There are these celebrations and festivals around the world which usually come up when travellers sit together at night and exchange anecdotes and recommendations. After a few beers it is always time for these extraordinary celebrations and the legends which come with them. Strangely, almost everyone has something to say about them, having been there or not.
So what’s the truth behind these events which make people’s faces light up with curiosity and fascination? I have visited a few of them, if nothing else because legends tend to bother me until I have personally checked them out. Here are my experiences with 10 legendary festivities which are, of course, completely subjective:
Dia de los muertos (Day of the Dead), Mexico
All of Central America celebrates the day we know as All Saints with a variety of rituals. Many people spend the Day of the Dead together with their passed away ancestors, meaning in front and on top of their graves. They cry, dance, sing, light colorful candles, sometimes get drunk and leave food and drinks as sacrificial offerings. All of that can definitely makes it one of the best festivals around the world, but after a while you’ve seen it all.
People looking for something more outlandish can find it in a small village in the Guatemalan mountains which goes by the same name as the holiday itself: Todos Santos (All Saints). All inhabitants of this remote place are dressed in the same costume, old and young, men and women. But that’s not the only weird thing here. On the day before the holiday, the village celebrates an almost insane horse race worthy to be witnessed. Simply said it goes something like this: Young villagers drink as much beer as possible from as early as sunrise and then try to keep themselves on top of a horse for as long as they can. The patient animals keep running back and forth on a dusty strip for about 200 meters. This ‘racetrack’ is lined with hooting visitors. Of course, the guys constantly refuel. So does the audience. Sooner than later everyone is completely wasted.
- The crazy horse race in Todos Santos
You see riders fall, get up again or just stay on the ground, shout out loudly and sometimes even bite off a chicken’s head. The dusty horses snicker nervously while the crowd puts the riders under pressure with their wild cheering. There is a hint of insanity floating through the narrow alleys with the colorful houses.
In the village square there is luna park set up where you can entertain yourself in style after the race. The ferris wheel isn’t too big, but it has been improvised from old traktor parts! Food-wise – like ever so often in Guatemala – you find only fried chicken with fries, a very dry pleasure. But the beer from the omnipresent blue cases is tasty and the rum isn’t too bad either.
Surrounding the spectacle, there are musicians some of which don’t seem to have much talent at all. They play joyfully apocalyptic melodies on huge marimbas until they fall over. The musicians, not the marimbas. People who are too drunk and misbehave are locked up in a cell especially built for the occasion. Their relatives bring them food and even more alcohol.
On the following day, the people celebrate the Day of the Dead at the cemetary with all rituals mentioned above. Unique!
- Drunk people in Todos Santos
When: Every year for All Saints (Todos Santos), November 1st.
Where: Todos Santos, Northern Guatemala.
Good to know: Factor in a good two days in order to get to the remote mountain village. If you travel on top of a bus, you should keep an eye on the electric wires at all times…
Festivals around the world: Burning Man, USA
It is virtually impossible to put this festival into words. Especially, if you wanna avoid using esoteric terms. The festival, which doesn’t want to be one, was founded twenty years ago on a Californian beach and is nowadays being celebrated in a desert, far away from everything. For the time of the spectacle, an entire small town of tents and mobile homes springs up. First of all, you have to find the location in Nevada. If you succeed, nature confronts you with a few adversities. During the day, temperatures sometimes reach up to 40 degrees, at night it gets close to freezing. Sandstorms appear out of nowhere and the acrid sand originating from ancient fish excrements painfully destroys the soles of your feet. But all of that gets negligible soon.
- Burning Man snapshot – no arrangements, no photoshop…
Burning Man becomes what it is through all those people who invest their time, energy and imagination. And you get to know these people surprisingly easy. Some of them wear lavish costumes, others don’t wear anything at all. Most of them radiate wild traits of character and an overwhelming and unbiased friendliness. They come from all over the place, but nationalities really have no meaning here. There is an atmosphere of empathy, love and mutual support, to an extent I have never witnessed before. People take a lot of drugs, but they don’t glorify them. There is art to be found at every corner and everyone gives themselves a chance to find the artist within themselves.
