Like many carnival cities that celebrate Caribbean islands, showcasing our culture, music, colours and rhythm, Caribana should be on the list for you to visit! They have had planning issues (Cultural Committee and sponsorship) where leaders have tried to whitewash it or reduce it in number, but they keep doing it bigger and better. Of the 3.5 carnival locations (Rotterdam, London, Toronto and Jamaica for pre-carnival) that I have been to, this was the most fun! One of the warm-up parties easily slid into the top 5 of my entire 28-good-years!
I should disclose that I am not a paint, powder or oil person but after this pandemic, I will be in that Caribbean mix when carnival returns after COVID-19 is under control.
What is Caribana, the Toronto Caribbean Carnival?
Caribana started in 1967 and was officially changed to Toronto Caribbean Carnival in 2015, but no one uses that name. It was inspired by Trinidadian carnival and as Toronto is very multicultural, the community grew with South Americans, Bahamian, Caribbean natives and more getting involved. It brings 5-days of energy, music, and beautiful souls to the city to have fun, dance and mingle. The pre-carnival parties (jump-up, “mas”/masquerade, blocko, J’ouvert) are huge, you need to do your research; the parade is a world of colour, outfits and vibrant smiles into the stadium; the post parties are good, and I suggest boats or cooler parties (think of cars filled with drinks in their cooler, meeting at one location to dance and relax).
Let’s dive into Toronto and get you ready for the road:
Talk to people!
On our first day, we spoke to groups of guys for party information, asked women for directions and whoever looked local for food directions. Talk to others and make global friends, might I add that there are a lot of athletes and celebrities in Toronto at this time. If you’re single, enjoy; if you’re in a relationship, hold tight because the Caribbean whine is life-altering. There are Facebook groups dedicated to planning, meeting up and even getting party advice, I recommend joining a few and even 1 or 2 online group chats with Caribana veterans.
You meet people that way and your aura, purer. When in line entering events or restaurants, be you and be open to talking to people. Caribana isn’t for the meek at heart: you go there to dance and (re-)connect. Don’t be a stickler, aggressive or judgemental- no one is watching you as everyone is more concerned about the music, jumping up (think mosh pit but safely sophisticated) and eating or drinking well. Being yourself allows you to connect with people, possibly seats you amongst VIP tables and has the potential for fun conversations and networking.
Take the Uber to move around
If you’re a drinker, take an uber or taxi everywhere. Nowhere abroad is the place to have an accident and have a criminal offence against your name. The same sense you use at home needs to go with you in foreign (paraphrased from a Caribbean proverb). Don’t forget to have some charge left on your phone though. On sober nights walk a few blocks away from the club to order an Uber. This will help as traffic builds up to an hour before closing time.
The weather is warm and cool at night. Shorts, tees, vests, bikini tops are acceptable. Casual and sexy is the look, which includes trainers and sandals. If you are in the parade, customise your trainers or get the boots as a part of your outfit. Remember you will be on your feet for 5+ hours in heat, and potentially carrying giant wings or other paraphernalia on your person.
Parade as a spectator.
Everything Caribana related is held downtown. The parade is usually by Lakeshore but starts at 8 am. If you’re spectating, you need to go early to get a good view and meet up spot. The masqueraders are separated from the public by fences- depending on where you’re from this isn’t ideal. I’m used to dancing with costumed persons but there you can’t- unless you push past the fence in weaker areas. There is a posh feel to costumes as many masqueraders feel that they have paid for a quality outfit and shouldn’t have it ruined by those who choose not to participate.
Joining a mas
The best mas bands for the Gran Parade to join are Saldenah, Tribal and Toronto Revellers (they have good boat cruise parties too). Send in your correct measurements and plan your journey to the band headquarters, many are out of the downtown area (45 minutes to 1 hour away). Follow the groups on Instagram for their April launches to see the outfits. If you choose to go with others, find out about hospitality, price (usually $275-1200CAD) and customer service.
· Stay in the Downtown area (or close to Entertainment District), this makes everything easier. Use Airbnb, rented accommodations or hotels to book your stay. We found that in February, the Airbnb homeowners summer prices had not yet updated, it’s worth sending them a message to check, else you will be very surprised. For a group of 4, expect upwards of $400CAD/night in a hotel. The Official Caribana Toronto website offers package hotels (Hilton, Marriott and the popular Sheraton hotel) and tickets around 9-months before carnival.
The food and shopping experience is similar to the USA: you have your chain stores and random eateries of Mexican food, American, Eastern and supermarket ready meals. Head to the tallest building (CN Tower) and use your nose. There are a few Caribbean restaurants, but after trying 2 in very different locations (Caribana 2019), I wouldn’t trust it- it’s regular food coated with seasoning and it’s sad.
The best parties: A white boat party with food and drinks included in the price, Daylit (you must get these tickets early at around £40) and Sunday Blocko. The latter isn’t very soca/bashment oriented and would be better if your group enjoys RnB and Hip-hop.
Exchange rates vary, I always exchange open-currency before leaving England. The club alcoholic drinks are upwards of $10CAD. Buy most event tickets beforehand and decide on the rest when there. The official Caribana Toronto website releases wristbands that cover some events from $30CAD upwards, but they come out after general event tickets in Spring.
I have been to Notting Hill carnival, and there are cultural similarities, but Toronto is a huge city, and it’s hard to compare to one area of London. Toronto comes alive for the official Carnival week, and there is a diverse mix of people there; NHC will have a non-Caribbean crowd, and they are younger in comparison. For me, NHC tends to be small and jam-packed for the parade days with a mix of music for Black British taste; but Caribana offers authentic Caribbean music, and although you are securing the best whine of your life, you can still breathe.
For your ears
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Kirah is a blogger, educator (special needs) and traveller. Her passion for seeing more of the world increased after qualifying to teach English to Adults (CELTA) where her journey began in Spain. She is presently on country 32 (of 25 independent territories) and is always ready to catch flights and experience new cultures.