Carnavál 101


The 2018 dates of Carnavál de Mazatlán are February 8-13.

People worldwide—from Russia, Croatia and Turkey to Angola, Cape Verde and the Seychelles; from Italy, Germany and the Netherlands, throughout North and South America and the Caribbean—celebrate the public street party and parade most popularly called Mardi Gras or Carnavál. It is thus quite natural that Mazatlán, with our rich immigrant heritage, would be blessed with a Carnavál tradition that is the oldest in Mexico, dating back at least 191 years to 1827.


Photo from the CD of the Friends of Viejo Mazatlán

Tourists frequently feel confused by the fact that Carnavál doesn’t take place on a set date each year. Carnavál in most parts of the world is traditionally held during the week leading up to Lent; it’s the last big blowout before the Christian season of fasting and reflection. Fat Tuesday, the last day of Carnavál, precedes Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Calendar dates change annually because Lent is the 40-day period prior to Easter, a religious holiday based on an ecclesiastical calendar and celebrated on the first Sunday after the Paschal Full Moon.

In its first few decades Mazatlán’s Carnavál was a spontaneous “celebration of the people” during which revelers would decorate buggies, burros, horses, bicycles and eventually cars for the big parade and dance at masquerade balls and street parties. Carnavál de Mazatlán became an official city event with an organizing committee and budget in 1898. Which means that in 2018 we celebrate 120 years of our official fiesta máxima. Carnavál became official because it had grown in size and popularity and required coordination. The story behind that reality, however, is quite interesting.

You may be familiar with the tradition of juegos de harina or throwing colored flour and water during Carnavál, much like Holi in the Hindu tradition. Cascarones, filling egg shells with flour or confetti and then breaking them on people, are part of this tradition, too. The custom seems to have originated in Spain, and is popular throughout many of the former Spanish colonies. Well, those “flour games” (not to be confused with Floral Games) became very popular in the 1800s in Mazatlán—so popular that by the latter part of the century there were two “camps” of Carnavál revelers who annually “warred” with each other, rather similar to the “warring tribes” in New Orleans. According to historian Enrique Vega Ayala, the Abastos group held the territory between 21 de Marzo and Zaragoza streets, while the area belonging to the rival Mueyes went from 21 de Marzo through Playa Sur. People from these two camps would regularly decorate floats and ride them into “enemy” territory, bombarding anyone they could find with flour bombs. For years city officials and upstanding citizens tried to ban such over-the-top revelry, but without success. People like to have fun. Once Carnavál de Mazatlán became official, however, the city began funding the purchase of confetti and serpentine streamers, and the tradition of the “flour wars” receded into a distant memory.

Winnie Farmer

Winnie Farmer,                     Mazatlán’s first Carnavál Queen

For decades Mazatlán has had three queens each year: Queen of Carnavál (since 1900), Queen of the Floral Games (since 1937), and the Child Queen (since 1968). Historically, however, the king predates the queens. The first Carnavál King was crowned in 1898, two years before the first queen. The King of Joy was originally called the Rey Feo, or Ugly King—the title was changed in 1965. Mazatlán’s very first queen way back in 1900 was not Mexican but was born in Maine, USA: Winnie Farmer. She grew up in Mazatlán, was crowned at 17, moved back to the US in her thirties, and returned to Mazatlán in 1956—aged 64—to ride a float in the Carnavál parade once again.


Maestro Rigo with me in his taller

One of my greatest thrills for many years was joining local legend Maestro Rigoberto Lewis in his workshop to watch him finish up the carrozas alegóricas or royal floats. Maestro Rigo always told me he was born during Carnavál and had it in his blood. He designed the Carnavál de Mazatlán floats for 54 years; those intricately decorated, classical floats, very tall, were his signature style. Maestro Rigo died in 2014, just prior to Carnavál.

Smaller than the revelry in Rio or New Orleans, Mazatlán is said to have the third-largest Carnavál celebrations in the world—remarkable for a city of its size. Our local tradition is a family-friendly one; as far back as 1900 a ball was held for children, and young people city-wide practice their dancing and instrument playing for months before the big day. Along the parade route you will see thousands of families, many of whom put chairs and tents out to guard their viewing area days before the two parades. Most every family in Mazatlán has at least one if not several members who have been in comparsas or dancing troupes in the parade, and many proudly have several generations that have run for Queen or King.

