We’ve all heard of the world famous Brazilian Carnival in Rio de Janiero. We’ve all seen the Nicki Minaj video of the Trinidad version. But did you know there are actually smaller carnivals all over Latin America and the Caribbean?
Like the Cayman Island’s own Batabano.
Batabano is a relatively small and young festival in the Carnival world — launched in 1983, today Batabano includes around 2,000 revelers and just one day of festivities (two, if you count the children’s parade held a week prior.) But it was big enough to bring me back to Grand Cayman, an island I spent a summer living and working on five long years ago.
Alex in Wanderland regulars know Heather, who still lives on the island, quite well by now! While Heather and I have met up literally around the world, I hadn’t seen her back on the island that first introduced us since 2010. When I started planning my Central America spring trip, I knew it would end with a week in the Cayman Islands, kicked off with Batabano.
The year prior, Heather had jumped in Batabano for the first time. Wait a minute — what’s jumpin’, you ask? — let’s kick this off with a little vocabulary lesson, soca-style.
de road: the road (we’re warming up with an easy one, mkay?). As in, “We’re jumpin’ pon de road!” Which brings me to my next vocabulary word…
jumpin’: Parading with. As in, “Who you jumpin’ with?” or “I’m jumpin’ with Tribal.”
bands: if you’ve been to Mardi Gras, these are basically like the krewes of Batabano. My band for Batabano was Tribal.
soca: The main type of music played at Batabano.
whining: The main type of dancing done at Batabano. Need a more visual definition? This video is one of my favorites. I describe it as a kind of Caribbean twerking.
steps off: starts at. As in, the parade steps off at Public Beach.
Right, so now that we’re all a bit more oriented, back to Batabano — after Heather got her first taste of Batabano, she swore it would now be an annual event and I needed little convincing to join her for round two. For this sequin addict, it was a dream come true.
Participating in Batabano means joining a band, picking out and paying an exorbitant amount for a costume, and then showing up ready to whine down. Anyone can join in! We were jumpin’ with Tribal, so back in February we downloaded the entrance forms and started the lengthy process of deciding which costume to choose. Tribal’s theme was “dis paradise” and there were about five different costume types to choose from. While technically our group could have all chosen various costumes, you do have to line up with your color at the various judging stations, and we didn’t want to have to split up, so we decided to all go together on the green one, Poison Ivy. Once that was decided, we each decided if we wanted to buy the base line, mid-line, or front line costume, which were various levels of elaboration and price. Heather and I decided to splurge on the front line, which came to about $325US dollars.
Yup, it’s a big splurge! But that fee also includes your membership into your band, as well as unlimited drinks throughout the day from the booze float. You’re given a Tribal-branded water bottle at the start of the parade, and you just dance up to the booze truck anytime you want a refill. It’s basically magic.
For 2015, the parade had a freshly extended route, beginning at Public Beach (by Calico Jacks, if you’re familiar with the island) and ending in Georgetown along Seven Mile Beach. We were so grateful that the rain that had been plaguing the region for weeks held off for the day. While were initially bummed by the overcast weather, we ended up grateful that we weren’t in direct sunlight all day — we worked up quite a sweat dancing!
The fantastic thing about Batabano — aside from the magical refilling booze truck — is that it’s a diverse mix of locals, expats, and tourists, of all ages, and of all body types. It’s also just so fun to watch this incredibly conservative island let loose. Guys, they don’t play R-rated movies on Sundays here, but you come for the first weekend in May, and you will literally see people humping in the streets. That said, it’s all in good fun and everyone from elderly cheering sections to uniformed police officers get in on the fun.
While some of these pictures look a little wild, I feel like I need to emphasize how respectful everyone we encountered was. My favorite story was from Heather, who recounted the tale of a guy trying to whine up to one of her flustered friends, who clearly had not yet made enough visits to the booze-mobile. “Um… I don’t do that!” she said, and the guy immediately stopped, said, “That’s okay. You look really beautiful. Have a nice day!,” and went off to dance with someone else. Ha!
As the parade approached Georgetown, things started to get a tad sloppier. Our costumes were literally falling to pieces by this point — don’t think because they’re expensive they’re going to last more than one wear — and the dancing was getting noticeably looser. I’d debated seriously whether or not to bring my big dSLR with us — most of the girls just had their iPhones — but I was so glad I did. I think being responsible for it kept me somewhat in check, and these photos are just priceless!