You let yourselve be driven over the the sandy plain called Playa in intricately decorated, self-built vehicles. They take you to bars and clubs which have been built solely for altruistic reasons as noone makes a dime here. Chances are, you already find a party with extraordinary encounters on the vehicle itself. There is no advertising to be found anywhere, there is no line-up either. Yet, there are bands and DJs playing everywhere, some of them quite popular. There is no money involved in any transactions, the whole system is based on exchange. That way, you can easily get a drink for a neck massage. Or a kiss. Or a smile that comes from the heart. There are people who practice free love, others meditate for the whole length of the festival. You see antipodes from both ends of the spectrum wherever you look. You might practice yoga with some new friends completely painted blue and witness a bunch of people actually living the film Mad Max only a little later. Perhaps you encounter a roller disco after that or a scientific speech about transcendency. Then a bare-breasted beauty invites you to a five-course-menue in a tent or you find yourself participating in a yodeling class. Or in an orgy with people who are all wearing orange. The possibilities are literally limitless. The boundaries of even the most vivid imagination are torn apart every other minute.
You have to see it to believe it! If you are open-minded, positive and flexible, you will experience things you would have never thought possible before.
Sounds like Utopia? Damn, this is the biggest Utopia I have seen in this world so far.
- Burning the man
When: First week in September.
Where: Black Rock Desert, Nevada, USA.
Good to know: Eventhough you can basically shoot amazing photos all the time, you should sometimes put the camera down and experience the moment consciously.
Once a year, during a full moon in the month of Tai, hindus in the whole world worship their numerous gods in general and Murga, the god of war, in particular. India might come to mind, but, surprisingly, one of the best places to experience this event is a system of caves near Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, the Batu Caves.
Most of the believers, some of which have already walked for long distances to get here, get their heads shaved for the celebrations. Then priests drive little spears and hooks into their backs, arms, lips and tongues. They even stick weights to some of them. After that, the devotees fall into a trance and start climbing the 272 steps up to the caves which are covered with statues of hindu gods. Most of the devotees even carry heavy sacrificial offerings as an additional burden.
- In trance
Friends and helpers along the virtually endless stairs cheer for the devotees with ‘vel, vel’, meaning spear, a reference to the favorite weapon of Murga. There are groups of drummers bustling about, their rhythms driving the crowd into ecstasy. The air is heavy with the smoke of all the fires burning in honor of the gods as well as the countless incense sticks. People pour water into the mouths of the devotees who are on the verge of collapsing. Not only do they have to fight the pain, but also the merciless heat.
When they reach the top, they look around with confused looks on their faces. There is saliva dripping from their mouths and some people produce strange, archaic noises. Then they put down the offerings, and priests pull out the hooks and spears one after the other. Hardly ever, any of the wounds bleeds. The priests cover them with holy ashes. Some of the devotees break down, others completely lose conscience.
- Pierced guy at Taipusam Festival
The caves are full of people who celebrate the festivity with prayers and further offerings. Huge speakers screak traditional melodies into the spacious catacombs. At small stands you can buy devotional objects. There are bold monkeys climbing around the rocks who serve themselves at the donated food.
All of that delivers enough eye candy to get stuck in the caves open-mouthed for hours. After a short bus ride you are back in the megalopolis Kuala Lumpur and there you might have trouble coping after what you have experienced.
- Inside Batu Cave
When: January or February.
Where: Various locations with big hindu communities. Most impressive at Batu Caves near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Good to know: Not only does Kuala Lumpur have the biggest hindu community outside of India, it might also have the best Indian food.
Rainbow Gathering, various locations
The Rainbow Family is a lose association of hippies around the globe who believe in a better world. The local groups called ‘tribes’ organize meetings in unusual places. In the best case, these places come with a special energy. Mostly, they are very remote, be it in a jungle or on top of a mountain. During the meeting, the rainbow people dedicate their time and energy to vegan food, life in a commune without hierarchies, esoteric and spiritual practices, free love and the expansion of consciousness through substances of all kinds. Sounds good so far. I already felt that way when I heard about these conspirative meetings for the first time.
