Have your bum pinched by an anonymous hand, be wet kissed by a complete stranger or be forced into an impromptu jig at Carnaval in Tenerife, a worthy rival to Brazil
The mock funeral procession marks the end of carnival and is an event dripping with irony. Dubbed the Entierro de la sardina (Burial of the sardine), the idea is to poke fun at the church while bidding a tearful farewell to the two-week long celebrations. The parade then finishes with a dramatic cremation. While this was certainly the most surreal part of the Carnival of Santa Cruz, it was by no means the most outlandish.
The biggest party in Europe, Santa Cruz Carnival runs from the middle of February till the second week of March. Hordes of people flock to the island’s capital for two weeks of non-stop dancing, singing, drinking and general merriment; while musicians and dancers from Latin America come over to inject a little Latin fever into the proceedings.
Several key events help shape the stream of hedonistic partying. One of the most important nights is the Queen Election gala, which takes place on the Wednesday before Shrove Tuesday – the night before carnival officially begins. This televised event is essentially a beauty pageant with very extravagant costumes. Young women circle the stage in front of a panel of judges but, unlike a traditional beauty contest, they wear spectacular dresses weighing up to 60kg that require wheels for mobility. The lucky hopefuls spend months at the gym lifting weights in preparation for their big night since one of the most important aspects they will be judged on is how gracefully they glide around the stage.
The next evening, we take to the streets in our full carnival regalia. Happy crowds fill the city centre in a garish explosion of colour and as soon as we see what everyone else is wearing, previous concerns about looking silly disappear. Some, like us, have kept to the theme – we spot a couple of little girls (and one grown man) dressed as Dorothy from The Wizard of OZ and several women in Chicago and Moulin Rouge-inspired garbs. Everywhere else there are mermaids, superheroes, pirates, clowns and big fluffy rabbits. We slowly thread our way down to the seafront to watch the opening parade (Cabalgata anunciadora), where we mingle with a group of young lads in shorts and T-shirts wielding cans of lager, their skin smeared with red lipstick. “We’re guiris”, they tell us. This is slang for foreigner and in Tenerife usually refers to the English.
A procession of colourful floats sails past us, led by the elected carnival queens and their ladies-in-waiting and trailed by fabulous Brazilian dancing groups and musical bands from Latin America. Also taking part in the parade are several ‘carnival characters’. An integral part of the celebrations, they include Charlie Chaplin, Miss Piggy and Fidel Castro. It’s hilarious to watch the Fidel look-alike in action; he looks absurdly out of place surrounded by semi-clad dancers and flamboyant floats. Cigar in hand and wearing a stern glare, he strides purposefully, stopping occasionally to outstare someone in the crowd and bring about a fit of nervous laughter.
The Latin word ‘carnival’ means ‘farewell to the flesh’ and describes the Catholic practice of giving up meat during the 40 days of Lent. Initiated in Italy, carnival fever spread throughout the Catholic countries of Europe during the 15th century. The port of Cádiz had close trading links with Venice and became the first Spanish town to hold its own carnival, a tradition later taken to the Canary Islands by Spanish conquistadors.
The authorities frowned on what they saw as a frenzy of disorder and disturbance. The custom of wearing masks meant that criminals were difficult to catch – a fact that led King Charles I to pass a law in 1523 banning people from wearing masks. Franco took things a leap further by banning carnival altogether, though it was still furtively celebrated in Tenerife from 1945 and in 1967 was re-named ‘The Winter festival’. Since the dictator had a bit of a soft spot for the island (he had spent some time in Tenerife in the months leading up to his seizing power) he tended to disregard the street celebrations. That said, the police still apprehended people caught wearing masks. One year so many people were arrested, that there wasn’t enough space in the local prison to hold them all and in the end the city’s bullring had to be employed as a temporary jailhouse. Franco also put a stop to people dressing up as religious or military figures – a custom that was enthusiastically reabsorbed into the celebrations following his death in 1976. With the fall of the regime, carnival was again permitted.
At 5am we realise that we’ve been in the street for 10 hours, dancing, drinking and laughing. We head to the hotel utterly exhausted, wondering how it will be possible to survive another 13 days of raving. A long snooze is followed by a satisfying feast, after which the thought of venturing out doesn’t seem so bad. The plan was to get an early night and gather extra strength for the following days. “Maybe we’ll just have a quick drink”, I suggest over coffee. Several cuba libres later and we were shaking our hips to blaring salsa music, flirting our way through the crowds and merrily pinching the butts of passing drag queens. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” is fast becoming our carnival motto.