It’s March, summer’s coming to a close, and you know what that means, it’s time for Carnaval long weekend! Apart from the music, the dancing, the costumes and the fun, it’s one of the biggest holidays of the year in Argentina and is celebrated worldwide.
What you may not know is that one of the biggest and most significant Carnaval celebrations in the world, just a couple of notches below Brazil’s in Rio de Janeiro and Italy’s in Venice, takes place right here in Argentina. However, it’s not in Buenos Aires, or Rosario, or Cordoba. The largest Carnaval in the country takes place in the 80,000 person city of Gualeguaychú, located about four hours north of Buenos Aires in the province of Entre Ríos. The monthlong festival, taking place Saturdays between January and February, brings more than 30,000 people into the city each night.
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Historians disagree about the origins of Carnaval. Some say it dates back to ancient Sumer, over five thousand years ago, then continued as a custom of the Egyptians and then of the Roman Empire, where it spread throughout Europe, brought to South America by Spanish sailors and Portuguese in the colonization and conquest period during the fifteenth century.
Carnaval in Gualeguaychú is built around five comparsas (competing groups) represented by social clubs and community centers in the city. Three groups compete each year, and the bottom two of each year “descend” and must wait to compete until the next year. During the month, they perform in a desfile (parade) every Saturday, which includes singing, dancing, costumes, floats, and performance, all which are centered around a theme. Also judged are the synchronicity and creativity of choreography, float design, and of course, crowd participation. Specific to Gualeguaychú are the grand and elaborate floats, which measure at up to 12 meters long and 12 meters high.
Since 1981, one comparsa has been declared the winner, and this has fostered a bit of a competitive spirit within Carnaval in the city. Marí Marí, representing the Club Central Entrerriano (a sports club), has won a majority of the competitions for the past 38 years, and is returning this year after a dry spell to reclaim their victory.
Built in 1997, the Corsódromo de Gualeguaychú, a giant event space brings in 30,000 attendees every Saturday of Carnaval. It’s the first of its kind in Argentina, and was built only to house the annual event. A controversial point of the corsódromo is that it allows for the Carnaval to charge for entry, which the organization justifies with increased security and crowd control.
However, some performing groups, notably record-holding winners Marí Marí and youth-based group Papelitos, have decided this year to take their performances out from this event space and into parks of Gualeguaychú to ensure the celebrations are free and accessible to all.
The fascinating thing about Carnaval celebrations is how they conform and adapt to the cultures of the countries in which they take place. The themes of the comparsa performances, the involvement of the crowd, the choreography, and the costuming all pay tribute to Argentina and to the spirit of Carnaval.