What is Carnival in Montevideo?
When you think of carnival in South America you automatically think of Brazil and their grandiose carnival celebrations. But their tiny neighbour Uruguay actually celebrates what is the longest running carnival in the world, lasting over 40 days! Because what’s better than a week of carnival, is over a month of carnival!
Carnival in South America is immensely rich. For millions of people, February is filled with joy, music, family, friends and a feast of colours. From the showstopping Samba Parades of Rio de Janeiro, to the UNESCO recognised indigenous carnival in Oruro, Bolivia. Montevideo Carnival is equally as compelling and definitely more enduring!
While Montevideo Carnival has many similarities to other carnival celebrations around the globe, it differs dramatically in raison d’etre and its origin. Montevideo Carnival brings together the very diverse melting pot of cultures that make up Uruguayan society and allows for a general reversal of everyday norms.
Montevideo Carnival truly offers something for everyone and is celebrated by people of all ages and backgrounds. Running from early January to mid-March, carnival is filled with song, dance, drumming, comedy and theatre! Lively and colourful parties fill the streets of every neighbourhood with joy.
Uruguayans value freedom of the human spirit, which Montevideo Carnival embraces with open arms. Recent estimates have said that roughly 90% of the entire country participates in carnival to some extent. This is evident because carnival is a family-oriented affair, with everyone from grandpa to the kids, running around celebrating!
Montevideo Carnival is virtually unknown to the people outside of Uruguay. This means that it is one of the most authentic carnivals in the world. Carnival is truly a local experience here. It hasn’t been commercialised or commodified, it is something that has been naturally produced out of the culture. Very few tourists attend carnival here, and the ones that do are often from neighbouring countries.
Where is Montevideo Carnival?
Montevideo is both the capital and largest city of Uruguay. Uruguay is a small South American Country that sits in between Brazil and Argentina, known for its beach-lined coast and verdant interior. Montevideo is home to nearly half of Uruguay’s population. It is a vibrant and electric city with a rich history and cultural life.
When is Montevideo Carnival?
Montevideo Carnival is unlike most other South American carnival celebrations because they don’t follow the Christian calendar of carnival finishing when Lent begins, 6 weeks before Easter. In Uruguay they always begin in the third week of January and end in mid-March.
The 2021 Montevideo Carnival official dates have not been announced.
The parade will usually start in the third week of January with the Inaugural Parade and run for 40 consecutive days. Possible longer if rain causes delays.
There is currently talks to suspend the parades for 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic however there are talks that the parade may go ahead and be televised but have no audience. We will keep you updated on any news.
Months before the main celebrations and parades, the Uruguayan Carnival begins to stir. In November carnival celebrations kick off with a week of spectacles and performances that feature renowned artists and musicians. There are also week-long comedy stage shows that feature classic satire artists, parodying the way of the world.
For carnival, the locals are only officially given two days of public holidays, which are Rose Monday and Shrove Tuesday, the two days preceding Ash Wednesday. Although for this entire carnival week, most businesses and shops are closed. Streets and houses around the city are grandly decorated!
There are three different parts of carnival.
- Carnival Tablados which are nightly shows featuring 4-7 carnival groups are on across the city starting in January and running for the next 40 nights (even longer if there is rain).
- The Inaugural Parade (Desfile inaugural) often takes place in January.
- Las Llamadas, usually takes place in February and runs down Isla de Flores street between Barrio Sur and Palermo.
What is the history of Montevideo Carnival?
Montevideo Carnival is a unique blend of African and European customs and traditions. While most carnival celebrations in the South America find their roots in the European pre-Lenten carnival celebrations. Montevideo Carnival’s roots began in the slave trade.
In 1750, the European families who inhabited Montevideo transported slaves from African countries. Montevideo Carnival evolved from when wealthy residents of Montevideo granted their permission to allow slaves to gather at approved locations.
The slaves who were eager to preserve their identity and cultural heritage, practiced would dance to drum based music, becoming what we now call candombe.. The slaves would remember the old African drums that would beat to perform their social, hunting or religious rites.
