Drumming group during Montevideo carnival

Carnival is coming

The world's longest carnival is in Montevideo

Montevideo's carnival lasts for over a month. It may be a cliché to say it but – filled with theatre, song, comedy, dancing and drumming – it truly offers something for everyone.

The marketing circus that surrounds Brazil's carnival (mainly in Rio de Janeiro but also in the increasingly popular Salvador and Olinda) has resulted in Montevideo's version taking something of a back-seat. This is a pity: the Montevideo carnival is remarkably varied and has a charm all its own. It is also the longest carnival in the world: the 2011 edition begins on January 27th with the inaugral parade and will last for 40 days, maybe even longer if rain causes delays.

So how is it possible for the people of Montevideo to dance, drink and make merry for 40 days in a row? Well, truth be told, this is a slightly different type of carnival to Brazil's. It begins and ends with a street parade, but in between there are a number of other events and activities, many unique to Uruguay.

The main pull for the locals are the murgas and the llamadas, two very important Uruguayan traditions.

A murga is a type of street performance with its roots in Spain. It's a mixture of song, theatre and comedy. You might want to compare it to a pantomime penned by the writers of Private Eye or The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, as it has the power to entertain children through its song and slapstick, and adults through its political and cultural references, often satirising Uruguay's politicians or the country's relations with its Argentine neighbours.

Murgas, as well as purely satirical and comedy variants, take place all over Montevideo during carnival, with major productions taking place in the theatres (such as Teatro Solís) and countless others in social clubs and specially-constructed street-theatre stages in neighbourhoods across the city.

It's these murga performances which also explain the length of the event. Judges visit each neighbourhood to choose the best one (there are other awards, too). With so many performances to check out, this can take a while.

The llamadas (Spanish for “calls”) are another great reason to visit Montevideo's carnival. These hugely popular drum parades feature groups of drummers and dancers, known collectively as comparsas, and are arguably the main attraction for visitors and locals alike.

The comparsas parade the streets, hoping to win awards for the quality of their drumming, as well as choreography, in a similar vein to the samba groups of Brazil. Uniquely Uruguayan, though, are the characters that are compulsory for each group. Favourite among these are the gramillero (“herb man”) and the mama vieja (“old woman”) which give the men of the group the chance to either dress up as old men with white hair and a cane (while also dancing as if their backs had collapsed) or alternatively ham it up as old women in floral dresses and an abundance of make-up.

It's touches like these which make Montevideo carnival a really special event, and one which can be enjoyed by all ages. This family atmosphere is helped by the fact that this is still mainly a domestic party, with those tourists who attend generally from Argentina and Brazil. This means that the events are never too crowded and that you don't have to pay extortionate tourist prices, though it does often mean that it's harder to find information on the carnival, particularly in English (the main source of information for the event is Montevideo's culture website, which is unfortunately only in Spanish). There are a few blogs in English, plus limited ticketing information from a few local theatres, but all in all it's best to treat Montevideo's carnival as a great opportunity to improve your Spanish.

When is Montevideo Carnival?

Montevideo Carnival in 2011 will start on January 27th with the opening parade of singers, dancers, drummers and all other entertainers advancing along Montevideo's Avenida 18 de Julio. The llamadas will take place on the 3rd and 4th of February in the Palermo and Sur districts of Montevideo. You will need to check the carnival section of Montevideo's culture website for details of murga performances, as well as the many other carnival-related activities that will be taking place until early March.

It is also worth noting that while the carnival is on in Montevideo, the other cities in Uruguay are not totally left out. They often have their own groups performing murgas and other productions, particularly in Colonia, where in the 2011 edition they will receive the Carnival llamadas on January 22nd. For Buenos Aires dwellers this is the perfect opportunity to catch the boat to Uruguay and soak up some Montevidean culture.


Bear in mind the following key carnival vocabulary: desfile (“parade”); llamadas (literally “calls” but referring to the drum parades), humoristas (“comedians”) and carnaval (the slightly different Spanish spelling of “carnival”). Visit the Museo del Carnaval (Carnival Museum) on Rambla 25 de Agosto corner Calle Maciel in Montevideo's Old Town to find out more about the history and significance of the event. If you can't make it to Montevideo during the party, the museum gives you a taste of carnival year-round. Opening hours: Tuesday to Sunday from 11 am to 5 pm; entry on Tuesdays is free. You can also check out the museum's colourful website at: http://museodelcarnaval.org/. Montevideo city council's culture website is at http://cultura.montevideo.gub.uy/.

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