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Carnival on São Vicente, Cape Verde: Get close to the parades

Carnival - Cape Verde - samba procession - Mindelo
The Carnival of Cape Verde is a festive event with magnificent parades and intense folk festivals. Get a taste of the festivities.
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Carnival on São Vicente, Cape Verde: Get close to the parades is written by Well Mammen Nielsen.

Cape Verde, Carnival, São Vicente, Mindelo

For carnival with feathers, sequins and dance of joy

Every year in February, the annual carnival is held in Cape Verde. A magnificent folk festival that sets in motion all the senses. The largest parades take place on the island of São Vicente. Naja Mammen Nielsen participated in the event in 2020, together with her 4-year-old daughter.

Bum, bum, bum… BUM, BUM. From early morning, the first drums start sounding close to the neighborhood where we live, and the echo hits us from the other neighborhoods. The drum beats have been ringing in the background in recent days, and it is today that the big parades have to go through the city.

My daughter and I have been taken to the port city of Mindelo the island of São Vicente in the northwest Cape Verde. In the days leading up to, we got a little taste of the carnival. There have been smaller processions and street parties where people have dressed up and partyed to the sambar rhythms. My daughter was quite upset that she was not wearing a costume. We will remember that next time.

The carnival is strongly inspired by the festivities in Rio de Janeiro and takes place everywhere on Cape Verde's nine islands. The largest and most magnificent procession takes place in the streets of Mindelo on São Vicente, and the parades are broadcast live on national television.

Mindelo - Cape Verde - Audience - São Vicente

The carnival has the details in place

For the participants, the preparations have been under way for a long time. The carnival is not just a samba parade with a well-planned show. It is also a competition between the city's four samba schools - Monte Sossego, Vindos do Oriente, Cruzeiros do Norte and Flores do Mindelo.

They compete on the basis of criteria such as costumes, the performance of the samba song, the overall impression of the parade and the theme, which was set the year before. They have been preparing for months and there is great prestige in being among the performers and getting a prominent role in the procession.

In the days leading up to, we have been able to hear them rehearsing and curiously watching the final preparations for the decorations of the parade cars. The streets have been cordoned off and decorated, and rows of spectators have been mounted on the sidewalks. If you want to secure a good seat, it is possible to buy a ticket and get a seat. However, we have not done so and instead move around freely.

Carnival - Cape Verde - Mindelo

Contagious dancing joy

We are very close as the first parade cars drive forward in the square in front of the harbor. Here we walk around among the dancers who are adjusting the costumes and getting ready for the five-six hour long parade.

There are stilettos, long eyelashes and just balls in long lanes and the mood is high. Up close we can see the very creative and detailed costumes, which are decorated with feathers, sequins, glitter, rhinestones and pearls in all sorts of colors.

In the early afternoon, the drum beats begin to beat more intensely - the parades are set in motion. We walk around in the chaos of people and have a hard time hearing each other due to the loud drum beats and the crowd blocking the view. Eventually we manage to find seating at a café.

Here we have a view of both the parades through the open windows, and on a TV screen we can follow the live broadcast and see overview pictures from the procession. Along the way we can rest our legs and quench our hunger and thirst. Although it can be hard to catch the waitress' attention; they stand on their toes and push themselves forward in the windows to catch a glimpse of the dancers.

Find cheap flights to Carnival on São Vicente here

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Carnival - Cape Verde - Parades - Mindelo - São Vicente

A cohesive mass

Most of the island is gathered in the center of Mindelo to attend the big parades. In addition to the stands, people have taken seats on top of cars, on the sidewalks, balconies and in the trees.

It's hard to judge who dances the most - the audience or the audience. And it is impossible not to get carried away by the euphoric mood and surrender to the dance and the shouts of joy. We're sold. The same samba song is played over and over again, but with different artists running past, making it not seem monotonous. Finally, we can sing along and do the same gestures.

There is a great presence, rhythm and cohesion between the audience and the dancers, and there seems to be no difference between rich and poor, young and old or nationality. It almost feels like the world is coming to a standstill, and it's all about one thing: the carnival. We have a constant smile on our lips, movement in the body and are thrilled by the beautiful costumes and giant figures on the carriages.

Find more inspiration for your trip to Africa here

Cape Verde - Mindelo - parade - samba procession - São Vicente

Creative embellishments

In each procession, the samba dancers are divided into teams, all of which have costumes that match the theme. Between the small groups run the large parade vehicles that show the different themes and are adorned beyond recognition.

Avatars, astronauts, Egyptians, sea creatures, Greek gods, devils and angels dance past. The dancers on the vehicles are located in several levels. The highest places are several meters up and hoisted up with a crane and down again several hours later.  

One parade is replaced by the other, and the audience waits in excitement for what the next group has to offer. The excitement will never end when a new carriage comes running and the dancers on the road give it gas to the drummers' beats.

As the last parade has passed, darkness has settled over the city and we are moving through the crowds again. There is still loud music and going on in the street parties around. Down by the harbor, we watch the dancers being hoisted down from the trucks with large cranes.

The fatigue is not noticeable to them despite the fact that they have been standing upright for several hours. The audience eagerly snaps their phones and takes selfies with the beautiful dancers - and we get carried away once again.

Carnival - Cape Verde - Mindelo - São Vicente

Glistening streets the next day

The next day, the streets are covered with a sparkling blanket of feathers, glitter, confetti and sequins, which the dancers have lost during the show. To the great fascination and amusement of my daughter, who picks up the colorful memories and thinks they should be put together for a samba costume when we get home.

During the day, it is again possible to get a glimpse of the carnival's performers. Here, the jury selects the winners of this year's carnival and awards various prizes. It all takes place in front of the beautiful building on the Palácio Municipal, where the queen and king of the carnival are also crowned. A unanimous jury selects Monte Sossego as the carnival's best group.

Even we have a hard time nominating a winner as they were all very skilled. The carnival in Cape Verde has given us a huge intoxication of joy and we will definitely come again.

Discover Cape Verde's other islands - read more here.

Carnival - samba drums - Cape Verde - Mindelo - São Vicente

Travel tips for carnival on São Vicente

The time of the carnival in Cape Verde depends on when Easter falls that year, but typically takes place in February. There are several processions in the week up to, and the big parade takes place around Ash Wednesday.

The event in Mindelo on São Vicente attracts many visitors, so be out well in advance to book flights, accommodation - and tickets to the stands.

There are a few flights departing during the week from Lisbon to São Vicente with TAP and TACV. Otherwise there are daily departures from the islands Sal Island og Santiago.

Really good fun with carnival on Cape Verde.

About the author

Well Mammen Nielsen

Naja has travel blood in her veins and has a penchant for islands. She has traveled on five continents and has a great knowledge of the African continent, where she has traveled in 11 countries. In addition to countless trips to the region, she has started a development project for former girl soldiers in Sierra Leone, worked two years in Tanzania, been on island hopping in Cape Verde, crossed Zambia and Zimbabwe by train and moved in the footsteps of genocide in Rwanda.

The destinations are carefully planned on their own, targeted at the locals, the less touristy places and the preferred means of transport is by train and bus.

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