Unfortunately, the only celebration of this kind I have visited so far, proved to be a major disappointment. But that may also partly be due to it having run for three weeks already when I reached the State Forest that had been the location of choice. I had heard about it through friends when I was on my way along the East Coast of Florida. I quickly bought a few cereal bars and some water and then tracked down the hidden place via GPS and a map. There were signs warning of bears and I got excited. But all my euphoria died after only a few minutes.
A bunch of very dirty and shabby kids loitered between the palm-like trees and talked exclusively about drugs. Already at the gate, I was welcomed by a mob of savages who blatantly started begging and were drunk beyond description. And that in spite of the rainbow family being decidedly against the consumption of alcohol. I walked around and talked to the few people who were still willing to talk and capable of doing so. Half of the people had caught a naughty stomach bug, some of them seemed to also have lost their minds. Everyone was asking me for money. People seemed very self-absorbed. Lethargically, they were sitting in their own garbage, celebrating their wastedness. I stayed for exactly one hour before driving back to the coast and eating my cereal bars in a cheap motel disenchantedly.
But I want to give this whole thing a second chance some time, as I believe I was simply unlucky with this one.
- Rainbow Gathering in Northern Florida
When: Several times a year.
Where: Changing locations. Check the websites of the rainbow family for more info.
Good to know: You shouldn’t be showing up in a clean rental car, wearing washed clothes. People will either ask you for money or take you for an undercover cop. Both is not very pleasant.
Rocket Festival, Laos
The rocket festival is a sacrificial ceremony, celebrated by ethnic Lao in their country as well as Northern Thailand at the beginning of the rainy season. If you want to experience it in an extraordinary atmosphere and with a pristine natural backdrop, I would recommend Vang Vieng.
- Getting ready for take-off
The celebrations are based on a Buddhist tradition, generously mixed with superstition, omnipresent in South East Asia. For weeks, the Laotians prepare for the event by building rockets up to five meters long from cardboard, colorful ribbons and gun powder. On the day of the event, these rockets are being shot from bamboo ramps into the jungle. This is meant to put the rain god into a good mood for the season’s crops. But due to the South East Asian playfulness, this also serves as a competition. The rocket, which covers the longest distance, wins. But not all of them fly at all. Some don’t ignite, some explode while still on the ramp. Often, young men get injured while trying to start these monsters. But when the rocket eventually flies, it is an unusual sight to see. The self-made flying objects disappear in the lush green with a big trail of smoke while many of the locals follow their flight paths with fascinated looks on their faces.
Needless to say that the Laotians consume a lot of alcohol during the festivities. The local specialty Lao Lao, a rice liquor, is very strong and, even for Lao standards, very affordable. Besides the hour-long launch of the rockets, there are many rituals which are equally exciting for the visitor like a dance contest or the display of chopped-off cows’ heads in front of the village headmen. While the locals celebrate in dignity, the presence of many backpackers, who recently have been haunting the place in growing numbers due to the ‘tubing’, has already changed the event a bit. Mostly without knowing anything about the background of the festival, they get drunk even worse than the locals. Then they roll around in the mud which the Laotians find only partly amusing. So go now, before this festival is all westernized!
- A rocket shooting into the sky in Vang Vieng
When: Every year in May.
Where: Laos and Northeastern Thailand. Particularly nice in Vang Vieng, Lao.
Good to know: Not even two kilometers from the village you can find pristine nature in a wonderful surrounding which you can almost have to yourself. Rent a bike and get out of this hellhole of party-backpackers!
Spring Break, USA and Mexico
Every year for the spring holidays tens of thousands of pleasure-seeking students pilgrimage to the beaches of the USA and Mexico. It is the same story with this event as with certain clubs or party places. In some way, one already hates them beforehand, yet, these places don’t leave you in peace until you actually see them with your one eyes. As I had to make a stop in Mexico on my way to Cuba and this layover happened to be just at the beginning of the springbreak festivities, I couldn’t let the chance slip to check it out.
