A Day at Batabano: The Craziest, Sexiest Carnival You've Never Heard Of
"You are 100% guaranteed to get laid this weekend," Luther the towel guy told me as he set up my chair on Grand Cayman's Seven Mile Beach. Luther seemed a little optimistic. Actually he seemed downright overconfident. But by the end of the weekend I knew that while Luther might have been exaggerating my odds, he wasn't overstating Batabano.
Batabano (pronounced BAH-tuh-buh-nu), is the Cayman Islands' take on Carnival; a weekend-long celebration where the usually conservative islands let loose in a festival of rum, feathers, soca music, and, apparently, sex. All culminating in a Saturday parade through the streets of Grand Cayman. Luther was far from the only person to talk about Batabano like it was Bacchus' weekend in the Caribbean. Nearly every server, bartender, cab driver, and scuba guide I met in Cayman told me it was the best party of their lives.
"I don't remember much about my first Batabano," one of my guides told me. "But I woke up on the roof of Margaritaville, so I'm sure it was a good time."
Corralling belligerent horny peopleWatching the parade is quite the spectacle, but to truly experience the mayhem that is Batabano one must "jump" with one of the "bands" in the procession.
What does that mean? The bands aren't middle-school marching bands like we have in American parades, but private organizations that exist solely to participate in Carnival parades. They have names like "Swanky" and "Tribal," and branded apparel to go along with it.
"Jumping" is how Caymanians refer to being part of the parade. Like "walking," but, really, closer to "humping."
The band I was to jump with was called Tribal, which apparently had about as much to do with an actual tribe as the Cleveland Indians. As I approached their massive trailer in the middle of the street on parade day, an organizer handed me a lime-green shirt that said "Marshal." Not that anyone explained to me what exactly a marshal did in a parade like this. But it seemed to be a fancy way of saying "Corralling belligerent horny people." No idea how they knew I used to be a strip club bouncer.
"We drink everything BUT water today"The crowd skewed young, mostly college-aged or a little older. But the people jumping weren't limited to the young and sexy. Guys with guts proudly flaunted them under their costumes. Older ladies in the parade dressed the same as their daughters. It was a celebration, not a fashion show.
The costumes ranged from guys who looked like turquoise-feathered gladiators to ladies with the headdresses of Las Vegas showgirls, with less of the clothing. What everyone had in common, was not wearing much.
At the rear of the trailer, some other marshals were handing out bright-orange water bottles.
"Those for water?" I shouted to one of them over the blaring soca music. It was roughly the temperature of a dishwasher outside, I thought maybe hydration would be important.
"Water?" he broke into a hearty Caribbean laugh. "We drink everything BUT water today!"
I took my bright-orange bottle up to the rolling trailer bar and handed it to one of the "bartenders," who filled it with liquid from a Gatorade cooler. After sipping it, I can only assume the cooler contained a refreshing mixture of pineapple juice and rocket fuel.
The twerking beginsAt 1pm sharp, the parade got moving, the first time I'd ever seen something in the Caribbean start on time. The "DJ" -- who is really more of a hype man who plays music -- interrupted the ear-splitting soca music about every 35 seconds to say something along the lines of, "Are you ready, Tribal??" or "Put your hands up, Tribal!" And for the entire parade he DID. NOT. STOP. I'd say I wonder how he gets that kind of energy, but some questions are best left unanswered.
For the first hour or so, the parade was pretty tame. People in tiny outfits gingerly danced along the road while the hype man asked, "Is Tribal ready to get crazy?" Rhetorically, I assume. But as the rolling bar got lighter, the twerking began. First one couple in front of me. Then another. Then, like a bunch of dry-humping dominoes, the entire band was going at it with their clothes on. I think.
It was fantastic to watch. At normal clubs, if a guy tries to grind behind a girl he doesn't know, he's met with, at best, rejection, and at worst, a punch to the face. Not at Batabano. Here it was almost like saying hello. Men would just walk up to women and grind on them, the women would respond by grinding back, then both would move on. Nothing said, not even a name exchange.
As a marshal it was my job to make sure nobody left the parade route, but it was an entirely lost cause. As the drinks kept flowing "jumpers" began to run from the parade and dance with people standing on the street. And if I tried to stop one of the women, she’d just grind on me until I forgot I was trying to stop her in the first place. It’s like the grinding was some kind of Harry Potter spell gone horribly, horribly wrong, where people were rendered zombies by dry humping.
Caribbean frat partyThe humidity and the sticky alcohol wrapped the parade in a thick blanket of sexual tension, and by mile three the entire band was whipped up into a frenzy. Sometimes I'd stop to take it all in, and would inevitably be run over by a couple bumping covered uglies and trying to walk at the same time, women jumping into men's arms and bouncing on them as they walked the parade road.
To avoid injury, I made my way to the front and led the band with a couple of other marshals, walking backwards like a slightly tipsy tour guide. It looked like a Caribbean-themed frat party: people were drinking strange punch out of an orange cooler, the "bartenders" were pouring cups of liquor with a splash of mixer, and the only dancing that was going on looked a lot more like clothed foreplay.
There were even two guys with juiced-up frat builds who didn't even bother dressing up, and were clearly just there to drink and grind on women. Proving that frat douches exist everywhere, even in the Cayman Islands.
The sun finally does me inSix hours, a lot of sun, and my body weight in rum later, the parade ended in Downtown George Town. And while the local Caymanians were ready to spill out into the bars and find someone to help release their sexual tension, I was flat-out spent. I ran into one of the Tribal staff members as we crossed the finish line.
"What did you think?" she asked me.
"Great," I said. "But man, that’s a long route."
"That’s nothing," she said. "In Trinidad it goes on like three times that long."
I made a mental note to develop a training program if I ever wanted to do this in Trinidad. Then took a cab back to my hotel, solo.
The next morning when I went to the beach, I saw Luther putting out some chairs.
"So, you get laid last night?" he said, eagerly awaiting my story of a feather-covered three-way.
I just shook my head and grinned. Luther looked disappointed, but I wasn't. Batabano was one of those rare things in life that everyone builds up, and that lives up to expectations. And even though I was in bed by 9pm, it was still one of the best days I've ever had. And definitely a lesson in how hard the Cayman Islands can party.
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.