That music rapidly merged with other Uruguayan music creating candombe. Candombe is a traditional drum-based dance and music form. Candombe themes often represent the trials and tribulations of the enslaved black worker.
After Uruguay abolished slavery, candombe continued on in the streets of Montevideo and would eventually evolve into carnival. The first drumming comparsas began in the 1860s by Afro-Uruguayans.
In the 20th century there was mass immigration from Europe to Montevideo. Many poor immigrants lived in crowded tenements of Barrio Palermo and Sur. There they learned candombé drumming from their Afro-Uruguayan neighbours. Banner-twirling also became a major feature of Las Llamadas which has Basque origins.
The most important comparsas (many of which still survive today) were racially mixed with both whites and blacks coming together to create a uniquely Uruguayan art form, whose popularity continued to grow since the 1950’s. At the turn of the 20th century, carnival festivities were extended to over a month.
How do they celebrate Montevideo Carnival?
You may be thinking, how can the Montevideo locals dance and party for 40 days in a row? Well, truth be told, that Montevideo Carnival is slightly different to carnivals in Brazil. Here it begins and ends with a street parade, and in between there are spectacles every night until mid-March, including parades, shows, competitions and other events that are uniquely Uruguayan.
In Montevideo Carnival there are three types of celebration first is the opening Inaugural Parade known as El Desfile Inaugural del Carnaval. Then there is the Parade of the Calls known as Desfile de Llamadas. And the last celebration are the nightly shows known as the Tablados meaning temporary stages that are set up around the city.
Carnival kicks off with the Inaugural Parade (El Desfile Inaugural del Carnaval) which marks the opening of carnival. It features performances by a number of bands, murga groups, comedians, parodists and other artists. However, preparation for carnival begins months before, with the election of the Carnival Queens and children’s parade.
One of the highlights of Montevideo Carnival and the most popular event is the Parade of the Calls or Desfile de las Llamadas, in Spanish. Las Llamadas is a procession of 40 different groups of singers, musicians, and dancers. It was named Las Llamadas (the calls) because in former times different carnival groups would “call” for each other with their tambors.
The Tablados are not carnival parades but outdoor performances that are put on across most neighbourhoods every night. The majority of venues are open air, with seating, stages and sound systems set up in public spaces all over the city. They host different groups of artists including the comparsas, murgas, revistas, parodists and comedians.
“Los corsos barriales” of Montevideo Carnival are other carnival parades that occur. These are much smaller than the two main parades, but shouldn’t be discounted. There are 18 spread throughout the city and they offer the traveller the perfect opportunity to get to know a neighbourhood that is not on the tourist circuit and join and authentic party.
Inaugural Parade (El Desfile Inaugural del Carnaval)
Montevideo Carnival begins with the Inaugural Parade! It runs down Montevideo’s main street, the 18 de Julio. Tens of thousands, line the street from 7pm until 4 in the morning, getting bombarded with confetti, cheering as a slow procession of carnival groups, who one after the other are all dressed in incredible, often outlandish carnival costumes.
The carnival groups include musicians, drummers, pantomime troupes, comedians, rock bands and dancers, flanked by the waving of enormous silk flags. In between them are elaborate floats and even the odd beer truck makes it way down the parade route. The comparsas compete with each other for who has the most captivating dancers.
Carnival tablados are on across Montevideo from Thursday 23rd January, and run for the next 40 nights, and even longer if there is rain. Tablados are nightly shows that feature four to seven carnival groups that are held in most neighborhoods across Montevideo.
There are five different categories of shows including: comparsas, murgas, comedians, parodists, and revistas. Some tablado line-ups are much better than others. The best tablados occur in Teatro Verano, which is an open-air theatre in Parque Rodó neighbourhood. This is where the official jury that judges the official carnival shows is based.
What is a murgas? One of the most prominent parts of Montevideo Carnival are the Murgas. A murga is a type of street performance that can be described as being a mixture of song, comedy and theatre. They originated from Cadiz Carnival in Spain and were brought to Uruguay by the early 20th century Immigrants.
