Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, is known for its relaxed vibes, beautiful riverfront, high quality of life, and good food. But did you know that it has the longest – and one of the largest – Carnaval experiences in the world? Each year, from late January through early March, Montevideans celebrate forty full days of Carnaval. And even for those of us who visit outside of Carnaval season, the spirit of the festival can be experienced.
While its cousin in Brazil is the more well-known (and probably more intense) experience, Uruguay’s Carnaval dates back to the same colonial period. Here, Carnaval features aspects of native life, the experience of African slaves, and modern Uruguayan democratic vibrancy, all rolled up into more than a month of fun joined in by an estimated 90% of the local population. The party happens all over the country, but here in Montevideo (which holds more than 60% of the Uruguayan population) it takes on a huge importance, with different events all over the city.
Since I visited Montevideo in May, well past Carnaval season, my Carnaval experience began at the Museo del Carnaval, which sits along the port facilities in Montevideo’s old city. I arrive at opening (11am; this is not an early-rising part of the world) and have the place to myself. Here, in just a couple large rooms, are many of the best features of Carnaval: musical instruments, costumes, paper mache decorations, models of show stages, and videos of some of the best celebrations throughout the last couple decades.
As the museum shares with me, Uruguayan Carnaval differs from the Brazilian version in a few ways, besides just being longer. One difference is the incorporation of candombe, a uniquely Uruguayan music and dance based on African drumming. (Candombe even has UNESCO status, and performances happen year-round in Montevideo’s Palermo neighborhood, though I didn’t get to see one while here, sadly.) Developed here by the descendants of African slaves, candombe features three different sized drums, but with up to 100 drummers at a time!
A second difference to Carnaval here in Montevideo is the tablado. A tablado is a show held on a homemade stage, with typically all-male casts performing some combination of music, dancing, parody, and political satire. (Remember, Uruguay has one of the most stable democracies in all of Latin America, so making fun of politicians is safe here, as opposed to in some other places.) Neighborhoods will have their own tablados, and prizes are given for the best in different categories. Some are free; many have inexpensive tickets.
Finally, as Uruguayan natives are quick to tell me, Carnaval here in Montevideo is for the average person. Locals take pride in that the samba dancing here features dancers who are not as perfectly chiseled as Brazilian dancers. Tourists are rare; heck, tourists are relatively rare in Montevideo at all times, compared to other major South American cities. And while there is plenty of drinking, Carnaval here isn’t the overwhelming drunken festival it is in Rio (or Mardi Gras is in New Orleans), making it family friendly-adjacent at the worst.
If there is a single highlight of the Museo del Carnaval, it is a room dedicated to some of the best costumes of the past twenty or so years. They are overwhelmingly complicated outfits, and it is important to remember that – while all of these were actually worn by performers in various tablodas – even the dresses were probably worn by men. Headdresses are huge, colors are bright, and themes are evident as the years progress. I pick out a few I think I could rock, though I would guess their weight would make dancing a challenge for me.
A few costumes have roots in animal forms, and a couple blocks away, the Pre-Columbus and Indigenous Art Museum has an exhibit on native costumes celebrating those animals. It is not hard to make the leap from the native Guarani people to the more modern Carnaval outfits, adding another local historical flavor to Montevideo’s celebrations.
While Montevideo is lovely at any time of year, I can only imagine how amazing it would be to visit during the longest Carnaval festivities in the world! And even if your plans don’t bring you here between January and March, you can celebrate along through some local experiences. If I return one day to this lovely city, you’ll find me watching a tablado, dancing to candombe, and enjoying a uniquely Uruguayan Carnaval!
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