Every February, Tenerife's the place to head for a hot, hedonistic week of stamina-sapping street parties - making it the perfect escape from cold, gloomy days in northern Europe
When Carnaval hits the streets of Tenerife each February, it’s time to throw off the mantle of tourist and spin headlong into the Latin spirit, even if that means slipping on some fishnets and stuffing some balloons down the front of your frock. And that’s just the men...
Born of the Catholic practice of using up meat and dairy products before the advent of abstemious Lent, Carnaval arrived in Tenerife with the conquistadores at the end of the 15th century. When it was sent underground by a Franco ban, and frowned upon by the Church as blasphemous, people started wearing hoods or masks and cross-dressing, in order to conceal their identities. Today Carnaval is just an excuse for an almighty blow-out before Lent and the cross dressing has simply become de rigueur.
The capital city of Santa Cruz stages Europe’s largest carnival and the world’s second biggest outside Brazil. The northern coastal town of Puerto de la Cruz runs a close second to the capital in the size of its celebrations.
The main events
For the thousands of visitors who flock to the island during Carnaval fortnight, it’s the parades that attract the most attention. At the beginning and end of the second week, scantily clad dancers in flamboyant costumes twirl, prance and salsa their way through the streets, accompanied by the blood-pumping beat of Latino drums. Riding atop ornately decorated floats, Carnaval Queens and their entourages wear costumes of such mind-boggling size and complexity that during the elections they have to be mounted on wheels in order for their harnessed wearers to move them around the stage.
Falling on Ash Wednesday is the magic mushroom of this hallucinogenic week: the Burial of the Sardine, intended to mark the demise of celebrations. Decked out in full widows' weeds, including hat, veil and pearls, thousands of ‘mourners’, most of them men, follow a funeral cortège bearing the corpse of a giant papier-mâché sardine sporting false eyelashes and crimson lipstick. The widows screech and wail in various stages of distraught collapse, revealing a bewildering array of sex aids beneath their outer garments as they fall to the floor like dying flies auditioning for the Rocky Horror Show.
In neighbouring Puerto de la Cruz, there’s an additional event that makes the Burial of the Sardine look positively prim by comparison: the High Heels Marathon. It's a male-only drag race in which contestants in scandalously witty attire teeter over a range of obstacles in heels that make Elton John’s Rocket Man look like he fancied a night in flats. It’s hilarious, outrageously un-PC, and rapidly becoming the most popular event of Tenerife’s Carnaval calendar.
Dancing in the streets
But beyond the parades, the true spirit of Carnaval lies in the nightly street parties, when the spotlight switches from observer to participant. Every night, from midnight onwards, thousands upon thousands of revellers take to the streets around the main plazas in fancy dress, to dance, drink and party until dawn. Music is provided by live Latino and maquinaria bands, with fringe streets pumping out house, dance, Euro-trance and garage.
Beer stalls provide a never-ending flow of cold Dorada, JD and coke, and vital vodka and Red Bull to fuel the energy levels, while food stalls fill the night air with the tastebud-tingling aroma of grilled sausages and fried seafood, which keep the mightiest of munchies at bay. This is the real Carnaval, and the only way to experience its full-on sensory assault is to slip into the stockings and prepare to be Carnaval-ed...
When to go
Carnaval is a moveable feast according to when Easter falls. In 2012 the dates will be:
Santa Cruz: opening parade 17th February; closing parade 21st February; Burial of the Sardine 22nd February.
Puerto de la Cruz: Burial of the Sardine 22nd February; High Heels Marathon 24th February; closing parade 25th February.
What to wear
Fancy dress - and anything goes. Many men traditionally dress as women, particularly for the Burial of the Sardine, when a little black number is essential. February nights can be a bit on the chilly side, which is worth bearing in mind when planning the outfit, and multiple hours on the feet lend themselves to the wearing of trainers, regardless of the rest of the look.
What to bring
If you don’t want to spend precious holiday time shopping, bring a costume or two (many regulars have a different outfit for every night). Otherwise, large supermarkets have a Carnaval costume stand, there are a few specialist shops in Santa Cruz and in Puerto, and stalls line the main plazas selling essential accessories such as face paint and false breasts.
Where to stay
You want somewhere within easy distance of the action but far enough away to get some zeds when exhaustion sets in.
In Santa Cruz, try something on Las Ramblas - the Hotel Colón Rambla (c/ Viera y Clavijo, 49) is stylish, friendly and mid-range.
In Puerto de la Cruz, Hotel Bahia Principe San Felipe (Avenida de Colón, 22) has a great position on the seafront at the far end of town.