Essentially, they are a kind of musical theatre group with bass drums, snare drums and cymbals, that back up to 17 singers who have painted faces, colourful costumes and unique harmonies. They develop a new show every year for carnival and perform on the temporary stages set up across the city.
Their lyrical content for the most part is related to current social and political events in Uruguay and is often used as a popular form of resistance. They can entertain children through their song and slapstick performance and adults through their political and cultural references. Often lampooning public figures like Uruguay’s politicians or on topics like their relations with Argentina.
During carnival there is a contest amongst the murgas, with the wining group often getting to tour other Latin American countries. Each neighbourhood has its own troupe and judges visit each neighbourhood during carnival to select a winner.
The best Murgas troupes do this for work full time, spending most of the year performing across the country. Agarrate Catalina is one of the most renowned murgas groups of recent times. They have been awarded the carnival’s top prize on several occasions and toured all around the world.
What is a comparsa? Comparsa describes a group of candombe performers. Today there are around 80 or 90 comparsas groups throughout Montevideo. During carnival season all the local comparsas groups perform in the parade. They compete against each in official competitions in the Teatro de Verano theatre other to try win the title of the best comparsas group.
What is candombe? Candombe is the star of Montevideo Carnival! It is a uniquely Uruguayan, drum based, African-derived rhythm of music and dance. Candombe is an important part of the Uruguayan culture and has even been recognised by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage of Humanity!
Candombe originates back in the colonial period, before Uruguay was even a country. Wealthy residents granted permission for slaves to gather at approved locations. The slaves who were eager to preserve their heritage and identity would march around banging drums to imitate African drums that would beat to perform their social, hunting or religious rites.
Over time that African music rapidly merged with other Uruguayan music creating current rhythms and music that became what we now call candombe. Candombe themes often represent the trials and tribulations of the enslaved black worker. Once slavery was abolished this tradition became continued on and continued to grow more and more popular.
Today, Candombe is a street performance that features bands with both drummers and dancers who practice all year round with ever-increasing fervour. The procession is announced with flag bearers and dancers in colourful costumes. Playing at the back of the troupe is a group of drummers called cuerda de tambores, who march in a square formation playing different rhythms.
In front of the cuerda de tambores, are the performers. These performers take on roles of special carnival characters that date back to Candombe’s humble beginnings. They include the Herb Doctor (El Gramillero) and ‘The Old Mother’ (La Mama Vieja), who dance together with a cane and a fan. There is also a baton-spinning Broomsman (El Escobero)’.
There are about 35 organised drumming groups that represent the various neighbourhoods throughout Montevideo. Today, Candombe is a very competitive event, particularly between the emblematic neighbourhoods of Palmero and Barrio Sur.
What is a tambores? Tambores are the barrel-shaped drums played by the Candombe. They are made of woods with animal skins that are rope-tuned or fire-tuned, minutes before they perform. The drums are worn at the waist with the aid of a shoulder strap called a tali. The drums are played with one stick and one hand.
The drums have different names according to size and function. Within the cuerda de tambores, there are four groups that each reflect the four records of human voice. The smallest drums are called the chico, they have the thinnest skin and shortest diameter. They mimic the soprano and marks the tempo.
The next group is the repique, which are medium sized drums that reflects the contralto. The second largest group is piano that are large drums that represents the tenor/baritone. And last drum is even larger, called the bajo or bombo. It is the deepest and corresponds to the bass.
The Calls Parade – ‘Desfile de Llamadas’
If you’re in Montevideo when ‘Las Llamadas‘ is on, then make sure you go, because it’s such a unique experience. This all-night drum parade is the highlight of the Montevideo Carnival and not just because of its grandeur, but because it stays grounded in tradition. The hypnotic drumbeats and catchy rhythms will leave you spell bound right from the start!
