Spain is known for numerous fiestas (festivals) all year long, but the most raucous and outrageous is beyond doubt the carnival that has the entire country, from North to South, in an 11-day long party. The dates vary from year to year depending on the date of Easter but are generally held in February or March. In 2022, the beginning of carnival is early — that is to say in February. The origins of this festivity of drinking, dancing, parades, humor, masks, parodies, and music are thought to date back to the Roman festival of Saturnalia. In Christian times, the weeks of carnival mark a period of uninhibited indulgence and celebrations before the fasting of lent.
Carnival in Spain is especially diverse and colorful as each region has its own traditions that are strictly adhered to and the preparations for the elaborate costumes, floats, and parades begin long before the start of carnival. Carnival is not only for spectators, just don any kind of costume, mask, or headdress and merrily join in the fun. Don’t expect much sleep though; the celebrations go on day and night.
Here are the 11 most popular, spectacular, and famous carnivals in Spain.
1. Carnival In Aguilas, Murcia
Murcia in southeast Spain is the capital of the province of the same name, located near the Mediterranean Costa Calida. It’s often referred to as the Garden of Europe due to its abundance of fruit, vegetables, and flowers. The carnival in Aguilas is famous for its colorful parades (where the flowers play a great part), competitions for the best costumes, and two local carnival traditions: the throwing of eggshells filled with confetti and the consumption of a ‘magic drink’ called cuerva, made from wine and lemon which supposedly enhances the carnival spirit.
2. Carnival In Cadiz
The port town of Cadiz in Andalusia celebrates a much larger carnival than some others in Spain. It’s basically an 11-day street party with parades and floats prepared by the several carnival societies of the city. They are also the ones that perform a special tradition of Cadiz carnival: groups with musical instruments that roam the streets, singing songs full of irony and political criticism. They are called comparsas, coros, and chiringotes and they represent the music and parody aspect of Spanish carnival. Again, this is a carnival where everybody joins in the fun.
3. Entroido In Xinzo De Limia, Galicia
Xinzo de Limia is a small town approximately 30 miles from Ourense in Spain’s northern province of Galicia. Whereas many carnivals in Spain have a distinctly Brazilian feel to them, Xinzo de Limas is very different. Galicia is a land of legends of witches and the devil, and that is reflected in the main characters and traditions of this carnival. It’s also the longest in Spain, beginning on Fareleiro Sunday, three weeks before Carnival Sunday, and ending on Piñata Sunday. So, as you can see, it’s much longer than the usual 11 days.
The devil comes into play in the form of characters called pantallas. They represent the devil and open every event of the carnival. Wearing frightful masks, bells on their belt, and filled pigs bladders in their hand, they make a lot of noise as they roam the streets and their main task is to make sure that everybody is wearing carnival costumes — be they local or not. If they catch someone who doesn’t, he is dragged off to the nearest bar where he is punished by having to buy several rounds of drinks. Another opening ceremony is a mock battle between all of the town’s population where they get covered in flour as ammunition. And finally, on yet another occasion, water is thrown from earthen pots on the crowd below until someone falls, totally soaked on the floor. There are floats and parades too, the most important on carnival Tuesday. If you plan to visit this carnival, just make sure you don’t venture out without a mask or costume and be prepared to be either drenched with water or powdered with flour.
4. Carnival In Santa Cruz De Tenerife
If you can’t make it to Rio, head for 11 days of unabashed music, flamboyance, and luxury in Santa Cruz, the capital of the Canary island of Tenerife. Known around the world as the most Brazilian carnival in Spain, be blown away by the sheer extravagance of the costumes, sequins, plumes, and bouncing headdresses. All of these beauties in their fineries (some barely there) have one goal: to win the coveted title of Carnival Queen. Guys participate too, although there is no title of Carnival Prince to be won.
5. Carnival Las Palmas Gran Canaria
This carnival is a great competitor for popularity in Santa Cruz de Tenerife. It’s also the oldest that has been celebrated since the 16th century. Highlights of this carnival are the Gala of the Queen and, since 1998, the Gala of the Drag Queen. After a preselection, the Drag Queen candidates perform on a stage erected over the Santa Catalina Park.
