Travel Icon: Carnival, Brazil

If it’s February, it’s got to be Brazil – home to the world’s most raucous parties. A guide through the good times in Rio, Salvador and beyond

Alex Robinson | Issue 108 | December/January 2010

There was a river of dancing people between the pastel-painted houses and the ornate church facades of the narrow street in Olinda, on Brazil’s far north-eastern coast. Bearded old men in white cotton suits and young black girls with aquamarine eyes and swishing baroque dresses two-stepped along the cobbles. Gym-pumped men as hard as pit bulls under their Marge Simpson wigs pressed up against me in the tight crowd. “Bem-vindo cara!” they roared, embracing me in a vice-like hug and handing me a can of Bohemia beer – ‘Welcome, friend!’

Above us, bobbing up and down under the hot blue sky to the pounding maracatu beat were 5m-high effigies of famous locals meticulously remodelled in garish-costumed caricature.

Suddenly the crowd flowed into an eddy around a human circle of clapping hands. A frevo brass band struck up a frenetic fast-paced tune and a girl wearing a spangly boob tube and a strip of frilly taffeta for a skirt rushed into the space, dancing wildly. She jumped a metre and more off the ground, performing the splits in mid air while twirling a tiny umbrella. Then she was gone and replaced by another. And another.

I found myself clapping, too, and cheering, then craning my neck to follow the show as I moved and danced through the streets, bustled on by the human tide that pressed at every side. Indeed, I hadn’t stopped moving for days – or nights. Yet I felt as energised as a Duracell bunny. I was in the Carnival zone, powered by no more than coffee, adrenaline and the thrill of a crowd of millions: 198 million, in fact – all of Brazil.

For every city, town and village in this vast nation – from here in Pernambuco to Pará in the Amazon, and from raucous Rio de Janeiro to the German enclaves of Rio Grande do Sul – was in the zone with me.

In context: Carnival: a brief history

Carnaval may be uniquely Brazilian, but Carnival is not unique to Brazil. It’s a Catholic celebration – a bacchanalia of indulgence that traditionally takes place on Shrove Tuesday (but often the weekend preceding it), immediately before the start of Lent: a time of privation and penance that remembers Christ’s 40-day sojourn in the desert and his crucifixion.

Brazilian Carnaval mixes the Portuguese Catholic celebration with a remembrance of Africa through an adaptation of traditional African rhythm and ritual. In Rio the rhythm is samba, a fusion of Angolan drum patterns and European polka. In Salvador it is afoxé or axé. The former has rhythms derived from the African Brazilian spirit religion of candomblé and the martial art capoeira, pounded out by giant African-Brazilian drum troupes. Axé is the more commercialised, gaudy counterpart. In Pernambuco the rhythms are maracatu and frevo, which are jointly the most visceral and infectiously danceable of all.

The costumed Carnival troupes, or blocos, that march to these rhythms – either in the streets or designated arenas – are derived from traditional parades conducted by African tribal nations in the Portuguese colonial era. The parades were an effort to preserve various cultural identities in the face of the forced homogenisation of slavery.

Rio de Janeiro

Music: infectiously joyful samba
Pros: the grand spectacle and the infectious samba rhythms
Cons: the main parade takes place in an arena, not on the streets

With their 20m-high floats covered in garlands, troupes of costumed dancers, samba drummers in the thousands and scantily clad Carnival queens and transvestites, Rio’s headline-grabbing desfiles (samba parades) offer the most lavish and impressive party pieces on the planet. What many visitors don’t realise is that these parades take place in a designated arena called the Sambódromo, making Carnival in Rio more a spectacle than a participatory experience.

You will need a ticket to get in, and it’s important to book in advance. The best option is to buy from a tour operator in the UK; they’ll charge a commission but if you wait until you get to Rio you can’t be sure of a place in the Sambódromo on the all-important Sunday and Monday nights. Tickets are sold for seats (cadeira) or free standing on the terraces (arquibancos). The seats are closest to the parade but confine you to one place, so if you are reasonably fit, opt for the terraces – you can dance and jostle for a variety of views and it’s far more fun to be mingling with the hordes than to be sedate and sedentary.

The best days for the parades – when the famous samba schools perform – are the Sunday and the Monday of Carnival weekend. Arrive at about 7pm to be in time for the first procession and expect to leave at about 6am the next day. The safest way to arrive and leave the Sambódromo is by taking a cab from your hotel to the nearest metro station, then the underground to Praça Onze. Then just follow the crowds.

As well as the show in the Sambódromo, street parties take place. The liveliest is in Cinelândia in the city centre where, from around 8pm on the Thursday or Friday before Carnival, some 60,000 people dressed up in drag and rags come to dance to Rio’s best live bands. In Carnival week don’t miss the Bohemian parades in Santa Teresa, attended by Rio’s young, middle-class hippies, and the riotous gay parade in Ipanema. These are informal, unticketed events; your hotel will tell you what’s happening when.