Las Llamadas (the calls) derive from the call made by the slaves when they began to meet together as a way to deal with certain issues. The parade mixes African slave culture with its European influences. Drummers, flag bearers, carnival characters, stilt-walkers and sequined dancers make it quite the unique cultural experience.
It’s far from the busy and touristy carnival parades that you would see at Rio Carnival. This carnival parade is an event that’s put on by the locals, for the locals. The parade route avoids major streets and avenues, instead it winds its way through a tight street in a quaint, little-visited part of Montevideo.
This hugely popular drum parade features groups of drummers and dancers. The comparsas groups parade the streets with hopes to win awards for the quality of their choreography as well as drumming, similar to how the Samba Schools compete in Brazil. Participating groups just like the Samba Schools represent a particular barrio of Montevideo, some more popular than others.
The parading of Las Llamadas groups follows a fairly strict pattern. In the front of each group is three or four people holding a banner with the groups name. They are followed by a strong man who carry’s a large upright banner with the group’s emblem. Following him are the flag wavers known as the ‘Portabanderas’.
Following them is a group carrying one moon and two stars, held on long sticks to symbolise a connection with Islam, which was the traditional religion of the slaves’ homeland. Then afterwards is when the first dancing girls make their appearance. They can range in size from 20 – 80 depending on the group’s size.
The final dancers are located just in front of the drummers and are the most elaborately dressed. The drummers are the closing party of each group. Most groups have around 50-80 drummers, some have even more, some less. In larger groups drummers tend to wear different costumes, some colourful and some scary. Many may wear African themed face masks or elaborate face paint.
One of the best places to watch the parade is on a balcony or a roof of one of the Spanish colonial houses which residents rent out for around US $30, or ground level for around US $10. It’s a great option as it will be packed with Uruguayans who will drink, cheer and party.
While carnival doesn’t officially start till the end of January, many preparations for carnival begin months in advance. Many of the different city barrios will host beauty pageants to select a woman to represent them in the Carnival Queen Contest.
Also, the drumming groups will start to parade through Montevideo with their handcrafted wooden drums rehearsing for the Llamadas. Another pre-carnival event is the Carnival of the Promises which is the children’s parade which takes place in early January. There is another parade on January 6th, which is the Feast of the Epiphany.
How to get to Montevideo?
- By Plane: You can fly to Carrasco International Airport which is about 15 km east of the Montevideo’s city centre, in the suburb of Carrasco.
- By Boat: Montevideo connects to Buenos Aires by a direct ferry service. It is a 2-hour trip operated by Buquebus. One-way tickets cost around US$100. It docks in the Ciudad Vieja district of Montevideo, which is located very close to downtown. A cheaper option is the take a bus + ferry combination by catching the bus to Colonia, Nueva Palmira or Carmelo. From there you can take a ferry for around US$40.
- By Bus: Montevideo has a great bus network that connects all over the country. Buses to Colonia del Sacramento depart ever hour and take around 2.5 – 3hrs. Buses to Punta del Este depart every hour and take around 2 hrs. You can also catch a bus to many other major cities in South America such as Salto (6hrs), Porto Alegre (12hrs), São Paulo (28hrs), Santiago de Chile (27hrs), Córdoba (12hrs), Asuncion (26hrs).
- By Car: But if you are not staying close or you want to explore more of Uruguay then get a quote for a rental car here.
How to get around Montevideo?
Montevideo is not a large city and it has a very efficient public transportation system so getting around is not that difficult at all. There are two websites that you can use that are very good in helping you get to your destination which are Cómo ir and Montevideo Bus. There are also a few apps that will help including Bondi on iPhone and Solobus on Android.
When you board the bus, you will pay either the driver or the assistant. You can also ask the driver or assistant to help let you know when your stop is coming up. The city bus terminal is called Tres Cruces and all timetables are available online here.
If you don’t want to use public transport you can use a services called Remise which is like using a taxi but more professional. You can even request a driver in your own language, or get a quote to rent a driver for the day or hour. Their website can be found here. There are plenty of taxis around, but they aren’t the cheapest option because gas is expensive in Uruguay, but taxis are metered.
Car rental is not a bad option in Montevideo as it is not too difficult to drive around. Road traffic is quite light outside of rush hours, and even rush hour isn’t to bad when compared to American cities of similar size. Also, it is not that hard to find parking in Montevideo either. Get a quote for a rental car here. Or to rent a bike or a scooter get a quote here.
Where to stay in Montevideo?
Because Montevideo is relatively small and easy to get around you are not limited on where you should stay for carnival. Plus, every night of carnival there are shows in neighbourhoods all over the city. There are 62 different neighbourhoods that make up Montevideo, but we will look at the ones that you will most likely stay in as a tourist.
Ciudad Vieja (Old Town) is the oldest neighbourhood in Montevideo and a great place to stay for history and architect lovers as it has some of Montevideo’s oldest and most beautiful buildings. It is directly joined to the port which was once the entrance to the city. It is also home to the city’s most important square Plaza Independencia.
Where to stay in Old Town?
For some options here you can stay in Alma Histórica Boutique Hotel (US$152+) a luxury hotel in this area that is very sophisticated. Nice mid-range options are Circus Hostel&Hotel Montevideo (US$60+) and Don Boutique Hotel (US$60+). And for budget travellers there is Montevideo Lounge Hostel (US$40+) and La Posada ($US30+).
Cordón is a central neighbourhood and also one of the cheapest. It is located around the main parade route of Montevideo, 18 de Julio Avenue. It hosts a huge street market every Sunday – Feria de Tristán Narvaja. It is also home to a lot of craft beer places if this interests you.
Where to stay in centro?
Some accommodation options include if you want luxury Radisson Montevideo Victoria Plaza (US$130+). Ciudadno Suites is a good mid-range option and it is located across from the main bus station. Budget options include Hotel Ideal ($US30+), Claridge Hotel ($US30+). And for backpackers El Viajero Downtown Hostel & Suites ($US14+) and Caballo Loco Hostel ($US28+).
Parque Rodó and Palermo is honestly one of the best places to stay in Montevideo. This area is full of character and charm and built around a huge green and leafy park. The neighbourhood is also boarded with the shallow waters of popular Rameriz Beach. There is also a great nightlife in this area with loads of pubs and clubs. Lots of hostels are located here.
Where to stay in Parque Rodo?
A great mid-range option is the Ibis Styles Montevideo which is located on the edge of Parque Rodó. Great budget options are Sauce Hostel, MedioMundo Hostel and Buenas Vibras Hostel.
Punta Carretas is Montevideo’s most southern neighbourhood and is boarded by the rambla and the Punta Carretas lighthouse. It is a great area for shopping with a huge weekend street market and large shopping centre. It’s a middle-class area with lots of great shops, cafes and restaurants as well as many new developments popping up.
Where to stay in Punta Carretas?
Some luxury options are Sheraton Montevideo (US$179+). Some great mid-range options Aloft Montevideo Hotel (US$80+), Mercure (US$80+), Pocitos Plaza Hotel (US$60+), Dazzler by Wyndham (US$70), Vivaldi Hotel Loft Punta Carretas (US$60+), Esplendor by Wyndham (US$70), Hotel Gema Luxury Suites (US$50). Budget options include Vato Loko Hostel (US$20+), Student’s Hostel (US$20+) and Hotel Antares (US$20+).
Pocitos is the best place to stay if you want to enjoy plenty of time on the beach. The neighbourhood is named after its long-curved sands. The rambla is the longest beach sidewalk in the world, stretching 22km.
Where to Stay in Pocitos?
If you are after luxury then you must stay in the Hyatt Centric Montevideo (US$169+) or Soro Montevideo, Curio Collection by Hilton (US$120+). Some great mid-range options include My Suites Boutique Hotel & Wine Bar (US$80+), Armon Suites Hotel (US$80+), Mérit Montevideo Apart & Suites (US$80+). Great budget options include Hotel Palacio (US$30+) and New Arapey Hotel (US$30+).
