Tenerife Carnival (1)
Santa Cruz, Tenerife, Spain
The days up to and beyond Ash Wednesday
A small island two hundred miles off the African coast, Tenerife seems an unlikely spot for one of the world’s largest carnivals; but with over three hundred entries on the island’s annual festival calendar, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that its Carnival, the biggest event of them all, is one massive, raucous jamboree. In the run-up to Lent, over a quarter of a million costumed revellers converge on the island’s capital, Santa Cruz, to party so hard that they even manage to eclipse the hedonism of the holiday resorts for which the island is best known. By attracting musicians, and even partygoers, from Latin America, Tenerife Carnival captures a great deal of the passion, fervour and debauchery of the vast events from across the Atlantic, helping make it Europe’s premier street party.
Carnival of some sort has been celebrated on Tenerife since the early years of colonization, at the end of the fifteenth century – one of the earliest references to masquerading and public pranks on the island came in 1523 when King Carlos I passed a law prohibiting masks. However, due partly to its reputation as one of the most irreverent and subversive festivals, it has been subject to many prohibitions, and subsequent revivals, over the centuries – the flamboyant custom was revived by the debauched Felipe IV in the mid-seventeenth century, and so it continued until the early part of the twentieth century, when in 1927 the church condemned men dressing as women, a key feature of Carnival. The result was the formation of a commission of “even-tempered” men, sent to visit island houses in advance of the Carnival to verify the sex of masked participants and issue licences to be pinned on the costumes of the true women. Carnival bounced back the following year, when the ordinance was largely ignored, and, unlike carnivals elsewhere in Spain, the celebrations even managed to continue throughout most of the repressive Franco era, thinly disguised as a winter festival – mostly because Franco had a soft spot for Tenerife.
Today, due to the Canary Islands’ strong links with Latin America, Tenerife Carnival is stronger than ever. Almost as soon as one Carnival ends, preparations for the next one begin, continuing throughout the year and attracting more column inches in island newspapers than almost any other news item. Despite originally being a religious festival – a brief indulgence before the sober period of Lent – spiritual observance has now taken a back seat to partying. Indeed, rather than ending on Ash Wednesday, like most carnivals, proceedings now extend several days into Lent itself.
The real core of the celebrations take place every night in the town centre – along the seafront and around the city’s main square, the Plaza de Espana _ when stages are set up for bands to pump out vibrant salsa rhythms, and hundreds of kiosks lining the street host various kinds of dance music until dawn. Most islanders are experts in pacing themselves during the carnival season, and will only slowly begin to emerge around mid-afternoon, taking their time getting ready, assembling their costumes, and hanging out with friends before heading into the fray at around midnight.
Absorbed by their quest for winter sun, the bulk of the holiday-makers on the island will probably be oblivious to the goings-on in Santa Cruz, and those who do make the trip to the capital usually leave when the formal events have finished – certainly before the party really gets going. This doesn’t mean that outsiders aren’t welcome. On the contrary, the gregarious locals will be more than happy to party with you as long as you’re in fancy iress. This varies from basic tiger and lion jumpsuits to extremely elaborate get-ups, often designed to fit in with whatever the carnival’s theme Is that year, and you’ll be well provided for by the fancy- dress stores along Santa Cruz main pedestrian drag, Calle del Castillo.