What It Is:
The Ponce Carnival is Puerto Rico's Caribbean shout-out to Mardi Gras and its more famous cousin in Rio de Janeiro. A festival that has been held for over 200 years, it's the epitome of all things boricua, and an annual testament to Puerto Ricans' capacity for whimsy and revelry.
When and Where:
The carnival dominates the historic downtown area in the city of Ponce. The celebration takes place in February, in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent.
What's the Deal With the Vejigantes?:
The vejigantes are the undisputed stars of this show, but what, exactly, are they? In a word, they're demons. More to the point, the vejigante is a figure straight out of a centuries-old folklore that blends African, Spanish, and Caribbean cultures. The name originates from vejiga, which means "bladder" in Spanish. I'll explain that in a bit.
How Does One Become a Vejigante?:
As detailed in this excellent summary, the traditional vejigante costume requires three basic components: mask, cape, and suit. The mask is the most iconic and colorful of these essentials, and even it has rules and regulations: I have yet to see a vejigante mask without a conflagration of teeth and horns.
Symbolism of the Carnival:
Like Mardi Gras, the carnival has its roots in Catholicism. The vejigantes, armed with their vejigas (inflated cow bladders), go around whacking children and other innocents, ostensibly to beat away any evil spirits that are lingering around them. However, given that they are known to target attractive women, these spiritual motives might be suspect.
The festival ends with the Entierro de la Sardina, or "Burial of the Sardine." This mock funeral, complete with dummy-laden coffin, is in honor of the coming season of lent. Coffin and dummy are set on fire, to symbolize the burning away of the sins of the flesh.
What To Expect:
In addition to marauding costumed vejigantes, expect a lot of traditional bomba y plena music, plenty of eating and drinking, and a chanting, boisterous crowd. There is also a parade for the King and Queen of the Carnival, and the aforementioned "Burial of the Sardine." It's Puerto Rico's biggest party, and it's family event; you'll see mini vejigantes all over the place. Expect crowds, loud music, loud revelers, and a good time!