Carrasco is an exclusive Montevideo neighbourhood where the elite hangout. It is the best place to stay for fine diners and luxury travellers. It is also the most expensive area of Montevideo to live in and the greenest area of the city. The prestigious Carrasco Beach stretches along the coastline with loads of upmarket shopping and fine dining. There is also a huge casino in the area.
Where to stay in Carrasco?
You can stay in the luxurious Sofitel Montevideo Casino Carrasco & Spa (US$220+). Mid-range options include Pedro Figari Boutique Hotel (US$120+) and Hotel Lago Carrasco (US$80+). Budget options include Hotel Bahamas (US$40+).
There are no shortage of hotels hostels and rentals in Montevideo. However, during carnival season, hotels book up early so it is best to book your accommodation early. Check out some great accommodation deals here.
Is Montevideo Safe?
Montevideo is in fact one of the safest cities in Latin America. It certainly has that rough around the edges Latin America look, but you won’t need to feel insecure walking down the street. Of course, it is still a major city so you will need to take regular pre-cautions just like you would in any big city, and you will be fine. Most restaurants and cafes offer Wi-Fi and the tap water is clean enough to drink.
But do be aware of pickpockets, especially during carnival when there are big crowds and it is easy to get your stuff stolen. So be aware of your valuables at all times or even leave them back at your hotel and only bring some cash with you. Or check out Amazon and invest in one of these travel safety accessories, like a fanny pack hidden under your clothing to store your essentials in.
What to do and see in Montevideo?
Uruguay because of its tiny population of just 3 million is one of those countries that tends to slip from people’s radar. But despite its size, Uruguay is safe, has a bustling economy, is a very liberal country with both gay marriage and marijuana having been legalised, is one of the eco-friendliest countries in South America, and its people are known for their relaxed way of life.
As for Montevideo, while this gorgeous city is only 20km in diameter, it packs a big punch for lovers of history, art, culture, music, and food. Carnival in this part of the world also happens to occur during summer and Montevideo boasts miles of sandy beaches, that you can enjoy.
In Montevideo’s old town, La Ciudad Vieja, you will find many key points of interest in the city. It’s a walkable area with tree-lined streets and historic squares. Plaza Independencia is surrounded by many of Uruguay’s most important government buildings as well as historic French-influenced architecture.
Ciudad Vieja is also where most of the nightlife is found. Visitors can explore the area via the pedestrian-only walkways which wind past boutique shops, quaint cafes, outdoor patios, and markets, stopping to admire the street art and sculptures. Which are framed by palm trees popping out of the pavement. There are often tango dancers in the street or a violinist in the corner.
Montevideo was built to maximize its prime waterfront real estate. Many homes, hotels and restaurants overlook the Rio de Plata. Beautiful sunny days lure residents to the Montevideo Beaches for swimming, sport or to relax. Or you can walk along the Rambla of Montevideo a 22km promenade which traces the shoreline.
You can also visit the Carnival Museum which opened at Rambla opposite the port of Montevideo. It opened 10 years ago and is a great way to understand the feeling of this carnival and how it managed to join together different cultures. You can immerse yourself in the history of carnival in Uruguay and appreciate all the displays of clothes and photos collected over the last century.
Take a tour
Honestly there is so much cool stuff to do and see in Montevideo, we recommend doing some sightseeing when you are there. If you check out Viator you will find loads of different, excursions, day trips and sightseeing tours.
Or if you are incredibly lucky and are able to take a longer vacation then just coming out for carnival, take a look at Tour Radar, as they have lots of different itineraries for amazing vacations around the Uruguay and South America, which we highly recommend because it is such a unique part of the world.
Montevideo Tickets and Prices
Montevideo Carnival is very affordable with seats for the parade costing less than US $10. As we said earlier many locals will rent out their homes so you can watch the parades from a higher vantage point for better views. Even the Tablados are reasonably prices. In some neighbourhoods they are even subsidised by the government with seats costing US$2.
Before you go!
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