Carnival in Brazil
Brazilians can throw a party like no one else, and Carnival is the biggest party of the year. From dancing in the streets of the nation’s smallest towns to the full-throttle revelry of Rio de Janeiro, this raucous bacchanal of music, drink, and flesh takes over the country. This is a time of transgression, when excesses are encouraged and lines are crossed: men dress as women, the poor dress as kings, strangers kiss in the streets, and rules are bent.
Like Mardi Gras, Carnival has its origins in pagan festivals of spring. These were co-opted by the advent of Christianity into a period of lenience, when one could rack up as many sins as possible before the 40 days of abstinence and withdrawal that comes with Lent.
Carnival is supposed to last five days, from the Friday until the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. But the reality is that pre-Carnival parties begin a few weeks before the official opening ceremony. This is when the Mayor gives the keys of the city to the rotund King Momo, a jester-like figure who presides over the chaos and debauchery. The fun often continues for days after Ash Wednesday.
It can be an unforgettable experience if you’re ready to plunge headlong into the joyful mayhem: Be prepared for days and nights fueled by light Brazilian beer and caipirinhas, and streets jammed with revelers following floats playing samba songs morning to night.
The crowds are surprisingly peaceful, but keep your wits about you. This is generally the hottest time of the year, so drink plenty of water and bring sunblock. The streets can get very crowded, making it easy to lose members of your party. Avoid traveling great distances through the city because traffic can turn nightmarish.
Since pickpockets work the masses, carry only cash you plan to spend that day and leave home any nice watches, jewelry, or sunglasses. Groping can be a real hassle for women, especially in Salvador. Travel in groups and avoid wearing a skirt—hands might get up there.
Plan your Carnival visit well in advance; be sure to make your hotel reservations early, and prepare to pay steeper prices. Lastly, do your research. The party takes on various regional flavors. Finding the best fit is important to enjoying the experience.
Rio de Janeiro
The best-known celebration is in Rio de Janeiro, which hosts the lavish culmination of the festival: the Carnival parades, in which escolas de samba (samba groups) compete for the top prize with elaborate, mechanized floats, sequin-and-spangled dancers, and huge percussion sections. In the weeks before the main event, you can catch the ensaios, or technical rehearsals, which are held on weekends at the Sambodromo. Free of charge, they are almost as dazzling as the real thing.
During the season, Rio’s neighborhoods are also taken over by blocos—samba bands that parade through the streets, dragging behind them throngs of faithful revelers in a variety of costumes. There are nearly 500 of these spread around town. For many Rio residents, they are the heart of Carnival.
Most attract a mixed crowd, but some target a particular audience or have special characteristics: the traditional Banda de Ipanema draws a plethora of drag queens; among the Carmelitas, in the Santa Teresa neighborhood, you’ll see many partygoers dressed as nuns. There are blocos for children, for journalists, for Michael Jackson lovers—you name it. Street blocos are impossible to miss. In fact, if you are not interested in full-immersion Carnival, avoid Rio during this time period, because the party is unavoidable.
Carnival balls are a good option for those who prefer an enclosed, less chaotic setting. These are massive parties of mostly costumed revelers with live music, which can range from more staid, black-tie affairs like the famous Copacabana Palace ball to gay balls, balls for children, and smaller ones in samba joints.
Planning: To learn more about Carnival, from the schedules of the parading escolas de samba to where to find the street bloco of your dreams, visit the Riotur website (www.rioguiaoficial.com.br), or pick up their free Carnaval de Rua (street Carnival) guide. Veja magazine, sold at all newsstands, also has a Rio insert, Veja Rio, with a lot of good information about events during Carnival.
For tickets to see the Carnival parade, go to official league site: liesa.globo.com. They go on sale as early as December. Alternately, you can check in with travel agencies. They snap up most of the tickets, and resell them at a higher cost in the months preceding Carnival.
What makes Salvador's Carnival distinctive is the strong Afro-Brazilian presence in its music and traditions. While Rio’s samba also derives from African rhythms, in Salvador this influence feels more immediate.
The centerpieces of Carnival in the Bahian capital are the trios elétricos, which are decorated sound trucks that parade through town at the head of a densely packed throng of dancers; and the afoxes, which are Afro-Brazilian groups that perform the rhythms and dances of candomble, the main Afro-Brazilian religion.
Getting close to the trio elétrico requires buying an abada, an outfit that allows the person wearing it to access a roped-off area. Those dancing around outside the cordoned area are called pipoca, or popcorn. It’s cheaper and easier to “go popcorn,” but the crowds can be suffocating. If you want to avoid the crush entirely, buy a ticket to the walled-off bleachers.
Elsewhere in Brazil
A multitude of smaller towns offer picturesque and lively Carnival bashes without the crowds. In Recife in Brazil's Northeast, people attend baile (dance) and bloco (percussion group) practice for months prior to the main Carnival festivities. The beat of choice is frevo (a fast-pace rhythm accompanied by a dance performed with umbrellas). Galo da Madrugada, the largest of Recife's 500 blocos, opens Carnival and has included up to 1,500,000 costumed revelers. The blocos are joined by escolas de samba (samba schools or groups), caboclinhos (wearing traditional Indian garb and bright feathers), and maracatus (African percussionists).
In addition, historic gold mining–era towns, like Paraty in Rio state and Ouro Preto in Minas Gerais, have plenty of dancing in their cobblestoned streets. Laid-back beach resorts like Arraial d’Ajuda in Bahia or Jericoacoara in Ceará offer a mellower atmosphere with more than enough fun to go around.
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