While Carnavál no doubt began among the city’s foreign immigrants, it quickly grew to include people from all strata of society and all walks of life. The five main days of Carnavál include four coronations with concerts (Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Monday), two major ocean-side parades (Sunday and Tuesday), a Burning of Bad Humor (firecracker-laced giant piñata on Saturday), a food show, a carnival with rides and games for the kids over by Sam’s Club, and an incredible fireworks spectacular (Saturday). The last few years they’ve also added a Monday night concert, usually banda Sinaloense music. Party central is the Carnavál zone, which this year they are moving several hundred meters north in order to protect the newly rehabbed Olas Altas. Cultura has reported that the party zone will begin at the deer statue in Olas Altas and extend along Paseo Claussen as far as Casa del Marino. There are usually nearly a half-dozen stages or so set up, each with a different kind of live music playing from evening through the wee hours of the morning: tambora or banda sinaloense, los chirrines (ranchera and norteña), boleros, rock, mariachi… you name it. You’ll find lots to eat and drink, and plenty of vendors selling hats, masks, eyelashes, wigs and lighted toys. More importantly, you’ll laugh and dance the night away! Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

The activities surrounding Carnavál begin months prior to the main events. Candidates for Carnavál royalty are presented in early October, along with the theme for the upcoming year. Aspiring royalty conduct their fund-raising campaigns including parades (manifestaciones) and ballot-counting in October, November and December, while various dance groups or comparsas city-wide also raise funds for costumes and spend lots of time rehearsing their moves. Excitement builds and most everyone in town is involved in some way or another in this máxima fiesta of the year.

A month or so before Carnavál we usually get an unveiling of the monigotes (1, 23) giant sculptures along the malecón and in the Plaza Machado. A couple of weeks before Carnavál there is an official election of the royalty that takes place in the Angela Peralta Theater. A poetry contest (Juegos Florales or “Floral Games”) has been held since 1925, and there is also a literature prize (since 1965) and one for painters as well (since 1996), with the winners celebrated in a Velada de las Artes concert and performance in the Angela Peralta the Friday before Carnavál.

One of my favorite aspects of Carnavál de Mazatlán is that there are queens and kings from every district of the city and every strata of society. Schools and clubs all over town, including community centers with lots of elderly people, choose a queen or king to dance and revel in the parade. I absolutely love cheering on the grandmas and grandpas each year, some of whom are in their 80s and dance the entire parade route. We are also regaled with the anniversary floats—those queens or kings celebrating their 25th or 50th year since being crowned.

While not “official,” there seems to be an annual “song of Carnavál” that most of the dance troupes play over and over again. We kept track for a few years. Back in 2009 it was Te Presumo; we were blessed that Banda El Recodo was the King of Joy that year. In 2010 it was Julión Alvarez’ La María; in 2011 Chuy Lizárraga’s La Peinada; in 2012 Gloria Estéfan’s WEPA; 2013 was Enrique Iglesias with Pitbull on I Like How It Feels. Let me know what you feel were the most popular songs the last few Carnaváls, and I’ll update the list.

The key thing to remember about Carnavál is: You’re in the right place! Carnavál de Mazatlán rocks, there are loads of activities of every type to enjoy, and you will be welcomed with open arms and lots of dance moves.

Tips for Enjoying Carnával De Mazatlán

  1. Buy your tickets to the coronations! These are spectacular, world-class events full of pomp and circumstance as well as pyrotechnics, dancing, music and a concert. Everyone should go to at least one, at least once. I’ve known several tourists who didn’t realize you needed tickets for these major events, but you do.
  2. When you travel to the Carnavál party zone:
    1. Don’t wear clothes or shoes that you don’t want to get dirty; your feet will be stepped on and beer may be spilled on you.
    2. Do not take valuables as the huge crowds tend to bring out pickpockets.
    3. There is a limit the last few years to the number of people permitted into the party zone at any one time. Don’t worry if you wait a while; you will get in eventually, and it’s for safety reasons that they limit entry.
    4. Remember also that in the zone there are so many people that cell phone networks get overloaded. Don’t rely on texting or calling to stay in touch with your group; name a rendezvous spot and time in case you get separated.
  3. If you want to see the spectacular Combate Naval fireworks, which recreates a sea-to-shore battle between Mexico and the French, be prepared to be in a human wave/near-million person crowd of revelers; view it as part of the fun. If you don’t want to stand, make your reservations at a restaurant or grab a seat on the malecón Those living in homes with a view will hold parties, if you’re lucky enough to be invited.
  4. Realize that you cannot attend the coronation of the queen on Saturday AND see the Burning of Bad Humor and Combate Naval fireworks unless you are hugely blessed. The people who do attend all three tend to have official escorts (e.g., royalty and elected officials)! The coronation takes place in the stadium, the fireworks are in Olas Altas, and the traffic in between the two is untenable. You will arrive to slow entry lines and possibly a party zone at maximum capacity. If you plan to see the fireworks, it’s best to attend the other coronations on a different day.
  5. Hotel rooms overlooking the party zone can be fully booked up to two years ahead of time, and quite a few hotels require a three-night minimum during Carnavál. You’ll see that many people set up whole party spaces along the parade route. The city usually puts up bleachers for the public to use, so if you get to the parade early enough, you might be able to find a seat.

