Mardi Gras, California-Style

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Social Magazine was on the scene at San Diego’s 22nd Gaslamp Quarter Mardi Gras Parade and Celebration on February 6 for the event’s first ever Saturday running. Though most of us associate New Orleans with the annual carnival of Mardi Gras—a madcap festival of earthly delights before the somber season of Lent—the West Coast version is one of the top 10 events in the U.S., historically drawing upwards of 30,000 fun-seekers each year. Traditionally, San Diego Mardi Gras occurs on a Tuesday, but this year the organizers moved it to Saturday, allowing revelers to stay up late without worrying about work or school the next day. Hence, “Fat Saturday” was born.

In the hours leading up to the festivities, partygoers packed San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter district, a 16 ½ block historic neighborhood humming with bars, clubs, restaurants, hotels, and Petco Park, home of the San Diego Padres baseball team. (BTW, this neighborhood is the perfect place to host your next bachelor or bachelorette party.) Groups of friends noshed on pre-party meals like the substantial burritos washed down with fishbowl-sized margaritas at Don Chidos, or on the excellent grass-fed beef and free-range turkey burgers at BurgerLounge. Those looking to start the merriment early found live entertainment and cocktails at The Tipsy Crow or at the official Mardi Gras pre-party at Blush.


At five in the evening, the line outside the festival was already several blocks long.  Adding to the drama and excitement of the event, mysterious strangers wove through the crowd, wearing masks of colorful feathers, black lace, bone-like ceramic, or even intricate, laser cut metal.


Once inside, celebrants found five stages of music, including the Silent Disco Stage, an innovative setup in which attendees received wireless headphones transmitting tunes from dueling DJs.  Each station corresponded to a color that lit up the headphones.  The crowd danced all together to different beats, and to the onlookers, it seemed to be happening in silence. Dancers listening to the same station could find each other based on the color of the other person’s headphones. At a glance, it was easy to see which station was the most popular on the dance floor at a given time as the DJs dueled for the audience’s hearts and feet.


As they wandered from stage to stage, listening to DJs including Mix Master Mike from the Beastie Boys, stopping for kabobs, beignets, and neon drinks in plastic cups, or drifting in and out of bars and restaurants lining the streets, the pleasure-seekers admired the gorgeous Samba Queens of Mardi Gras. All through the night, these beautiful women danced tirelessly on pedestals, wearing colorful bejeweled costumes and giant, elaborate feather headdresses, and looking like tropical birds of paradise.


Local artists perched on small stages like islands in the sea of people, capturing the vivid scene on canvas in real time. Body painters practiced their art on the bare skin of lucky guests. Outlandish characters on stilts joined the crowds, performing leaps and exaggerated dance moves. Human gyroscopes spun in giant, fluorescent hoops. As the hour drew close to nine, the roisterers lined up to view the Big Easy Parade, with a number of revelers finding perches in the second-story windows and balconies of historic buildings lining 5th Avenue.  Here, a few engaged in a well-known Mardi Gras ritual of flashing the crowd in exchange for beads.


But all eyes were on the parade once it started, with an energetic and acrobatic capoeira performance by a troupe of muscled, half-naked men.  Behind them came a dancing wall of feathered samba queens, followed by various floats including the Game of Thrones float with costumed characters. The parade included local dignitaries, belly-dancers, and random cameos from personalities including Miss Middle East 2015, Elona Brando. Then, in a tribute to southern California pop-culture, a flamboyant display of lowriders fitted with hydraulics processed down the street, hopping and dropping to the crowd’s delight.  Parade-watchers cheered and waved, competing for strings of colorful necklaces thrown by the entertainers. Beads flew, trumpets blared and drums pounded with a primal throb.


After the parade, rainbow confetti showered scene, and the thousands of jovial, undulating guests poured into the street, heading for Bone Thugs-n-Harmony on the King Club stage. After more than seven hours, the festivities continued at the after-party held at Tin Roof, featuring live music from Cassie B ProjectFrom beginning to end, the night was full of excitement and expectation—sexy, wild and magical—an adult circus.


After trying Mardi Gras in San Diego, where should the merrymaker head next time?  Other Mardi Gras destinations you may not have considered include Barranquilla, Colombia; George Town, Cayman Islands, and Port of Spain.  As they say at Mardi Gras, Laissez les bons temps rouler! And don’t forget your mask.


Yasmin Rahim is a strategic communications consultant and freelance writer living near Washington, D.C. Her interests include luxury travel, clean eating/gluten-free cuisine, holistic healing and wellness, and arts/culture.

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