Carnival Tuesday Tobagonians come out in their numbers to give j’ouvert one last shot before the carnival shut down happens at midnight. Almost 1000 people take to the streets of Scarborough in nothing but paint and mud starting at about 5 or 6pm. It is complete and utter chaos but is probably the most enjoyable time you will have at carnival anywhere.
The other thing to note is that j’ouvert and mud mas are probably two of the least expensive things you can enjoy during carnival. Which probably leads to the most sensible reason that Tobago carnival can compete for your attention when it comes to deciding. It’s significantly less expensive to participate.
Do not expect to walk away from Trinidad carnival without expending a minimum of $2,000 USD and that’s if you were only playing mas. That doesn’t include the bells and whistles associated with doing that, such as the shows, the makeup, the jewelry, the hair, the transportation to get to your band if you’re not staying in town. The little pouch to carry your ‘vex money” if you aren’t satisfied with the snack, food or dink offerings of your band IF it the band is all-inclusive.
And this is not even your accommodation or flight. That’s just the two-day experience. In Tobago that $2000USD will not only get you your costume with all the fixings, it’ll get you some type of accommodation and probably even a tour around the island.
The truth is that Trinidad Carnival delivers on every wild promise about Carnival you have ever heard or seen. From jumping up with celebrities to elaborate costumes and the frenetic fete paced fueled by rum and soca music. It is not that Tobago does not have this too, it is just not at the same break-neck speed. Tobago is the toned down version but the volume is rising.
My biggest suggestion to people who for whatever reason are hesitant about going full throttle at Trinidad carnival, all is not lost. There is an alternative. Tobago carnival may be smaller but packs a punch with a varied multi-activity package and more j’ouverts than you will know what to do with.