There are a couple of things to know about Carnaval de Mazatlán. First, Mazatlecos are born with Carnaval in their veins; it is part of their DNA. They can critique a Carnaval float like no one else, knowing exactly what makes it work or what it’s lacking. That is part of the reason why it is said to be the third largest in the world. Work and school pretty much come to a halt during the days of Carnaval; it is time to party before the reflective season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.
Second, Carnaval here is a festival of the pueblo, the people. It is an intergenerational family affair. Despite what some outsiders might perceive, it is most definitely NOT a beauty contest, or at least not primarily. And it is not the festival of drunkenness and debauchery that you see elsewhere, though of course it there are people who make it that. The biggest pride for the people of Mazatlán this year is that the King of Carnaval is an ordinary guy from the barrio, a single father to two daughters, who labors for a living and performs lots of community service work. They will go wild to see him dancing on top of his Carnaval float during the two parades this year. Carnaval includes more upscale activities like classical music concerts, awards for poetry, art and literature, but the beating heart of the week-long event is the mass revelry, where you’ll celebrate with grandparents and children, as well as teenagers and adults of all ages.
The official calendar of Carnaval events is above, though it is missing a couple of key events such as the Gastronomic Fair (below) and the Lunes de Mascaritas or “Masquerade Monday,” new this year in an attempt to revive an storied city Carnaval tradition. Below are my tips for making the most of your Carnaval experience, in chronological order for the week.
- Banda El Recodo’s 80th Anniversary Concert: This year we get an extra day of Carnaval, thanks to it being the 80th anniversary of our beloved, nine-time-Grammy-winning Banda El Recodo. People around the world are so very jealous of those of us who live here in Mazatlán, home to the first Mexican band to perform in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, North and South America. They even have two stars on the walk of fame in Las Vegas. Greg went by their offices today to pick up our credentials for the concert (Wed. Feb. 27th in the stadium, doors open at 5 pm), and he was AMAZED how many people came by and waited at the door, explaining over the intercom that they had taught Poncho or known Joel when they were kids, asking for concert tickets or to talk with a star. Talk about super fans! It is wonderful to have home town heroes with international fame! The band gave out thousands and thousands of free tickets to this huge concert, which will include loads of other stars paying tribute to the Madre de las Bandas. If you have not joined in the excitement of this major event, you are missing out! You’ll see people dressed to the nines and others in jeans, boots, cowboy hats and rhinestones. Heck, just people watching will be a treat!
- The Coronation of the King (Thu. Feb. 28th in Sister Cities Park, starting at 8 pm) is always an exceptional concert and it’s always free! This year it will be headlined by another famous local son, Chuy Lizárraga! The coronation of the king has traditionally included much less pomp and circumstance than that of the queens, but it’s still a whole lot of fun—and much rowdier. You’ll most probably see some cool dancing, video effects and staging, as well as a killer fireworks show during the coronation, followed by a stellar concert. I highly recommend attending. Take a portable seat if you need one, and perhaps a cooler of beer, though no doubt there will be vendors galore. This concert attracts a huge crowd. The coronation tends to start on time or perhaps up to an hour late (which here can still be considered “on time,” with the new city administration it’s hard to know what will be different), but the headliner probably won’t play until 10 or 11 pm. Be sure to take a hat and jacket, as the park is right along the malecon, which can get cool and breezy at night. Dress will be casual. Wear closed-toe shoes as there will be a crowd.
- See a coronation—of one of the queens! You absolutely must. It will include a world-class concert, but also colorful, spirited dancing by local costumed children and professionals, impressive staging and media effects, and fireworks. My recommendation is that you attend the Coronation of the Queen of the Floral Games (Fri. Mar. 1st in the stadium at 8:30 pm) or Child Queen Coronation (Mon. Mar. 4th) are best, because it will leave your Saturday night free to catch the fireworks and burning of bad humor downtown. It is nearly impossible to see the Saturday coronation and get to Olas Altas in time to see the fireworks, due to the huge traffic jams during Carnaval (and the security line to get into the Carnaval zone). We have tried. The queen and the governor can do it, but they’ve got police escorts. The coronations require tickets, which are still available online at the Cultura Mazatlán site. Lots of people dress NICE for the coronations, and it’s fun to get into the spirit of the event. High heels tend to mean tough walking on the turf of the stadium, however. Be sure to take a jacket and hat, or even a blanket, as the stadium can get damp and cold depending on the day’s weather. You can take binoculars for a better view and, of course, your camera.
- Saturday of Carnaval is my second-most-favorite night. I spent well over a decade in Japan, and consider myself a connoisseur of good fireworks. The traditional Combate Naval fireworks show (Sat. Mar. 2nd at 10:30 pm in the Olas Altas party zone) is super; I trust it will be this year. The event, however, is attended by 500,000 or more people in a cramped area of town, so be ready to be swept up in a human wave. Honestly, you can quite literally be swept off your feet and taken with the crowd, so be prepared. Besides the fireworks, I encourage you to show up early and walk along to watch the Burning of Bad Humor (Sat. Mar. 2nd at 8 pm at the Deer Statue in Olas Altas). This little-talked about event is a WHOLE lot of fun. It’s a traditional Mexican custom to burn a piñata loaded with a whole lot of firecrackers, an effigy, of some well-hated person from the previous year. If you’ve never seen it, you owe it to yourself to go. Just follow the fireworks (single-shot fireworks that denote a parade route) or wait at the Deer Statue. Rumor has it that this year they’ll burn EPN—Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico’s last president. There won’t be an official announcement till the day before, and the burning is preceded with a poem that roasts the “effigy of honor.”