Annual Carnavál Infographic

We’ve got some amazing entertainers, world-class fireworks, two incredible parades and a whole lot of merriment coming up for Carnavál de Mazatlán—the oldest Carnavál in Mexico! Things may be a bit different from prior years due to the construction on the malecón and throughout the city, but we know that 2018 will be a Carnavál to remember!

You can choose “Carnaval” under “Categories” on this site or search these pages using keyword “Carnavál” to read some of the many in-depth stories we’ve written over the years about this terrific event.

Enjoy the infographic!

Carnaval2018 infographic2.png

Rocio IV’s Coronation, El Buki and Combate Naval


Queen Rocio IV and El Buki sing together on stage!

The biggest night of Carnavál 2015, Sueños de Momo/Dreams of Momo, was last night, Saturday. At what a night it was!!! The realest and most relaxed queen we’ve seen in our eight years here (did she ever enjoy her coronation!), an incredible show by Marco Antonio Solís (El Buki), and the best Combate Naval fireworks show EVER!

The coronation this year was only an hour long—a huge improvement, in my opinion. A few years ago when David Bisbal came, he was only allowed to perform in concert for an hour, because the pomp and circumstance had gone on so long. This year rocked! The dance numbers were crisp, we met the 25th and 50th anniversary queens (both of whom look unbelievably good!), Maestro Jorge González Neri was feted for his 25 years with Carnavál, and we were able to crown a queen, all in about an hour. Queen Rocio IV’s court had the theme of the Phoenix bird, and she was greeted by dancers representing Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves. Click on any photo to enlarge or view a slideshow.

After the gorgeous ceremonies and the fireworks, we were introduced to Marco Antonio Solís, who sang for a little over two hours. He seemed sincerely thrilled to be in Mazatlán, and confused when the crowd booed our Governor Malova and Mayor Felton. And they booed them twice during the evening! I was impressed that El Buki knew the names of the Queen and her four princesses, as well as the Governor, though he flubbed Mayor Carlos Felton’s name. Oops.

El Buki sang, played guitar and drums, and danced a few numbers as well—one a cowboy-type number and the other with Carnavál dancers. His voice has aged very well and is still wonderful; we truly enjoyed the concert. I have always loved his music, and that he is such a popular composer as well as performer. It is an incredible feeling to be in a stadium with 15,000 people all singing along to a performer! Many thanks to our friend Jeanette who purchased tickets for us and got us such great seats!

If you read this blog you know that our friends Cathy and Bill have a good friend who impersonates El Buki here in town. We were thrilled that last night they gave him a huge cameo on the video screens—he was sitting right up front! Very cool!

It rained on and off all evening, though it seemed to be drying up by the time we got home around 2:30. Fortunately it was just a persistent drizzle, and didn’t impact the concert or the fireworks.

You probably know as well as I do that if you want to see Combate Naval, do NOT attend Saturday night’s coronation. Unless, of course, like the Queen and other dignitaries, you have a police escort. It has always been very difficult to get through traffic and then through the security lines, in time to get into the party zone to see the fireworks after the coronation events in the stadium. With the new highway and Carnavál’s increasing popularity, however, it is next to impossible.

Last night a good friend was waiting to drive us straight to a friend’s house downtown. We were to watch the fireworks from their roof. We didn’t make it, despite our planning and best efforts. We still saw the fireworks, but not from our friend’s roof nor from inside the party zone. They were spectacular. I can only imagine how great they were on the ground in the zone!


