Spain Explained

What is carnaval?

Last updated on February 19th, 2020 at 01:36 am.

Carnaval, the Spanish spelling of carnival, is quite an event in many parts of Spain. It can also be something of a conundrum if you are not a native of the country. In this article we delve a little into what ‘carnaval’ is all about.

It’s February in Spain and it’s not warm. At night the temperatures, even on the coast, are down to single figures and jackets, scarves and gloves are a necessity. And yet, in many parts of Spain, young women and men are out on the streets in the fanciest of feather and sequin outfits wearing very little to cover their modesty.

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It must be carnaval. Carnaval usually takes place in February or March in Spain, sometimes coinciding with pancake day. And there lies one of the answers to the strange timing of this annual event. Just as pancake day is a marking of a last fling before lent, so is carnaval an expression of flamboyancy and spirit just before the more serious and sedate processions of Semana Santa, Holy Week.

The two couldn’t be in greater contrast. Semana Santa is the highlight of the religious year in Spain with all its associated traditions and respect. Carnaval is about colour, self-expression, an element of irreverence and the journey into the fantastic. It’s no wonder that this highly popular event was banned under dictator Francisco Franco. Carnaval is a time when anything goes.

And it’s not just processions that mark the occasion, they are the culmination of one or two weeks’ of equally lavish events. Often these include the crowning of the carnaval queens and a variety of musical and colourful competitions and performances. It might only be February but events will go on well into the night as if in complete denial that this is the Spanish winter.

The crowning of the queens has a touch of the American pageant. A junior and adult queen, and sometimes a senior queen, take to the stage on an ornate pedestal that represents their comparsa’s contribution to the procession later in the month. A comparsa is a dance group in Spain and really has little direct equivalent in most other countries.

The comparsas choose a theme and dress accordingly for the procession. And they are extravagant. Usually, no cost is spared and they will be decorated with all types of plumes and diamante. They have usually rehearsed a dance as well that is performed, more or less, throughout the procession. This, in itself, requires stamina.

It’s not all groups. Individuals can also take part and it can be quite a mix and match affair. There are prizes according to different categories and the details of the outfits and their accompanying props have to be seen to be believed. There are usually two carnaval processions, one held in the daytime and one in the evening. Be warned, the evening procession is likely to touch the early hours of next day.


Although carnaval is now a popular event in most parts of Spain it is most closely associated with the canary islands where perhaps the weather is kinder to the dress code that accompanies it. Tenerife is regarded by many as the home of Spanish carnaval and is rated by some as only second to that of Rio de Jeneiro.

In 1987 the Carnaval Santa Cruz de Tenerife found its way into the Guinness Book of World Records. It was credited as being the largest gathering of people in an outdoor plaza to attend a concert with more than 200,000 people attending. So, if you want to avoid too many crowds this is possibly not the carnaval for you.

Of course, the reason so many people turn out for Tenerife’s carnaval is because it is so good. Although most carnavals will have a junior and adult queen, the Tenerife carnaval also has a senior queen and has done so since 1984.

Preparations continue throughout the year with comparsas and murgas having their own studios. The murgas are features of carnival and not just in Tenerife. They are performance groups who take well-known songs and change them with tongue-in-cheek and satirical lyrics. Like the Fallas in Valencia, their caricatures are quite irreverent.

One of the final events of the carnival season is the burial of the sardine (Entierro de la Sardina). This is also celebrated in other municipalities and again reflects the rather irreverent spirit of the whole celebration. It is an enormous burial ceremony complete with ‘mourners’ dedicated to saying goodbye to carnival for another year.

Of course, it’s not only Tenerife that is well-known for its carnavals. Cadiz, Sitges, Barcelona and Madrid all embrace carnaval just as enthusiastically. A bit closer to home, Torrevieja, makes the most of the opportunity to have fun in February too.

The town begins the carnaval period with the crowning of the queens, followed by the drag queen and murga competitions. These are followed by the traditional daytime and evening processions which come equipped with the level of flamboyant costume you’d expect. Comparsas take the opportunity to show off their best outfits and the streets are filled with an audience keen for some of the smiles and frivolity to rub off on them too.

However, we shouldn’t underestimate the effort that goes into the production of both the costumes and the staging or the all-round effort that produces the finely tuned performances you’ll see.

La Sal de Torrevieja

For some comparsas, carnaval is by no means the only time that they get to show off their amazing costumes. La Sal de Torrevieja is a comparsa or dance troupe based in the Costa Blanca. They don’t restrict their performances to Torrevieja but have visited many countries including Romania, Paris and most recently China, as part of their New Year celebrations.

The group is renowned for their exotic and stunning costumes and headware can weigh as much as 22 kilos. They do dance, but must, of course, plan their dances according to the limitations of the costumes they are wearing. And these costumes are both grand and expensive. An average costume probably costs around €2,000 to €3,000 to buy and at these prices is also available for hire.

One of their most expensive and lavish costumes is that recently created for the Reina del Carnaval (carnaval queen) in the Canary Islands.  This has a price tag of around €12,000 and took months to create.

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Emily Clark from Ábaco’s Customer Care Department is a member of La Sal de Torrevieja. She recently returned from their tour of China and has thoroughly enjoyed the international experiences that being part of such a group has provided her with. ‘There’s great camaraderie and we get to visit the area around where we’re performing too. I really enjoy it,’ says Emily.

However, it does have its drawbacks: ‘The most difficult procession I’ve taken part in was in Paris when we were dancing for four hours and we had to parade around the fair. The ground was covered in pebbles and our feat were black and blue by the end of it.’

If you have chance…

February isn’t the most popular time to visit Spain, but if you live here or if you do want a winter break then we can thoroughly recommend you wrap up warm and take the time to watch the carnaval.

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