Latin America's hottest Mardi Gras carnivals

As in most Christian countries, nations across Latin America dress up to celebrate carnival in February and March. Costumes, masks, puppets, parades, floats and very bright lights turn this folk party into the biggest event in the season. Even if carnival originated in pagan rituals and still takes place some time before Lent, its original religious meaning has faded and is now an almost completely secular celebration.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Rio's Carnival is among the most important in South America, a megaproduction where nothing is left to chance. The world famous samba schools parade before the crowds that arrive in Brazil just to be a part of the celebration. The dancers dedicate an entire year to the carnival, working on their moves, their impressive costumes and dazzling floats. Every year, each school chooses a theme for the parade, and they compete against each other to build the best floats and costumes. Even if the carnival gets bigger and bigger every year, it's objective has always been the same: to keep tradition alive.

Related: Rio de Janeiro carnival history

Montevideo, Uruguay

Usually called "the longest carnival in the world", this one lasts 30 to 40 days. The celebration starts to the beat of the drums. In no time, the streets and stages get filled with the colour and music of the troupes of drummers and dancers, two of the most distinctive features of the Uruguayan carnival. This celebration was originally linked to the slave workers that were brought over from Africa. They kept their music alive in their drums, and their rhythm evolved into what is known today as candombe. After the slaves were freed, they started sharing their celebration. It expanded to encompass the whole city and today it's one of Uruguay's most beautiful tourist attractions.

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Gualeguaychú, Argentina

Entre Rios, in Argentina, hosts the biggest carnival in the country. Each year, from January to March, the troupes parade half naked, barely covered at all in sequins and feathers through the Sambadrome in Gualeguaychú. This year, the festival promoters promise as many as twelve floats, over 70 thousand feathers and 500 thousand sequins. The floats and troupes are ranked according their dancing, their costumes and the looks of their floats, and the celebration ends with a award ceremony, where the winning troupe is crowned.

Barranquilla, Colombia

Carnival is celebrated somewhat differently in Colombia, where each day features a special event. Saturday begins with the "Batalla de las Flores" ("Battle of Flowers") and the presentation of the Queen, King Momo and Joselito Carnaval. Carnival Sunday is the day when "Desfile de la Gran Parada" takes place. Floats are not allowed, since Sunday is the day where troupes compete against each other to lead the parade in next year's "Battalla de las Flores". Monday is the day of the Orchestra Festival, where local bands play their most festive tunes until early morning. Tuesday is the last day of this carnival. In Barrio Abajo, among the traditional carnival characters, the Queen, dressed in black, bids Joselito Carnaval farewell. Joselito is then buried. This represents the end of carnival, which will only start again when Joselito is reborn the following year.

Oruro, Bolivia

This isn't just another carnival. It was declared "Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity" in 2001 by UNESCO. Between February and March, Bolivia dresses up to dance its most traditional tunes, including the diablada, the morenada, the kullaguada, the caporales and the llameros. Bolivia's a cultural melting pot, since its many indigenous civilisations have maintained relative independence from one another and from the influence of European immigrants. Rather unsurprisingly, Oruro is considered the folklore capital of Bolivia.

Guaranda, Ecuador

This carnival is celebrated during February and it's the most important holiday in Guaranda. In addition to the parades, costumes and dancing, there are other prominent elements: water, talc, flowers, candy, streamers, eggs, many ethnic foods and a regional liquor called "Blue Bird". But here the route is more important than anything else: the songs are the absolute protagonists. They speak about children, women, love, joy and sadness, among other topics. As long as the carnival lasts, the streets are filled with tourists who are there to admire the indigenous and creole customs.

Encarnación, Paraguay

Paraguay's biggest carnival is called "Carnaval Encarnaceno" or "corsos encarnacenos". It is celebrated for eight straight days, usually between January and February at the city's Sambadrome, which can seat 8,500 people. The city receives around 60 thousand visitors on occasion of the carnival, making it one of the biggest in the continent. Floats, dancers, street musicians and bands parade by, giving their best to be named Kings and Queens of the carnival by the jury.

Veracruz, México

As many other carnivals in Latin America, this one got a special name: "The world's happiest carnival". It is the largest in México and has been conducted every year since 1924. In 2014, it will be celebrated between February 25 and March 5. The celebration starts with the burning of the "Bad Mood" and ends on the ninth day with the burial of Juan Carnaval, who will remain dead until the coming year. The costumes and colours that flood the city, the masks and the Mexican folklore are accompanied by harp, marimba and guitar music.

Puno, Perú

Puno lies 1,342 km away from Lima, the Peruvian capital. The city's carnival is dedicated to the Virgin of Candelaria, where thousands of dancers and musicians parade through the streets. Its also called the "party of the Peruvian highlands" and it features cholitas (women of indigenous decent dressed in typical clothing) dancing their creole dance, followed by male dancers and musicians. This is called "Pinkillada", "Chacallada" or "Tarkada". The music is mostly played on the region's typical flute, the "quena", accompanied by drums.

El Callao, Venezuela

This celebration is touted as one of the largest in the country. Because of the diverse origins of the area's settlers, the Callao carnival is a display of cultural fusion. The songs are sung in Spanish, English and Papiamento, a dialect that emerged in the area, giving rise to unique songs. The festival starts on January 1st and features masses, parades, allegoric costumes, dance and drum troupes. The region's traditional music, calypso, is the event's soundtrack.

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Recife and Olinda, Brazil

There's much more carnival beyond samba. The Brazilian north-east offers music, dance and celebration for four days, with live shows by Brazil's most beloved musicians, day and night. The region's traditional rhythm, the frevo, is very different from samba, typically faster and featuring wind instruments. An important accessory in the festival's traditional attire is the umbrella. The carnival takes place on the street, where millions of people gather around the "bonecos", giant puppets that have been part of the celebration since the seventeenth century.

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