Picture of Mérida carnival 2024 reveler in feather costume
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Mérida Carnival 2024

Most of the tourism-focused articles about Mérida (including those listed by El Pueblo) describe the ever-increasing array of sophisticated dining, luxury accommodations, and opulent shopping.  For the “full spectrum” traveler, though, the city’s annual carnival, Carnaval de Mérida, is a must. 

The week leading up to the start of Lent is a chance for yucatecos to strut their most flamboyant fantasy selves, and an excuse to indulge all manner of sensory pleasure.  In Mérida’s case the venue for this bacchanalia is the Xmatkuil fairgrounds, transformed, during the Carnaval de Mérida, into a joyous kaleidoscope of feathers, sequins, music, and laughter.

When we first came to Mérida in 2012, carnival was a more conventional parade down Paseo de Montejo.  It was a colorful, boisterous spectacle, but depressingly overrun by commercial interests.  Most of the parade floats were operated by big breweries, and the costumed revelers riding them would toss logo-emblazoned T-shirts and hats and cheap candy into the crowds that lined the streets.  It was essentially one long ad. 

In 2014 the mayor of Mérida made the controversial decision to move the event to the site of the former hacienda Xmatkuil (pronounced ish-mott-KWEEL), already the venue for Carnaval’s pendant celebration in November: Feria Yucatán, or The Yucatán State Fair.  Feria Yucatán was originally organized as a public showcase for economic development of the state of Yucatán in the field of agricultural, industrial, artisanal and tourism activities.  Over time the fair came to include rides, concerts, sports and cultural shows for all ages.  

Carnival, with a different theme every year, takes the entertainment element a big step further: the areas for agriculture, livestock, and industry are dedicated instead to performance venues.  The move to the fairgrounds, located about 30 minutes due south of El Pueblo by car, was unpopular at first, but ten years on, the move appears to be a permanent one – not only for improved safety and sanitation, but to bring a more genuinely Yucateco vibe to the entire experience.  

1. A Pageant Fit for a Queen…  Root for your favorite Carnival King & Carnival Queen candidate.  Titles are awarded to the most extravagant, the most flamboyant, the most shamelessly expressive souls.  Witness the spectacle of spangled costumes, feathers that kiss the sky, and lots of nearly-nude Mexican musclemen.  Revel in the sheer audacity of self-expression, and find inspiration to let your own inner peacock loose.  As a testament to Mérida’s sense of humanity and inclusivity, crowns are awarded on the first day of Carnival to elder contestants and to contestants with mental and physical disabilities.

2. …and for the Uncommon Commoner: The organizers of Carnaval de Mérida are keeping quite on-trend by setting aside a pavilion on the fairgrounds for cosplay.  Admire local talent as the bring fantasies to life in home-made outfits that take all year to make.  The stakes are high, too: first prize is a cash award that totals over 60 times the daily minimum wage.  

3. Your Inner Child Unleashed: Remember the thrill of the Tilt-a-Whirl, the sticky-fingered glee of cotton candy, and the triumph of winning a plushy prize?  Merida’s carnival rekindles that childhood spirit.  In this kingdom of cotton candy and carousels, everyone gets to be a giddy glutton.  Use Carnival as a pretext to drop your diet: order a cinnamon-sprinkled churro, a decadent marquesita, or cheesy esquites, and savor both the local treats and the taste of pure nostalgia.  

4. Your Show of Shows: Carnival stages offer a different show every day, all acts of national stature.  The parades are a spectacular exhibition of gaudy floats, but also of jarana yucateca, the traditional folk dance of the Yucatán Peninsula performed by beautifully costumed performers.   

5. Where Everyone Belongs: At Mérida’s carnival inclusivity and diversity are exuberantly celebrated.  Carnival, like carnivals all over the world, is a healthy forum in which to subvert strictures and societal confines, and to flirt with the transgressive. Join the throngs of revelers, let go of your inhibitions, and embrace the city’s spirit of acceptance. You’ll find yourself swept away by the gleeful wave, forging friendships in the shared language of laughter.

So, intrepid adventurer: embrace the vivid, earthy chaos of Merida’s carnival.  Let your laughter mingle with the music, your heart pulse with the rhythm of the crowds, and your spirit soar.  This is not just a celebration, it’s a reminder that we were all born to dance, to sing, and add color to the world with our unique selves.  At carnival, you will find more than just a bawdy party; you’ll find the playful, joyful soul of Yucatán.

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