What is the history of Calabar Carnival?

The origins of Calabar Carnival started back in 2004 when Donald Duke the governor of Cross River, Nigeria, decided it would be the perfect way to boost tourism and the local economy. He wanted to turn Cross River State into the number one tourist destination for Nigerians.

He wanted to create a carnival that would heavily showcase the local heritage and the Calabar Carnival was a wild success! Today the carnival attracts millions of visitors throughout the entire month of December and has given the local economy a huge boost.

Ironically the biggest and best carnival in Africa, the birthplace of carnival, is actually one of the youngest carnivals in the world.

The 2019 Calabar Carnival Programme

calabar carnival

The Calabar Carnival has kept the same timetable of events since it first began. The main carnival events occur in the last two weeks of Calabar Carnival. It is divided into four parts which are:

  • 1st – 10th December: The Millennium Week
  • 12th – 17th December: Sports Week
  • 19th – 24th December: The TINAPA Family Festival
  • 25th – 31st December: Carnival Week

2019 Calabar Carnival Events

Calabar Carnival officially begins with a Tree-Lightening ceremony. In the first three weeks of carnival there are musical performances, food competitions, a solidarity march, street parties, fashion shows, a prestigious essay writing competition, art shows, traditional dances and masque events.

Some of the main events include J’ouvert Band fetes, the crowning of the Carnival Kings and Queens for each band, the Christmas Party Cultural Carnival, the children’s carnival, the Mary Slessor Golf Charity Dinner and the Annual Ekpe masquerade festival.

Calabar Carnival Sports Week

The Calabar Carnival wouldn’t be complete without adding sports to it! During carnival you can watch the popular soccer tournament the Carni-Cal Cup. There is also the a popular golf tournament, a boat regatta and various other sporting events.

Calabar Carnival live music performances

calabar carnival boys in lion costumes

There are many musical concerts throughout carnival that feature performances by local and international acts including Luke Dube, Fat Joe, Young Jeezy, Nelly, Kirk Franklin, Two Face Idibia and P Square.

Here at Carnivaland we recommend you check some of the local Nigerian artists out if you haven’t heard of them it’s worth having a look on YouTube as they won’t disappoint.

Calabar Carnival African Food Expo

Do not miss the Calabar Carnival African Food Expo! This an absolute highlight of carnival! You will be able to try some amazing meals that you have most likely never had before! The air is filled with so many intoxicating aromas.

Calabar Carnival Christmas

Because Calabar Carnival takes place in the month of December it also includes manyChristmas festivities. This gives Calabar Carnival that extra magical feeling that you only feel once a year during Christmas. Make sure you check out the Christmas Village that is set up for Calabar Carnival.

2019 Calabar Carnival – Main Carnival Week

Carnival week is the final week of Calabar Carnival and when most of the highlights take place. It is the week that draws the most tourists. Some of the more popular events include:

  • 27th December: The Bikers parade occurs in the morning
  • 27th December: Miss Africa beauty pageant occurs in the eventing
  • 28th December: Calabar Street Parade & Band of the Year Competition
  • 29th December: Wonders on Wheels occurs in the evening in Calabar Stadium and displays vintage cars
  • 30th December: Green Carnival occurs in the morning and displays actions favourable for the environment. The event culminates in a street party held in the evening
  • 31st December: New Year’s Eve Fireworks display
  • The 2019 Calabar Carnival theme: TBD

    calabar carnival having fun dancing

Every year a theme is chosen for the Calabar Carnival. Last year the theme was “Africanism”. The carnival theme was selected to unify Africans both within the continent and beyond. It is also intended to showcase the African story in a positive way to the world.

The Cross River State Governor has challenged the carnival groups to really promote African cultural heritage in their parades. He hopes Calabar Carnival will tell the Africanstory from an African perspective, and bring global attention to the plight of Africa.

The Calabar Carnival Parade

A carnival theme guides all the carnival bands who have to interpret and then represent this theme through their costumes, music, dances, floats and displays.

The Calabar Carnival Parade features 50,000 costumed revellers who perform in five major carnival bands and 10 non-competing bands. The parade sees the carnival groups compete against each other in hopes of winning the title for the Best Band.

The parade takes place over a 12km parade route and it is quite a spectacle. It is filled with colour, sparkle, DJs, live musicians, steel bands, incredible floats and costumes. Hundreds of thousands line the streets to watch the parade and the atmosphere is electric.

The 2019 Calabar Carnival Band of the Year

The Carnival Parade terminates at the UJ Esuene Stadium and is followed by the award ceremony for the ‘Band of the Year’. Expert judges hand out various awards are handed out for costumes, music, floats, choreography and of course the prestigious “Band of the Year”.

Around 15,000 spectators fill up the stadium another 10,000 spectators surround the stadium and the event is broadcast to a television audience of over 50 million people! So as you can imagine, winning the title of the best band doesn’t just recieve a nice cash prize but also nation-wide fame!.

The Five Bands of Calabar

calabar carnival parade with horses

Calabar Carnival has five major competing bands that each comprise of about 10,000 participants. Each band can be distinguished by different names and colours. Each band has up to five kings and queens that are dressed in large scale costumes which interpret that year’s theme and set the tone for the rest of the bands outfits.

Bayside Band (Blue)

Bayside Band is led by the creator of Calabar Carnival and the former governor Donald Duke. It is known for its distinctive aqua marine colour and allows anyone to join the band, even foreigners.

Freedom Band (Yellow)

The Band of Freedom is defined by the colour yellow. This band has always been ranked in the top three bands ever since the carnival first began!.