There are balls, too, in Rio’s wealth of bars and clubs; the most famous is the formal ‘Russian Imperial’ black tie ball at the Copacabana Palace on Carnival Saturday between 11pm and 4am. For more detailed information on 2010 times and prices visit the Rio Carnival website (see the Planning Your Trip section at the end of this article).

The local perspective

Carlos Magno, Carlos runs the Cama e Café, B&B homestay programme

“Rio has regained its rightful place as the best Carnival city in Brazil. This is because of the re-invention of the fancy dress street parades (blocos) – there are so many. Some of the best are rediscovering roots sambas and marches from the 50s and 60s. Join Bloco Cordão do Boitatá in Rio’s historic centre (Carnival Sunday from 8am) or Céu na Terra in boho Santa Teresa (Carnival Saturday). Then go to the greatest show on earth in the Sambódromo at night. Only in Rio can you combine the two.”

Salvador

Music: pounding, percussive afoxé and cheesy, energetic axé
Pros: the blocos afros and black Brazilian music
Cons: the cost of joining a trio parade truck and a real risk of getting groped and hassled

Brazil’s largest and most raucous Carnival takes place in the colonial city of Salvador in the state of Bahia, 1,600km north of Rio. Unlike Rio’s event, this is a street festival and, until the 1990s, it was dominated by the powerful percussive street parades of the blocos afros – troupes of some 200 drummers accompanied by singers atop mobile sound trucks. Their pounding, visceral rhythm is powered by enormous surdo drums that beat out deep, booming ‘bumbum bumbum bum’ anchor beats, overlaid by a sharp, crackling tattoo from repique hand drums; the overall effect is astonishing.

The most famous of the blocos afros, Olodum, traditionally begins its three Carnival parades in Pelourinho Square in the heart of colonial Salvador late on Friday, Sunday and Tuesday. Ilê Aiyê, whose members are exclusively black and Bahian, takes to the streets outside its headquarters at Ladeira do Curuzu on Carnival Saturday night. Filhos de Gandhi parades on the Sunday and Tuesday; the sound and sight of its 6,000 members dancing through the streets – a river of white and blue in an ocean of multi-coloured Carnival revellers – is one of the highlights of Salvador’s Carnival.

Sadly, the blocos afros are becoming increasingly marginalised by cheap and cheesy high octane Bahian power pop or axê – performed at ear-splitting volume by scantily dressed dancing divas. They and their backing bands wiggle on the roofs of vast trucks or trios eléctricos, which plough a furrow through the multitudes, dragging a cordoned-off few in their wake protected by security personnel and dressed in expensive trio eléctrico T-shirts.The best night for the trios eléctricos is Shrove Tuesday itself, when the trucks meet in Praça Castro Alves for the Encontro dos Trios, playing in rotation until dawn. The event can be watched from the street or vast grandstands erected on scaffolding. It is not uncommon for major stars from the Brazilian and international music scene to make surprise appearances; past guests have included Bono. The other major centre for Salvador is the beach suburb of Barra, frequented by the blocos alternativos and including Timbalada, a drumming group formed by percussionist Carlinhos Brown.

It’s possible to pay to join most of the parades and buy tickets for the grandstands, either through a UK tour operator or through the blocos themselves.

The local perspective

Tigana Santana, composer & singer, Salvador

“I love that Carnival in Salvador is so diverse. We have the popular fun of axé music, samba and other styles, alongside Brazil’s African heritage, with the afoxés – some of which were founded in the first half of the 20th century – and blocos afros. Don’t miss the parade by our oldest bloco afro, Ilê Aiyê (35 years old), which mixes this heritage with exuberant joy and religious reverence.”

Recife & Olinda

Music: mesmerising, tribal maracatu and frantic frevo
Pros: traditional, rootsy, untouristy – and free
Cons: limited accomodaton – you may have to stay some 10km away in Boa Viagem

The most traditional and least touristy Carnival takes place in Recife and its twin city Olinda in north-east Brazil. Both are street carnivals attracting almost as many visitors as Salvador, but all the celebrations here are free and, as they take place in the city centres, the crowds are big but only oppressive at the opening parade. Unlike in Salvador, the locals don’t grope.

Recife’s Carnival takes place in the old city centre, dotted with gorgeous Portuguese baroque churches and crumbling mansions, sitting on two islands between the Beberibe and Capibare Rivers and the Atlantic. On the Friday, in the streets around the Pátio de São Pedro, there are spectacular maracatu parades with troupes of up to 100 drummers and blocos dressed in colourful costumes. Carnival officially opens when they perform one by one on the huge Marco Zero stage together with Recife’s top bands and famous guests.

