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!
Such a fun day. Ahhhh feathers, sequins, friends and dancing in the streets. What else does a girl need? I can’t wait for out next adventure!!
Trinidad 2016?! Let’s do it!
Wow, the extra feathers you didn’t get were pretty whimsical, but the costumes did really look amazing without them. I can’t believe how much they cost! I’d probably go for the cheaper model haha. Looks like so much fun though, and the booze cars are magic!
If I’m remembering correctly, there was actually only about a $60 variation between the cheapest and most expensive ones, so at that point we figured what the heck. But $60 is still $60!
$325 for a costume?!? Holy cow. I seriously hope it’s making a second appearance at Burning Man next week!
Feathers aren’t allowed at Burning Man! Actually though it’s $325 for everything, including entry into the band/parade and unlimited drinks for the day. It’s a bargain compared to joining a Mardi Gras krewe, which I’ve heard sets back participants at least $1K a year!
Love love love this post! I am a native of and live in New Orleans, so I’ve been to our carnival more times that I can count, but I’ve never celebrated anywhere else. This one looks like a blast and you look great in all the pictures. And yes, $325 is definitely a huge bargain compared to what it costs to join a krewe here in nola–it can literally be thousands of dollars once you factor in buying all of your throws, events throughout the year, gowns for the balls, etc. I hope to celebrate 2016 carnival somewhere abroad!
P.S. thank you for the shot of the guy in the purple shorts in the first photo 🙂
Ha! You are welcome 🙂 And have fun finding a new place to celebrate carnival abroad!
Looks like an amazing time!! I went to something similar in a tiny town on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica once and it was epic 🙂 Thanks for sharing!
Fun! I’ve heard they have an epic Carnival in Panama City, too!
This looks so hilarious and awesome! I used to travel to Cayman all the time in the ’90s. Granted I was a tiny teenager then and I was with family, but I would have gotten such a kick out of seeing this! Feathers or no, it looks downright debaucherous and super fun 🙂
I bet you would have! It seems the islands have only come around to starting to promote this as a tourist destination — I’m sure it will only get bigger and bigger!
Wow, normally Carnival would so not be my type of thing but this one actually looks/sounds really fun – those costumes are awesome also!
It’s kind of a manageable sized one, compared to the Rio version 🙂 A good starter Carnival!
What an experience!
That’s one way to word it 🙂
daring outfit. it feels so bare open wooh not me. gutsy alex.
When in Rome… 😉
Ahhhh this looks like soooooo much fun!!
I love the costumes. This is the kind of out there travel experience I’m always looking for- what a unique thing to do.
It was awesome. Unique and fun and surrounded by friends!
Wow, this looks like so much fun! I love seeing how different Carnival was there vs. in New Orleans!
Hopefully I’ll have many more to share over the years!
This is awesome!! It is definitely a shame that your feathers weren’t all there, but it’s good it didn’t spoil it for you. Batabano looks like it would be such a blast!
It would be pretty hard to spoil a day like this!
We spend our Carnaval in Panama city! So much fun sounds a lot like you describe as everyone older, younger, can join in. If you want to have an inpression we made this short movie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bPNKMaij8V4
I heard the one in Panama City is amazing! I hope to make it there someday!
I can’t get over those costumes – you guys look so good!
Thanks girl! So much fun!
Love this post so much. P.S. You all look beautiful ladies! I always wondered if non-locals can be part of a parade/party. The costumes are awesome – I’d totally splurge too. Plus – it can be used for Halloween even if it breaks haha If you go to Carnival elsewhere please let us know! Junkanoo in Bahamas is supposed to be a crazy good time too through the morning of New Years Day.
I’ve heard Junkanoo is awesome too! I love the Bahamas so I definitely hope to make it there someday 🙂 Thanks for reading!
WOW that looks like a seriously fun time and those costumes are BEAUTIFUL!!!
Aren’t they fun? I LOVED wearing one!
Funny to see how they use, in English, the same word we use for going out with a band, “jump”. In Portuguese we say “pular carnaval”, which is literally to “jump carnival”.
I haven’t been to Rio during the event yet, but I must say that small towns usually have the best experiences.
That is a fun fact Angela, thanks for sharing 🙂 I love language and that’s a great story of the origin of the word!
OMG, this seems like the funniest carnival ever! I love your positive vibes and the photos are absolutely gorgeous!
Thank you! It was an awesome trip!
So much fun! you look really great in that green color. 🙂 I’ve never been to a carnival like this — might have to check it out!
Thanks Juno! I don’t normally wear green, but I might start after this 🙂
Looks like you all had a blast! What a fun colourful time.
We also have our own carnival in Toronto called Caribana!
It’s full of festivities, good energy, and caribbean music!
I’ve heard of that one, it looks like quite the party! I’d definitely use that as an excuse to return to Toronto…
Wow, what a lot of fun! The pics are so bright and colorful and they remind me of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Love the shopping cart. hahaha 🙂
When you’re truly determined, anything can become a dance prop!
This looks like so much fun, and your costumes are amazing! I’m so impressed you managed to carry your dSLR throughout the festivities – what did you use to carry it?!
Just had the strap slung over my shoulder! Was pretty much shooting the whole time, so it wasn’t too much of an issue!
It looks like a party I should attend. I’m not sure if you’ve already answered this in your blog – but have you ever attended a Carnival?
Just this one 🙂 It was awesome!
That looks crazy fun! I laughed out loud at your sneaker comment – I feel the same way,and hate wearing tennis shoes out and about. I’m on a mission for cute, comfy walking shoes to wear when I go to Asia…if you have any suggestions!
I just wear flip flops, which I’m sure I’ll pay for someday. I do have my Tieks now which I was wearing all over the US, but it feels kind of funny to wear anything but flips in Thailand!
Great review! Headed down for Batabano this year for the first time and searching the internet info was better than most sites. Yes, you must do Trinidad if you enjoyed Cayman, its on a completely different level though so prepare yourself! Wednesday to Wednesday would be the best week to go. We also have a similar experience with Tribal unfortunately. Was due for an $800 business payment and it took almost 18 months, countless emails and calls and an actual physical confrontation to get payment. Well cheers to life! great review!
Wow, sorry to hear that about Tribal Jason, though interesting to hear we weren’t alone. I’ll be interested to see if they are jumping this year. Pretty much everyone I know in Cayman is jumping with Swanky this year!
I’m new to your blog (came across it when doing some research on my 8 month move/trip to Panama )and am enjoying it thoroughly!
As a displaced Trini, your account of Batabano bought back memories of playing mas in Trinidad. You should definately try and make it further south some day – similar but different (think scale x100) experience. If you ever want tips for planning a Trinidad trip around carnival or otherwise just get in touch.
Ahhhhh, I really hope to make that happen someday! Thanks for the offer for advice — I’ll take you up on it when I finally get there 🙂
Okay, this looks so amazing! Y’all outfits are beyond beautiful… Definitely adding to the to-do list!
We can’t wait to do it again someday — on Cayman, or maybe even one of the biggest celebrations on another island!
I am so glad you wrote this post. I am planning my 30th birthday trip around the festival and would love to participate in the walk. It will be 10 of us staying in a villa may 4-may 9, Do you have any other recommendations on bands & cost? As well as boat party suggestions?!
Hey Alexis! Unfortunately I don’t have any info beyond what’s in this post, but I guess I’d reach out to several bands and see which are the most responsive and decide from there. What a killer 30th birthday idea! I love it!