Nassau’s Biggest Party: Junkanoo

The distant roar of brass horns, rhythm sticks, cowbells, whistles, and pounding goatskin drums grows louder, and the crowd cheers in anticipation as the parade approaches.

Standing on their seats, Bahamians crane their necks for the first sighting of the dancers. Soon Bay Street is a kaleidoscope of color: Groups of up to 1,000 dancers gyrate through the streets of Nassau, one troupe following another as the crowds and musicians spur them on.

Onlookers dance on their chairs, and the sidewalks, balconies, and even rooftops appear to sway to the beat, with everyone grooving to the music.

When to go: Junkanoo parades are held annually on Boxing Day (December 26) and New Year’s Day throughout the Bahamas—the festival’s origins likely date back to the 1700s, when slaves had a few days off for the holidays—with the largest parade in Nassau, the capital city. Groups dance through the night, from 2 a.m. until way past dawn, refueling as they go.

How to join in: “If you arrive early enough, you can speak to a group leader and join their troupe for the parade,” says Adrian Kelly, a Nassau resident. “Choose a smaller group so you don’t feel overwhelmed. You’ll soon pick up the moves—I’ve seen it done.”

What to look for: There are prizes for the best dressed, and performers spend months crafting elaborate paper costumes. Look out for the Valley Boys and Saxon Superstars, who are sure to put on a show.

What to eat: Food vendors on side streets cook up Bahamian favorites: conch fritters, conch stew, cracked conch, conch salad, and johnnycakes (pan-fried cornbread).

This article first appeared in the National Geographic book Where the Locals Go.