Cancun might as well be the ugliest place in Mexico. Unless you like concrete towers and US-American fastfood. But behind the wall of hotels there is a beach which is hard not to like. That is where the young Americans prepare for the night by tanning, working out and sipping on the first drinks. Here you don’t even have to stick the alcohol in paper bags, how convenient. But the main fun begins at night. There are as many bars and clubs in Cancun as the Habanero chili has Scoville units. Two nights in a row I took a look at how people party here. I tried to stay objective and in a good mood.
- Cancun Beach – imagine around 600 hotels behind the camera
But many of the students indulging in debauchery are not particularly nice. One wouldn’t even think that a lot of them actually know how to read or write. But they know how to drink, and that’s good because they have to! In most of the bars you can drink anything you like in any quantity you like for a ridiculous € 12. For that amount you get a wristband and then you’re good to go. The goal of this party concept called Open Bar is to drown any potential prudery or moral doubts straight away.
Then the flirting begins, and it is not a nice thing to look at. If I have read the signs right, what really gets you someone to talk to is a well-trained body if you’re a boy and a really short skirt if you’re a girl. Once the little talking is done, people start dancing to the most horrendous music imaginable. Waitresses with almost no clothes on try to get a little extra money out of the drunk kids by selling them shots. Animators get young girls to get up on stage and strip all the way. The next day, they will not remember having shown their bodies to hundreds. Hopefully, the hundreds won’t either. Every now and then, a girl with a really short skirt falls off her stool and doesn’t get up anymore. The waiters dispose of her discretely.
If some day, Aliens should land on planet Earth and, just by coincidence, stumble into one of these parties first, an annihalation of mankind would be very understandable.
- One of the many horrible places in Cancun
When: Every year in March.
Where: Along the Southern East Coast of North America. Especially horrible in Cancun, Mexico.
Good to know: A short busride South you can find wonderful, deserted beaches. They don’t have Open Bar there though.
The Songkran celebrations are a buddhist tradition for welcoming the rainy season as well as the New Year according to the buddhist calendar. People celebrate it all over Thailand and in many Laotian cities. In the old tradition people paint each other’s faces slightly with natural color and sprinkle each other with a few drops of water. But today people seem to focus more on the party aspect of the event, especially in the bigger cities.
For four days, nothing and nobody stays dry. The cities are out of control. Forget about the sprinkling. Today, people shoot at each other with waterguns or hoses or they simply pour whole buckets of cold water over each other’s heads. This can be quite pleasant at 35 degrees. Besides, you can’t get mad at anyone anyway, as the people smile constantly and even grown-ups enjoy the day-long game like kids.
- Getting wet (once again)
One doesn’t need to mention that the Thais, whose social life is pretty much based upon Sanook (fun), organise many parties around the festival where people drink, dance and sing Karaoke. There are spontaneous waterfights between locals and tourists, organized street parades and many wet, but contagioulsy happy people who cheerfully yell ‘Sawadee pi mai!’ (Happy New Year!) at each other.
This festival is so much fun that I have already taken part in it three times. I would do it again in a heartbeat.
- A waterfight in the city of Chiangmai
When: Buddhist New Year, some time in April.
Where: All over SE Asia, but particularly nice in the bigger cities of Thailand and Lao. Personal favorite place for the celebrations: Chiangmai
Good to know: Cheeky Thais chill their water with big ice cubes for an extra surprise. And: Swimming in the canals of Chiangmai is not recommended unless you are a fan of ear parasites.
The andalusian carnaval is very recommendable as a special variety of the Christian holiday. For example, Cadiz which is a very pretty place to begin with, is out of control during the few days of celebrations which originally meant to serve as a preparation for the fasting days. It is doubtful if nowadays anyone still fasts at all. The festivities leading toward the fasting period, however, are celebrated more wildly than ever.
People put on some unusual and impressive costumes. There are fire works all the time. And during the street parades you run into a colorful mix of tourists and locals. Nights start relatively early for Spanish standards. At the beginning you buy a little glass. This is then being refilled over and over again with sticky and sweet Sherry at the numerous vendor stands. This drink comes from the nearby Jerez de la Frontera and is omnipresent in Cadiz. It is quite affordable and has an impressively positive effect. But beware, the hangover it brings with it is very strong, too. Best hangover cure: A traditional squid, served lukewarm with a lot of oil on a wooden plate. And then back into the street for the next parade!