Here is the Noroeste video, taken from the party zone:

In my opinion the crowds and the traffic during Carnavál have really gotten overwhelming. Carnavál de Mazatlán has long been one of the world’s most terrific events, accessible to the public and family-friendly. However, it has outgrown its historical spaces and ways, and we sincerely hope it will be re-envisioned a bit in future years. Olas Altas can not hold 35,000 people comfortably or safely. Last night people entering the party zone were refused admittance several times during the night, as the crowds inside were at capacity, forcing those outside into long, long lines of waiting. The crowds got upset so the ticket booths temporarily shut down. The Plaza Machado was also very crowded, and with a distinctively young, twenty-something crowd.

We can’t wait for the parade today! As usual, we have our chairs set up on the malecón, right at street level, so we can dance with the dancers as they come by. We had a visit from the Oficialia Mayor, who wanted to make sure we weren’t renting out chairs. We showed them our rental receipt, and assured them the chairs were all for friends and family. More on the parade later. Have a wonderful first parade, everybody!


Ready for Carnaval de Mazatlán 2014?


Shoreline: The Skin of the Sea is the closest I can get to translating this year’s rich Carnavál theme, which will unite Mazatlán with the Mardi Gras of New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro, Santiago de Cuba, and Venice, which are all located on the water, of course. Are you getting excited? It’s hard not to, with lights already hung along the Avenida del Mar parade route, and all the great photos people keep sending me. February 27-March 4th is coming soon!

Two great pieces of personal Carnavál news for me this year! One is that our recently departed dear Maestro Rigo’s two wishes, which we reported to you last year, will be realized! This year’s float for the Queen will be 15 meters tall! Secondly, on this 400th anniversary of Japan-Mexico relations, we will have a Japanese float and comparsa/dance troupe in the parade this year! And, they will do a tequila-odori!

My friend Sandra and I with our Mayor, State Secretary of Tourism, and Esperanza Kasuga, who is organizing Mazatlán's celebration of the 400th anniversary of Japanese-Mexico relations.

My friend Sandra and I with our Mayor, State Secretary of Tourism, and Esperanza Kasuga, who is organizing Mazatlán’s celebration of the 400th anniversary of Japanese-Mexico relations.

While we have lost Maestro Rigo to this life, his two carrozas, for Queen and Child Queen, are about 60% finished. His sister, Ana Lewis Rodríguez, is continuing his legacy, at least for this year. She says that Rigo’s dream was to have the Queen’s float (with a Brazilian theme this year) crowned with 300 ostrich feathers. Since each one costs 100 pesos, there will perhaps be some fundraising involved to make that happen. The 15 meter height for the float, which Rigo dreamed of, also requires special materials, not just the standard papier maché. So, here’s hoping…

This morning I received photos of the seamstresses working on the royal costumes, which seem to get more luxurious and fantastical every year. Enjoy the sneak peek! Sodelva Rios de García and her team have been making the royal costumes for almost 40 years. You’ll remember that we showed you the King of Joy’s vestments she made last year.

Do you know that CULTURA’s costume department produces over THREE HUNDRED costumes for Carnavál each year?! Our kudos to Elisa Espinoza, head of the costume department! While the women are primarily in charge of the costuming, props are coordinated by two gentlemen: Adrián Javier Ledesma Ruíz and Jesús Julio Robles Jaramillo.

This year the Child Queen will be dressed with a French influence, in honor of New Orleans, in gold, silver, purple and green. Some of the vestments for the dancers, which have to be comfortable as well as free-moving, will be finely detailed with airbrush. The King of Joy’s theme is Cuba—the colors will be vivid, tropical colors with a lot of shine and ruffles.

Photo courtesy CULTURA Mazatlán

Photo courtesy CULTURA Mazatlán

The election of the Queen this year will take place on Saturday, February 15th, in the Angela Peralta theater. As in recent years, the candidates will model designer evening dresses and clothing designed by Jacobo Borge and Sandra Vite, and jewelry designed by Gustavo Helguera (whose designs have been worn by Naomi Campbell and Carolina Kurkova).

Are you trying to plan your trip here or your friends’ stays? Or how you’ll navigate all the Carnavál events? Check out this “Why We Love Carnavál” so you can pace yourself and your energy. Remember that this year El Recodo will play Monday night, which is traditionally the night of the fireworks on the malecón and the light parade—even more events than in a normal, very full Carnavál year.