Best bets to see the fireworks are:
- At this point in time, if you don’t have a reservation (see below), I’d plan to arrive plenty early in Olas Altas on Saturday (maybe 5 or 6 pm) and find a seat on the malecón wall. Plan to hold on to it for dear life. You’ll have to take turns going to the bathroom or picking up refreshments in order to maintain your prime seating. We have done this several years and absolutely loved it. It is an “of the people” experience. There’s great conversation and revelry, and the views are the best ever. Remember there are often fireworks launched from the beach in front of you, and from at least two different barge locations in the bay.
- My second recommendation to you, if you don’t have a reservation, is to reserve seats on a boat. There are loads of party boats that will head out into the bay to watch the fireworks. The best ones include live music, most will have bars, some have food as well.
- It’s late, but you may get lucky enough even at this late date to get a reservation at an Olas Altas restaurant or bar. You will have to pay in advance to secure your reservation. Puerto Viejo often opens their roof, as does the Freeman, and all the places along the malecón will be full of people.
- Get invited to a private party. We have had the pleasure of witnessing Combate Naval from some absolutely breathtaking locations thanks to the generosity of friends. I always say, I’m happy to share my photos of the fireworks in exchange for a great viewing location 😉
- Make a reservation at one of the hotels in the area—the Belmar, La Siesta, Casa Lucila or Casa de Leyendas. For this year you are probably waaaay too late, but hey, it doesn’t hurt to get ready for Carnaval 2020! Wouldn’t it be wonderful to party on the balcony of your own hotel room?
- The Parade!!! The ABSOLUTE FAVORITE event of Carnaval for most mazatlecos, including us. The main parade is the first one (Sun. Mar. 3rd leaving the Fishermen’s Monument and heading north at 5:30 pm). The parade continues to Valentino’s, where it will turn on Rafael Buelna so that the royalty and others can get off the floats. The parade is comprised of quite a few different sections (current royalty, past year’s royalty, and 25 and 50 year commemorations), each of which includes dance troupes and live music, plus incredible floats. People will put chairs out on the malecón 2-4 days ahead of time, staying 24 hours a day to guard their space. Others rent a seat from one of the hotels along the route, or join friends on the pool deck or a balcony of one of the condo buildings along the route. The entire parade route becomes one huge party for several days ahead of the big day. Expect the parade to last until about 10:00 pm. You will need to plan to secure a good viewing spot, though you can crowd in and see it from the back of the pack, too. Bring a chair if you want to sit and don’t have one reserved. The parade is not as horribly crowded as the Combate Naval fireworks. There is a pre-parade that departs about 4:30, when commercial floats toss out lots of freebies to the crowd.
If you want to see the floats in a more relaxed setting, go to the malecón north of the Sea Lion Statue on Tue. Mar. 5th anytime after about 1:00 pm and before 4:30 pm when the second parade starts. This is prime photo-op time as the dancers are getting ready, putting on their makeup, loosening their muscles, and the royalty will be boarding the floats. The second parade heads south from there to Olas Altas, so you have much more space along which to set your chair and enjoy the parade. This parade is not nearly as crowded as Sunday’s.
- The Muestra Gastronómica or Gastronomic Festival (Sun-Tue. Mar. 3rd through 5th from 1-7 pm in Sister Cities Park) is historically a free event, but this year will be a benefit for DIF (municipal family services), Sister Cities Park and The Lighthouse Nature Park. What I love about it is they’re converting it from an upscale affair in the Machado into a family-friendly event in the park! Over 20 local restaurants will participate, there will also be live music, games, face painting and bouncy houses for the kids. You may want to bring your costumes and Carnaval masks and attend the gastronomic fair on Monday, because afterwards the city is rescuing the beloved mazatlecan tradition of Lunes de Mascaritas or “Masquerade Monday,” where young people asked one another, Mascarita, me conoces? or “Masked one, do you know me?” Prizes include a motorcycle and other major goodies, so be sure to give it a shot!, free.
- Finally and most obviously, do not miss a night in the Party Zone in Olas Altas! Entrance to the zone this year is supposed to be free. Normally it was a small fee, to make it accessible to everyone and yet not an even crazier free-for-all. There you will find loads of food and drink, stages with many different kinds of live music, from dusk till the wee hours of the morning. You can’t say you attended Carnaval de Mazatlán if you don’t dance in the street in the party zone at least once! It will be open Feb. 28th to Mar. 5th. I recommend you dress casual, avoid jewelry and don’t take a lot of cash; it’s safe and a great time, but there are pickpockets who come special from out of town, and it’s quite the crowd so easier pickings.