Seagull Band (Red)

Seagull Band is recognised by its distinctive red colour. It has been described as being the most stylish and co-ordinated band. The band is also known for its patriotism and everything about the Band relates to Nigeria. They are fiercely proud to show off their roots.

Passion 4 Band (Green)

Passion 4 Band is known as the Green Band and is actually the most successful band of all time! It has won the competition more than any other band. The band is often regarded as being the most outstanding of them all. The band is also the only band that has two sections – one for children and another for adults.

Masta Blasta Band (Orange)

Masta Blasta Band is known as being the orange family! They self-proclaimed to be the most entertaining band! Masta Blasta is the largest of all bands with well over ten thousand members from all corners of the world. They are famous for their inclusivity!.

Where does the Calabar Carnival take place?

calabar carnival women marching and dancing

Pretty much all the Calabar Carnival events occur in the city of Calabar. The majority of events take place in the Calabar Cultural Centre and the Calabar Stadium. The parade marches through many city streets in Calabar.

How to get to Calabar? 

By plane

You can fly to Calabar by flying to Margaret Ekpo International Airport. The airport doesn’t connect to any international cities but is serviced by flights mainly from Lagos and Abuja. Most international flights land in Lagos and from Lagos it is about an hour flight. Contact Ayaugo.com for assistance on flight booking

By Road

Calabar is a 12 – 15 hour drive from Lagos. There are various car and transport companies that travel from most areas of Nigeria and other major cities including Lagos, Abuja, Yola, Harcourt and Yola on a regular basis. These companies include Cross Country, ABC Transport, Peace Mass Transit, The Young Shall Grow and Elim Tours. Get a quote for a rental car here.

By Boat

There is actually a regular boat service from various parts of Cameroon’s coastline that transports both people and vehicles.

How to get around Calabar?

There are plenty of busses, cabs and motorcycles available to move around the city. The roads are well paved and tarred in Calabar and there is less traffic on the roads compared to cities like Lagos, so it is relatively easy to move around.

Where to stay in Calabar?

There are plenty of hotel options in Calabar from budget all the way to luxurious hotels. Prices range from $3 to $90US a night. We recommend booking early because two million people attend this carnival and it’s also during the Christmas period!

Check out some accommodation deals here, or here.

Take a Tour! 

If you want to experience Calabar Carnival but you don’t want the hassle of organising it yourself or you don’t want to go alone, then consider taking a tour, we noticed there are a few tours on Ayaugo.com or if you are lucky enough to have a longer vacation considering taking a tour of Nigeria as there are some cool itineraries you can take a tour with ayaugo.com

What to do and see in Calabar?

Calabar in southern Nigeria, sits near the Cameroon border and is the capital of Cross River State. There is plenty of amazing attractions to see in Calabar including:

  • Kwa Falls: A tropical paradise, this waterfall is located in a narrow steep gorge on the Kwa River. Although this waterfall is spectacular, even more inviting is the gorgeous beach at the edge of the pool which it flows into.
  • Tinapa Business and Leisure Resort Calabar: This is the first integrated leisure and business resort in Nigeria. Created with the aim of giving tourists a dream experience in one visit. Located by the Calabar River it is a world-class facility where visitors take advantage of retail wholesale and recreational activities.
  • Cross River National Park: This is one of the top ecotourism destinations in This is one of the most preserved tropical rainforests in West Africa. Here you can see rare birds and animals in their natural tropical rainforest habitat
  • Obudu Mountain Resort: Located in the highlands of Cross River State a gorgeous place to visit. With miles of rolling mountain this serene and picturesque environment is worth the visit.
  • Agbokim Waterfalls: This fall consists of seven streams and each cascades over a steep cliff.
  • National Museum Calabar: This building was formerly the Government House during Colonial rule and was built in Britain and shipped in parts to Calabar in the late 1800s. This museum is filled with old relics, documents, furnishings and artefacts and is a great place to learn about Efik history.
  • Chief Ekpo Bassey’s House: This ancient house in Calabar stands out for its history and the affluence of Chief Ekpo Bassey, who was the Kingmaker of the Efik tribe and a politician during the colonial era.
  • Dukes Town Church: This is one of the oldest churches in Nigeria and the first site of Christianity teachings on the arrival of Missionaries in
  • Drill Rehabilitation Centre: This wildlife initiative was built to preserve the lives of the almost extinct Drills which are a rare endangered species of Primates in
  • Botanic Gardens: Built in the 1880s and was created by the British with the aim of getting economic crops into
  • Slave Museum: This museum contains very rich information on slave trade activities that were popular in the 15th

Calabar boasts way more than most people are aware of. If you find yourself in Calabar for carnival then you must visit some of these places. Check some tours here.

Is Calabar Carnival safe?

Yes Nigeria doesn’t have the best reputation of being the safest country but the Cross RiverGovernment places safety as a top priority. They have assured residents and tourists that adequate security measures are in place. This can be seen by the fact that participants from 26 different countries attend this carnival.

However, pickpocketing is common so be aware of your valuables at all times or even hide your valuables in a safe place like a security pocket. It’s even better during the more crowded events to just leave them back in your hotel room.

Here at Carnivaland we believe that this carnival is one of the best, most colourful and exhilarating carnivals in the world.

Don’t forget to follow us @ayaugo6

Before you go!

It is recommended that you get some vaccines as well as take Malaria prevention medication, for more information on Nigeria requirements please check here. It’s also recommended to check your governments travel advisory for any updates travel updates and information, you can check the US travel advisory for Nigeria go here.

We can’t stress enough the importance of travel insurance! Being protected on your travels gives you an irreplaceable peace of mind. Don’t learn the hard way about the importance of travel insurance. Never travel without coverage. Get a quote through our recommended insurance provider, World Nomads.