I keep wanting to make it over to Maestro Jorge González Neri’s taller, to see what he’s up to (LOVE seeing the works in progress!), but life has just been too busy (5 sets of visitors over the holidays, the 25th anniversary of my business in 2014, and the 10th anniversary of my Cultural Detective project coming up in February, plus just so many events in town)! Here is a peek from last year at this time: Monigotes—The Making of a Giant Statue. The work these artists do for our pleasure is truly remarkable!

photo from CULTURA

photo from CULTURA

I’m excited with all the musical acts this year, and that amidst the international-caliber classical music selections we also see three major banda that originate in our hometown: El RecodoLos Recoditos, and Chuy Lizárraga. What a proud reclaiming of our roots! Say, do you recall the songs of Carnavál from recent years? While, to my knowledge, there is no annual “official” Carnavál song, each year there seems to be that song that gets played and replayed so much that it comes to represent our memories of that year. Greg wrote a post about that, read it here and test your memory.

I suppose the next thing is to wait till the monigotes or giant statues get put up, as well as the flags along the parade route. While we wait, I suggest we all get our “skin of the sea” wear in order!

Sharp Hospital Receives Prestigious National Certification (and some exciting Carnaval news)

Chairman Kuroda receiving a plaque from State Secretary of Tourism Cordova,<br />State Secretary of Health Echeverría, and Mazatlán Mayor Felton.

Chairman Kuroda receiving a plaque from State Secretary of Tourism Cordova,
State Secretary of Health Echeverría, and Mazatlán Mayor Felton.

Mexico’s General Health Council has given Mazatlán’s own Hospital Sharp an impressive 9.5 out of 10 points on a prestigious patient care accreditation, making it one of only two hospitals in Sinaloa to achieve such a ranking. The award comes after several years of painstaking work by administration and staff—from janitors, cooks and bookkeepers to doctors, nurses and technicians. Greg and I were pleased to be join the banquet on top of SECTUR’s offices on the malecón last Wednesday night, to honor those involved in this effort to better position Mazatlán in national and international medical tourism markets. It was a joy to be in the presence of so many different types of medical professionals enjoying one another’s company and accomplishments.

In attendance were Mazatlán’s Mayor Carlos Felton and the first lady, Sinaloa State Tourism Secretary Francisco Córdova and his wife, and Sinaloa State Secretary of Health Ernesto Echeverría. During the banquet 35 division heads and key staff received commemorative plaques. Ing. Juan Manuel Kuroda, who is Chairman of the Hospital’s Board of Directors and the primary investor in Hospital Sharp (yes, also owner of Kuroda tile), says, “We are very proud of our 219 dedicated employees who were instrumental in achieving this result.  In addition to serving the needs of our local population and foreign visitors, with this certification we are also able to compete on a level playing field in the Medical Tourism market worldwide.”

The accreditation centers on patient care. Each aspect of the quality of medical attention and patient safety, from evidence gathering to diagnosis and treatment as well as accurate record keeping with precise checks and balances was evaluated against international standards.

Hospital Sharp has a modern physical facility with open spaces and 41 single-bed rooms, along with constant fresh air intake to lessen the transfer of germs and illness. It is a full service, 24-7 surgical facility, has the only dialysis facility in Mazatlán, and is completely self-sufficient—equipped with powerful generators in the event of a disruption in electrical service. Construction began in 1994, and the facility was built to USA standards. Hospital Sharp Mazatlán is located at Av. Rafael Buelna y Dr. Jesús Kumate S/N Fracc, Hacienda Las Cruces C.P. 82126, Mazatlán Sinaloa, telephone (669) 986 56 78.

Mayor Felton’s speech from the event:

Judy Setrakov, who works at Sharp as a medical tourism consultant, received a special tourist ambassador award. She, Doctor Juan Fernando Barraza, and Christian Barrios form Sharp’s Medical Tourism group. They can be reached at the number above, extension 336.

On a completely different note, I also found out on Wednesday evening some extremely exciting news. Carnavál Internacional de Mazatlán will have a Japanese-themed float and dance group this year, to commemorate 400 years of Japan-Mexico diplomatic relations. The float will be a samurai ship. I have been invited to the dance troupe. Special choreography, including a “tequila o-dori,” will be performed, taught to us by a Japanese dance professional from Mexico City. That changes up our annual parade party, but it sure should be fun!