Our only regret was that getting ready ran a little long, and we didn’t have time for the polished pre-parade photoshoot we’d planned on. But these action shots are probably even better.
Batabano was simply one of the most fun days of my year. I love dressing up and wearing ridiculous costumes, I love dancing and listening to different music, and I love immersing myself in something special from another culture. Batabano checked all those boxes! I was in 100% festival bliss.
Technically the party went until midnight (bars close at midnight on Saturday in Cayman, as alcohol can’t be sold on Sundays) but we cashed out long before that. I think about eight hours passed between the photo on the left and the photo on the right, and as you can see my energy and enthusiasm levels were pretty much tapped. I gave it all to de road!
The word Batabano comes from the island’s heritage as a turtle island, and referred to the joy that was felt upon finding a turtle’s nesting tracks. These days it refers more to the joy felt upon finding the perfect tail feathers or calypso reggae track, but like a turtle, I think I’ll be returning to the same beach over and over — Seven Mile, where my Carnival dreams first came true.
Want to go to Batabano?
If you don’t know someone in Cayman, you have to be somewhat of a go-getter to actually jump in the parade. The bands don’t necessarily make it easy to find their information or sign up (here’s the tourism board’s quite erm, brief how-to page), but don’t let that dissuade you — it’s totally do-able and would be great fun for a group of friends looking for a unique Caribbean vacation!
Unfortunately my own Batabano was not without hiccups. I landed on a Friday evening, and we went straight to pick up our costumes. When we got to the front of the long line, we were told our feathers, aside from our headpieces, were not yet ready for pickup. Annoyed but having no other choice, we made a plan to return the next morning (the morning of the parade!). That morning, we got a text from Heather’s roommate: “There are no feathers.” Now, granted, our costumes were still fantastic. But what they were meant to look like was even moreso. And after paying quite a bit to upgrade to more elaborate costumes, we now looked exactly the same as others who had payed significantly less. Without our backpieces and body feathers we felt a bit like Vegas showgirls, and were frustrated considering how much money we’d spent, but what can you do? We were promised a partial refund and so we tried to brush it off and not let it mar our day of fun. And it didn’t! Unfortunately things turned a bit ugly after the festival — we applied for our refunds amid rumors of feathers held in customs, band-against-band sabotage, and other small island drama. And we never heard a word. Eventually, after dozens of emails, phone calls and Facebook messages, Heather filed a claim with her credit card company and we were given a full refund. While that might sound like a win, I think it definitely ruffled a few feathers — hardy har — and put her in an awkward position for such a small island. I don’t think we could jump with Tribal again, sadly. Though considering their site is currently down, who knows — maybe no one will. While it was a headache and a bummer it didn’t mar my experience — I’d absolutely go back for Batabano again, but I’d probably jump with a more organized and established band like Swanky.
For those looking to join me, band options include Tribal (though based on my experience with them I’m not sure I can recommend them), Swanky, LIME, Pirates… and supposedly Fresh and Bachannal, though personally I don’t remember seeing them in the 2015 parade.
1. Don’t feel self-conscious. I was somewhat dreading putting my costume on, as at the time I’d been obsessing even more than usual over the few spare pounds that have been preventing my jean shorts from zipping up. But as soon as I got on de road, I felt like amazing! There were so many women of all shapes and sizing whining down, and not a one of them was thinking about what their booties looked like while they were doing it. It was a nice reminder that there’s nothing sexier than confidence and having fun.
2. Consider your footwear. The parade route is long and our feet were aching by the end of it! Yeah, those stilettos worn by the ladies in the Nicki Minaj video are a crock. While some girls were actually wearing trainers (personally I would rather chop my feet off than wear sneakers anywhere but the gym or a strictly athletic activity), I think we found a happy medium wearing comfortable sandals. Some were wearing bedazzled boots which looked amazing but I think would get a tad sweaty.
3. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. The day starts early with mimosas for most, and the party goes ’till midnight! They had to pause the parade in Georgetown when one participant fainted from a combination of overindulgence and dehydration. Remember to fill your bottle with water every once in a while to stay happy and hydrated.
4. Check out my full list of Cayman Islands blog posts for more ideas of what to do while you’re on the islands!
Thank you Heather, for making Batabano so amazing for me! We think our next stop is Carnival in Trinidad… has anyone been? Let me know about the fantastical festivals and Carnivals you’ve been to in the comments below!