When you think of the Carnaval celebration you most often think of Brazil or the Island nations of the Caribbean. But Carnaval is big in Mexico, and accessible to most U.S. travelers wanting to escape for the unique celebration withouit having to travel far.

The festival of Carnaval is celebrated as a last indulgence of carnal pleasures that Catholics must give up for 40 days of fasting during Lent, from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. The word Carnaval is derived from Latin, meaning take away or goodbye to flesh, and strict Catholics will give up meat eating during Lent.

Carnaval is officially celebrated for 5 days, leading up to Ash Wednesday, with the most vigorous celebration taking place over the one weekend. The wearing of masks during Carnaval is said to be a pagan practice as protection from evil spirits, but most likely evolved as a way to participate fully in the celebration with some anonymity.

Kick-off begins with the burning of El Mal Humor (Bad Mood), in which an effigy, usually modeled after an unpopular politician of the day, is hung and burned, followed by a flurry of confetti and fireworks. This gives commencement to nearly a week of festivities in some of Mexicoís most popular coastal cities, including Campeche, Mazatlán, Veracruz and Mérida, just to name a few.

Host cities celebrate all sorts of parades daily, depending on the local carnivalís theme, which differs from region to region. Parades display an array of floats, known as allegorical cars, decoratively inspired by Mexican scenery and normally featuring bright flowers and live entertainment.

Many cities have Carnaval celebration of various sizes, but the biggest events take place in the port cities, with the largest of all in Mazatlan. Mazatlan's Carnaval is said to attract well over 300,000 people, making it the third largest such event behind Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans. Port towns such as Ensenada, La Paz and Veracruz are also excellent places to watch Carnaval festivities.

During Carnaval, everyone participates in the many events and activities that make up the celebration. People of all ages throw and break cascarones, confetti filled eggshells, over each other. There are many booths that offer food, drinks, snacks and games and crafts of every type. Music of all sorts is played non-stop, by live bands, DJs or the boom box.

Some Carnavals also have a collection of rides like those found at an amusement park. Depending on the town, there may be many organized parties, outdoor festivals and masquerade balls. Many of these types of events charge an entrance fee, or may be entirely private. Mazatlan hosts a public street fair and dance for a small admission, as well as on offshore fireworks display that commemorates an old naval battle.

If you're into the spirit of Carnaval and are looking for just the perfect place to spend your time away from home, Mexico abounds with unique and colorful celebrations. Viva la Carnaval!

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