In between there are parades, music, dance performances, and a cabalgata, or a “horse parade.” You’ll also encounter murgas, groups of friends singing humorous or ironic songs at all hours.
6. Carnival In Sitges, Barcelona
Approximately half an hour from Barcelona lies the lively seaside town of Sitges. It is well known as a popular holiday location for the LGBT community and the colorful carnival reflects that. It lasts from February 11–17, but this year, due to COVID, much of the entertainment is virtual. The Rio-style carnival of Sitges attracts over 2,000 participants and 50 floats, parading through the streets. The two most important parades are called Extermination and Debauchery. The end of carnival is marked by another ritual: the Burying of the Sardine. It’s a mock funeral procession where a huge symbolic figure in the shape of a sardine is carried at the head of the parade and burnt to symbolize the death of all the fun and excesses before the severity of lent begins.
7. La Palma TBC White Party
The Canary island of La Palma, that has recently made headlines because of a massive volcano eruption, is nevertheless defying the misery that catastrophe brought and making preparations for their very special carnival. Whereas all other carnivals in Spain are dominated by color, the Parade of Los Indianos is a vision of white. Held on February 24 and also known as the TBC White Party, ladies dress in elegant white dresses and men wear white linen suits, topped with white straw hats. The streets are resounding with Caribbean music. The history behind this all-white carnival is the reenactment of immigrants who have returned from Cuba.
8. Carnival In Aviles, Asturias
The city of Aviles in Asturias has a well preserved medieval center that becomes the focus of its carnival. The city center is transformed by parades and “disguises” such as covering statues and monuments in foam. People walk around wearing full face masks and half of the fun is guessing who might be hidden behind the mask. Bars and restaurants are also covering up their facades. The last 3 days of carnival have a gastronomic focus. Asturias is famous for its delicious and hearty food, among them the white beans dish called fabada, so it’s no surprise that food is an essential part of the carnival celebrations.
9. Castell Platja D’Aro, Catalonia
Platja d’Aro is located on the Northeast Coast of Catalonia and is a rather small village with pristine beaches, churches, and other monuments. Small it may be, but come carnival, celebrated between February 15 and 26, the picture changes. It’s one of Spain’s larger carnivals with no less than 4,000 musicians and 70 local groups, called comparsas, who exhibit their colorful costumes and themes in over 50 floats. Nearly 500,000 visitors come to the carnival of Platja d’ Aro every year to celebrate.
10. Carnival In Verin, Galicia
Verin is not far from Xinzo de Lima and the carnival of Verin has a few of the same features and traditions, as Galicia is very different from the carnivals in other regions of Spain. The festivities begin on Corredeira Sunday with fireworks and the first groups of masked men called cigarrones roam the town and encourage everybody to wear masks and costumes with bells and whistles. In the evening, a masked ball is held in Plaza Mayor and Thursday is women’s day. The women of Verin leave the men at home, dress up in their costumes and masks, parade around Verin, and go out for dinner. On the other days, floats are paraded around town and a lot of music, dancing, and entertainment takes place until at night when another ball ends the carnival. There are also flour fights.
11. Carnival In Madrid
Spain’s capital, Madrid, is of course a huge city with many districts and each one has their own traditions and celebrations. Carnival in Madrid lasts from February 12–17 and has a great resemblance to the carnival in Venice. The emphasis is on the elaborate costumes and masks with brocade, velvet, and silk very much in evidence and much less “flesh” on show than in the other Brazilian-style carnivals. The highlight is the Parade of Buffoons that also features ironic songs and court jesters.
Pro Tip: Whichever of the many carnivals in Spain you might choose to visit, always remember that it is essential not to be a spectator but a participant. If you don’t, you might even get punished like in Xinzo deLima, Galicia.
If you’re visiting Spain for carnival, be sure to check out these destinations: