Curacao Photos: Carnival's Night Parade

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Like much of the Caribbean, Curacao celebrates Carnival, a weeks-long event that starts with an opening ceremony in January and culminates with the Marcha Despedida (the Farewell March)--also known as the night parade--held the Tuesday night before Ash Wednesday.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Fueled by the infectious, near-relentless beat of tumba (the island's native music style that wears its Latino influence on its metaphorical sleeve), Marcha Despedida starts just after dark. The route is soon conquered by massive floats and armies of costumed revelers who dance through the streets of Willemstad, Curacao's capital.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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As many as 70 Carnival 'groups' work on their parade themes throughout the year and then unveil their vision during the Carnival celebrations. Preceding each group, a float announces the group name. Some (like this one) are relatively simple, while others have full bands and DJs housed in slow-rolling semi trucks, complete with full kitchens.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Today's carnival is a glorious evolution of the fancy balls once held by the Caribbean's wealthy plantation owners, traders, and business people, who'd dress to the nines, wear wigs, and don masks.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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During colonization, the island slaves would also hold their own celebrations, typically in their backyards, employing their own rituals, costumes, and folklore. As the slaves developed more freedom in the 20th century, their celebrations took to the streets.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Curacao's relative wealth, which was anchored by the island's oil refinery, infused the island with a wide swath of cultural influence, from Dutch to Creole, Asian to Eastern Caribbean. By the middle of the 20th century, these distinct characteristics had merged during Carnival into one massive, national, island-wide cultural celebration.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Reoccurring characters include the Carnival Queen (a symbol for fertility and peace) and Carnival King, as well as the straw-filled King Momo, a symbol for infertility, sin, and bad luck that's burned at the end of the night parade.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Some costumes vary from the simple to the cartoonish.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Some costumes are stunningly elaborate.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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One thing remains constant: vibrant use of color and properly enthusiastic participants (okay, that's two things).  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Costumes are not the sole domain of those in the parade. These four girls stood beside me. Well, actually above me, in one of the observation stages built along the parade route, save for the times they jumped down to the street to dance with people in the parade.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Audience participation is at the core of Curacao's Carnival. Street-level observers can quickly become parade participants--especially when you factor in the profusion of alcohol, rhythmic music, and the contagious spirit of celebration.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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The woman on the left danced throughout the parade, stopping only to exchange embraces with the people who she recognized in the parade. They would break rank and dance over to her side for a hug.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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And yes, alcohol does play into it. Each group has runners who ferry fresh glasses of beer or rum to the parade participants, assuring that the revelers' spirits seldom waver.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Yet even with the hearty infusion of booze, the scene stays bright, almost cartoon-like.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Witness the Lion King-themed group. They boasted arguably the most aesthetically complete costumes in the night parade.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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And while the source of their inspiration was apparent, the costumes were a huge hit among the kids (at least those who were still awake).  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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The route itself varies each year, but it always cuts through Otrobanda, the western side of Willemstad. Your best bet: Get there early and stake your spot, or ask your hotel about tourist seating. Better yet, grab a square of pavement on the street; it'll assure interaction with both the locals and the people in the parade.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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Bring your camera--getting pictures like these is as simple as catching a reveler's eye, saying 'photo, photo,' and then hitting the shutter button.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
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The parade takes about two hours to cycle past you, yet it seems to pass by in an instant. However, its impressions--a hearty collage of colors, smells, sights, sounds, and smiles--linger for months.  
Credit: Nathan Borchelt 
 
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