Imagine that you’re in Nassau, the capital city of the Bahamas. You have set your alarm to wake up at 2 am. All in an effort to shove your way through the rowdy crowds to catch a view of the parade that is about to take over the city.
This is Junkanoo, the massive New Years’ street carnival of the Bahamas. Groups have spent months creating elaborate costumes out of little more than styrofoam, cardboard, and crepe paper. They have perfected dance routines. They also practiced the latest pop hits on cowbells and goatskin drums. The goal? To join the all-out competition in hopes of getting crowned the best performance on the island.
Both sides of the main streets line up with revilers and die-hard fans so thick you can barely move for blocks. Local Bahamians jostle each other to get a front-row view of the dancers and elaborate costumes – packing the temporary stands, filling balconies, and climbing trees and street lights.
The wild parade dances to the rhythm of brass horns, whistles, cowbells, and drums fashioned from goatskins and oil barrels. Having practiced for months, tonight is the night where Nassau’s seven Junakanoo groups put it all on the line!
But the dancers and musicians save their gusto for the main grandstands. It is where the judges get the main entertainment and mark scores for each group based on dance choreography, costumes, music, and overall performance.
And don’t expect to head home early! By the time each of the seven groups has taken two trips down the main streets of Nassau, it will be after 10 in the morning!
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Guide to Junkanoo: Boxing Day & New Year’s Day in Nassau
What is Junkanoo?
Junkanoo is the biggest celebration that takes place in the Bahamas. It happens to some extent on each of the major islands. However, the largest celebration is undoubtedly in downtown Nassau. Most people who experience Junkanoo feel that it is similar to Mardi Gras in New Orleans or Carnival in Brazil.
The costumes of junkanoo have evolved throughout the years. When the festival began in the 17th century, participants simply covered their faces in a white paste made from flour. Later, masks were made from wood, fabric, and metal wire. The costumes were constructed from strips of rags. There was even a time in the 1920s, while the sea sponge business was booming when some Junkanoo participants covered themselves from head to toe in sea sponges.
These days Junkanoo in Nassau is both a national celebration and an intense competition between seven groups on the island – the Music Makers, the Saxons Superstars, Genesis, the Valley Boys, the Prodigal Sons, Roots, and One Family.
The groups spend the entire year building costumes, practicing music, and choreographing dance routines. While you’ll see a couple of hundred people performing in each group, several hundred more have helped get everything ready for this moment.
There is really no limit to what a Junkanoo costume or float can be made of. However, everything must be carried or pushed during the group’s two trips down Bay Street. No motorized vehicles are allowed. You’ll see junkanoo costumes made from paper mache, cardboard, styrofoam, feathers, beads, and more.
At the end of the night, a winning group is crowned for best costumes, best music, and best theme. While there are cash prizes, they are pretty nominal in comparison to the cost of putting on this whole production. The groups are really competing for pride and bragging rights for the next 12 months.
Heading home after the parade is a surreal experience. You’ll walk alongside the elaborately costumed but exhausted performers. You’ll even marvel at the abandoned pieces of oversized props.
While You’re in Nassau make sure you check out all of the great sights around the city: One Day in Nassau, Bahamas
When is Junkanoo?
The big Junkanoo parade in Nassau takes place twice a year: Boxing Day (December 26th) and New Year’s Day (January 1). You should plan to be in downtown Nassau on either occasion to experience the Bahama’s wildest celebration.
Take note that Junkanoo happens from about 2 am until a couple of hours after sunrise. So you’ll need to be in downtown Nassau on Christmas evening or New Year’s Eve to see the show. This can be a bit confusing, because even though the event officially takes place on December 26th, by 10 am on that day, there is nothing left to see (same for January 1st).
Each of the seven groups parades through downtown Nassau twice. As such, the festivities don’t have an exact ending time. Junkanoo simply ends after the final group has made its second pass down Bay Street and prizes have been awarded to the winning groups. Plan on heading home around 10 am.
Which Junkanoo is Better: Boxing Day or New Year’s Day?
One thing that may surprise you about Junkanoo is that the parade on Boxing Day is completely different than the one on New Year’s Day. Each of the seven Junkanoo groups comes up with an entirely separate theme. It is complete with different costumes, dances, and music for each day.
It’s impossible to say which day is better to experience Junkanoo as the groups will be giving it their all on both days. You should really just plan to attend whichever fits your holiday plans.
Where to Watch
There are three viewing options for Junkanoo in Nassau – the bleachers, a few private balconies, and along with the crowd at street level.
Grandstand (Bleacher) Seating at Junkanoo
During Junkanoo, the city sets up bleachers all along Bay Street. You can buy tickets for each set of bleachers in advance. They are a great option to ensure you’ll have a seat and a good view of the action at Junkanoo. You can enter and leave the ticketed bleacher area as much as you like. You’ll just need to show your ticket or wristband whenever you’re re-entering.
There is also a giant grandstand of bleachers at Rawson Square. The grandstand is where the judges sit so the performance troops will save their best dancing for the area right in front of the bleachers. Seats in the grandstand area are more expensive than in the other bleacher areas. It is also the best place to be if you want to see the Junkanoo performers at their most energetic.
Make sure to buy your ticket in advance if you want to sit in the grandstand for Junkanoo! Check out the events site for more information and reserve a spot.
Private Balconies on Bay Street
The most comfortable way to see Junkanoo in Nassau is from one of the balconies overlooking Bay Street. A few of the restaurants and bars lining the street stay open during Junkanoo. They sell tickets to their balconies with a view of the carnival below.
Some tickets will include food and drinks while others will just grant you access to the balcony. In that case, you’ll need to purchase your drinks separately (so bring cash!). Watching Junkanoo from a private balcony also means you’ll have easy access to a reasonably clean toilet. You won’t have to rely on the public port-o-potties.
Attending one of these “private parties” is definitely the best way to watch Junkanoo in style. It’s also the most expensive option. Expect to spend $100-200 per person by the time you factor in food and drinks.
Watching Junkanoo at Street Level
If you want to experience Junakanoo with the masses, then you can simply show up on the parade route and try to find a spot. Bay Street will likely be packed 2-3 people deep on both sides. It may be hard to see unless you’re tall.
Also, keep in mind that the only bathrooms you’ll have access to are the public port-o-potties. In addition, there will be almost nowhere to sit along the parade route.
Junkanoo also runs along Shirley street which is parallel to Bay Street. It’s much less crowded. Unfortunately, the groups will be a bit more subdued on Shirley Street because they save their energy for the rush out down Bay Street. If you want a more relaxing experience at Junkanoo, try posting up in front of the Nassau Public Library on Shirley Street.
If you choose to watch Junkanoo with the crowds of Bahamians lining the streets of Nassau, it won’t be as comfortable as sitting in the grandstand or watching from a private balcony. However, you will definitely have an authentic experience!
Safety at Junkanoo
There is no real danger in attending Junkanoo in Nassau – everyone is in a festive mood and you’ll all be enjoying the party together. The central area around Bay Street and Shirley Street is always safe and there will be even more police and security on hand during the celebration.
That being said, Nassau does have a number of crime-prone areas. You’ll be arriving at the parade route at 2 am, so it’s best to take a taxi directly to the downtown area. Also, avoid wandering around in the side street late at night.
And as with any crowded event, you’ll want to keep an eye on your belongings. Pickpockets are not uncommon in the Bahamas. In general, just keep your wits about you and don’t get too drunk, and you’ll have an amazing time at Junkanoo.