The following morning sees the huge Cock of the Dawn parade (Galo da Madrugada), said by locals to be the largest street gathering in the world; despite its name, it usually begins at around 10am on Carnival Saturday.

Recife is famous for its music; floats carrying many of the biggest stars – like Lenine, Alceu Valença and Eddie – pass through the teeming crowds under a baking tropical sun. Try to get a place in one of the shaded bandstands at the side of the street. Carnival shows continue until dawn on stages dotted around old Recife for the next five nights.

In Olinda the party takes place on the steep cobbled streets between pretty 18th-century houses and opulent churches overlooking the Atlantic. Troupes of frevo dancers wander through the throng, playing and dancing with effortless gymnastic dexterity between the costumed crowds and giant puppets. There are parties in other sites throughout both cities; these include the parade of the Virgens do Bairro Novo in Olinda, led by outrageously camp drag queens, and the Noite dos Tambores Silenciosos (Night of the Silent Drums), held in a colonial church square in one of the poorest inner-city neighbourhoods. It’s one of the most spectacular percussion events in Latin America, with a strongly African, sacred, ritualistic feel.

The local perspective

Aquiles Lopes, Communications officer, Pernambuco tourist info, Recife

“Brazil’s best Carnival takes place in Pernambuco – with over 15 days of partying in the streets, no charge for anything and with the full integration of rich and poor in the frenzy of joyful celebration. The state was colonised by the Portuguese but the Dutch, French, English, Arabs, Jews and Africans – together with scores of indigenous nations – were all here. And this mix has produced a unique Carnival brew whose other ingredients include the frevo dancing of Recife and Olinda, the maracatu beats of the Pernambuco rainforests, the caboclinho rhythms of the tropical coast and the raw fusion of manguebeat.”

Smaller alternative events

Brazil’s greatest metropolis, São Paulo, offers a similar show to Rio’s but without a foreign tourist in sight.

Small colonial towns such as Paraty in Rio state and Ouro Preto in the mountains of Minas Gerais host traditional Carnival parades on a more intimate scale.

For a party on the beach head to coastal resort towns – Porto Seguro in Bahia, Pipa beneath the sandstone cliffs in the far north-east, or Búzios near Rio.

Hinterland villages such as Nazaré da Mata near Recife offer rootsy, traditional community celebrations that have changed little in a century.

Planning your trip

When to go: Carnival falls 12-16 February 2010 and 4-8 March 2011. Although you can find last-minute rooms, it is best to book accommodation for Rio, Salvador or Olinda three to four months in advance. There are always good-value rooms in Boa Viagem, 20 minutes from the Recife carnival.

Getting there: There are direct flights from the UK to Rio and São Paulo, including with British Airways (0844 493 0787). Flights to Salvador and Recife go via European cities (usually Lisbon or Porto) or São Paulo; carriers include TAM (020 8897 0005) and TAP (0845 601 0932). Return fares start at around £560; flight time is upwards of 11 hours.

Songlines Music Travel organises special Carnival packages visiting Recife or Salvador (020 8505 2582).

Carnival entry: You can buy Rio Carnival tickets (from £105) online through agents such as www.carnivalservice.com, a comprehensive site approved by the Brazilian tourist board. In Salvador you can buy camarote (stand) or abada (bloco) tickets in shopping centres when you arrive. Recife and Olinda are free.

Getting around: Brazil’s domestic airlines are excellent. The main carriers are TAM, Gol, Webjet and Ocean Air; TAM sells internal airpasses.

Intercity buses are comfortable and well maintained; executivo services offer seats that collapse to form beds, plus drinks and a light meal. City buses are better the further south you go. Rio has  a fast, efficient but limited metro. Car rental is slightly pricier than in Europe (around £40/day).

Cost of travel: Budget around £15-20pp a day for two people travelling together economically; £30-40pp will allow you an internal flight or two, meals in good restaurants and tours to more out-of-the-way destinations. Rock-bottom hotel rooms and dorms cost around £12, decent air-con rooms around £35 and the best in Rio as much as £350 (though deals are often available). Eating in padarias (bakeries) and almoço (set-menu) diners will cost about £5 per day. Top restaurants cost about £40 per person with wine.

Safety at Carnival

Brazil has a bad reputation for crime but if you stick to a few golden rules you’ll be fine:

Dress cheaply, like a local – Havaianas flip-flops, board shorts and T-shirt
Keep your camera hidden when not in use
When away from the crowds at night always walk with purpose and never along an empty street or the beach. Ask your hotel for news on areas where thieves tend to operate
Take taxis from designated stands or from your hotel.
Have a little ready cash in your pocket and some in a belt – leave the bulk in your hotel
Never resist a robbery

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