The Carribean 26 – The best of the rest

The best of the rest (6)

San Marcos National Fair

Where? Aguascalientes, Mexico

When? April

How long? 3 weeks

Mexico’s oldest fair, the Feria Nacional de San Marcos, pulls in thousands of revellers for three weeks of genial mayhem in the heartland town of Aguascalientes, particularly in and around the San Marcos Gardens. It’s exactly what most people imagine when they think of Mexico: roaming vendors hawking everything from blankets and wooden toys to enchiladas and chocolate chicken; mariachi bands entertaining the crowds; and sideshows where you can blow your money on a cock fight or have your fortune told. For a change in pace, head for the bullfights, which are some of the best in Mexico, and pull in matadors from as far away as Spain. Evening brings on big firework displays and the urge to dance away the night while washing your tonsils in tequila, if you haven’t started doing so already. You’d have to be a real diehard to stay upright for the whole shebang, so if you need to focus on one day in particular, make it the highly charged San Marcos Parade on April 25, when there’s a brief reminder that all this started in 1604 as a religious event.

Mazatlan Carnival

Where? Mazatlan, Mexico

When? February

How long? 5 days

The five crazy days of Carnival in Mazatlan is the time to see the city at its very best – and worst – when this usually bustling fishing port and low- key beach resort transforms itself into a frantic maelstrom of partygoers, hawkers and bug-eyed tourists. Carnival here is an excuse to eke out the last of your sins before Lent, and in Mazatlan’s wild meat market, in some of the thickest, craziest crowds you’ll ever encounter, it’s sometimes difficult to tell exactly whose hands are on whose body. The countdown to Mazatlan’s Carnival begins five days before Ash Wednesday, but predictably the festivities are at their wildest on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, before people head home to be with their family or their church.

There are two drastically different parts to the town: Old Mazatlan, the original town centre, which is a quaint, colonial fishing port, and the Zona Dorada, otherwise known as “Gringo Hell” – a pricey, practically purpose-built resort. Don’t be too put off, though – the best hotels are close to the Zona Dorada, and it’s not far to go to experience some real Latin street culture. Carnival itself is one long parade along the Paseo Olas Atlas, which is sealed off for about ten blocks – a Latin-music band on the corner of each – and mobbed with security personnel. Both sides of the avenue are bursting with food and beer stands, as well as some classy restaurants, cafes and a few hotels, and in the middle, the crowds form long lines and dance from one end of Paseo Olas Atlas to the other, grinding against one another or jumping from line to line to grind with as many people as possible. This is actually a lot of fun during the more tranquil hours of Carnival, from about 8pm til midnight, but after that it gets pretty wild, as locals arrive here – Westerners seem to prefer their own parties in the bars of the Zona Dorada – to finish off their evening and party until dawn. Then, like clockwork, the crowds abruptly leave to crash out on the beach to sleep off a heavy hangover.

Semana Santa

Where? Cusco, Peru

When? Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday

How long? 7 days

Pagan frenzy and Catholic idolatory meet during Holy Week in Cusco, held over the last week of Lent. Whatever is driving them, there’s no mistaking the crowd’s religious intensity, as the show kicks off with an after­dark procession of the Holy Sepulchre, the coffin carried aloft by black-robed bearers while thousands of candle­bearing worshippers follow. The subsequent days blend into a succession of church services and holy parades, in which performers recreate scenes from the crucifixion story and beyond – including a vengeful lynching of Pilate that the Bible somehow missed. There’s also some wild partying after Good Friday, along with some general civic chaos seemingly spurred on by the belief that, as Christ is dead for a few days between the crucifixion and resurrection on Sunday, He isn’t going to be around to judge your actions.

Spring Break

Where? USA and Canada

When? March

How long? 1 week

Not so much an event as a cultural institution, Spring Break (®www.springbreak.com) sees thousands of US and Canadian college kids descend on the beaches of – among other places – southern Florida for their annual weeks of raucous partying. Depending on your point of view, this is either a place to flock to for some beer-chugging madness or somewhere to avoid like the plague, as beefcake teenagers give each other high-fives and drink until they puke in the sand. In Florida, Panama City (®www.pcb06.com) is nowadays the unofficial party HQ, attracting half-a-million college students every year. It hosts the biggest and best beach parties plus enough volleyball, limbo dancing, wet T-shirts and cold beer to keep the most red-necked Joe Sixpack happy. Outside of the USA, Cancun (www.springbreakcancun.com) sees the most action, with Negril and Acapulco coming up close behind.

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