- That’s what the puddle of pee looks like when you’re too drunk to use a camera…
When: Every year, mostly in February.
Where: Really nice in Cadiz.
Good to know: Beware of the one street in Cadiz’ centre which the locals use as a urinal. Later at night it is literally a lake of pee!
Around 2005, travellers started whispering the word Kazantip to each other conspiratively, accompanying the secret suggestion with euphoric facial expressions and a few anecdotes they had overheard somewhere. People were talking about a week-long debaucherous rave on the beach, organised by Ukranian free spirits who adopted every visitor like a long lost child. They were talking about a temporary republic standing up for everything that makes the world a little better. And, of course, people always mentioned the half-naked stunning girls who basically wanted sex at all times, mainly with foreign guests. A hedonistic utopia in the former Eastern Bloc. And almost for free. No wonder that the party at the Black Sea became the personal Shangri-La of many a traveller.
- One of the bars inside Kazantip
Many years later, a job finally brought me to the legendary super party. We drove there from Berlin in junkyard cars. But once there, things now looked a bit different from all the tales I’d heard. Times had changed.
The party still lasted for several weeks and the Ukranian girls were still a sight to behold. But the festival had transformed into a very profitable company and it was virtually impossible to track down the original spirit. There was advertising everywhere, the sponsors covered even the last corner of the festival area which was a lot more organized than I had expected. Instead of wild partying, people now entertained themselves in a very standardized way, it could pretty much have been any festival. Thanks, globalization! A few pieces of art spread around the area, as well as a fancy costume here and there were the only remainders of how Kazantip must have been a few years ago. The whole place was guarded by an army of security people who kicked out guests after minor offenses like peeing into the sea, and they sometimes did so brutally. They were all dressed in camouflage, did not smile much and were accompanied by German sheperds with heads as big as lions. no kidding.
With the exception of some international electronic acts the music was quite bad. And even the legendary openness of the people – nowadays almost more wealthy Russians than idealistic Ukranians – was hard to verify. That also might be due to the now hefty entrance fee of € 200.
My personal conclusion: Past its sell-by date.
When: Every year in summer, check websites.
Where: Crimean peninsula, Ukraine.
Good to know: On the Crimea you often get further with Russian than with Ukranian. And: The festival in Portugal with the same name has nothing to do with the original.
Mardi Gras, USA
Just your usual carnival? Not at all! In the only US-American city where drinking in the streets is actually legal, people really know how to party. In New Orleans, shaken by hurricanes and a weak economy more than once, the locals use almost any excuse for dancing and drinking.
- Mardi Gras bead decoration
But during carnival, the people really go mad. Add tens of thousands of visitors from the rest of the States and the whole world and you get the picture. None of the people living in one of the pretty houses in colonial architecture French Quarter misses this opportunity to decorate their balconies with beads and flags. Already during the day, people are hanging out in the streets drinking while others throw beads at them from the balconies. Often, stripping seems to be the only type of payment the throwers accept. Probably that’s not in line with the original concept of carnival, yet it is very entertaining.
At night, the real party begins. Jazz, Blues and Rock dominate, but you can also find electronic music, Hip Hop and lots of experimental stuff in all the bars. Huge parades move through the city and are greeted by a merry crowd of countless visitors. It’s not a rare sight to spot popular actors atop the floats. You get to see people in fancy costumes and an unbelievable amount of bead chains made in China which are thrown from the floats into the arms of the audience. Away from the tourist hordes, for example on Frenchmen Street, you’ll find one bar next to the other with good live-music, nice people and drinks galore.
- The Bacchus Parade
When: Every year in February.
Where: New Orleans, Louisiana, USA.
Good to know: There are quarters in New Orleans you should not go to. The city used to be the capital of crime for decades and things have not exactly improved after hurricane Kathrina.
This post is also available in: German