Between February and March, there is no place to party like Brazil. It’s Carnival – the most anxiously awaited event of the year – and it’s taking over the country. In fact, Brazilians know how to throw a party no matter the occasion, but Carnival makes other festivals look pale in comparison.
Whether it’s dancing on the streets, going to a samba school performance, or celebrating in the bars and clubs, visitors are guaranteed to have a great time. Thus, we have a guide for “gringos” to learn the difference between the largest Brazilian Carnival destinations, Rio de Janeiro and Salvador. In case you’re lucky enough to get lost between the two of the greatest shows on Earth.
Rio de Janeiro
The largest and most famous Carnival in the world is also the most spectacular. Held over five days of revelry during Easter, from the Friday to the Tuesday preceding Ash Wednesday, residents of Rio begin the partying months in advance. The celebration paralyzes the city of 6.5 million people and also attracts 500,000 foreign visitors. Each day, 2 million people take to the streets to participate in the festivities.
Thousands of people throng the Sambódromo stadium in the city. There are parades featuring elaborate floats flanked by thousands of pounding drummers and twirling dancers.
Participants are judged on costume design, dance choreography and band performance. Each samba school represent a location of Rio, and they are ranked hierarchically, similar in structure to European Soccer Leagues. Each school fights hard to maintain their status.
Samba is an integral part of the Carnival in Rio, and you can’t turn a corner without hearing the infectious drum-driven beats or the sounds of drunken celebrants singing traditional marchinhas at the tops of their lungs. If you are able to repeat Portuguese lyrics like “Allah-la-ô-ô-ô, mas que calor ô-ô-ô”, you can definitely pass as a local.
If there is one thing to love about Brazilians (yeah, I know there’s many…) it’s that they are everything but shy! And this shows when it comes to choosing your Carnival costumes too. It’s common to see guys proudly dressed in mini skirts and tight-fitting tops. Also hot women showing confidence under their own naked skin. But if you’re not quite that wild, just go light. After all, it will be so hot outside, in the Sambódromo and nightclubs alike. You can wear whatever suits your fancy, but you must have a matching costume to participate in the parades.
The real essence of the carioca Carnival lies within the lively street parties and parades called blocos. They wind throughout Rio’s various neighborhoods, led by nostalgic beats and familiar Brazilian lyrics. Created in 1918, Cordão da Bola Preta is one of the most traditional blocos, attracting hundreds of thousands to Centro’s Avenida Rio Branco from 9am on Carnival Saturday. But even much smaller gatherings can shut down main streets in Copacabana and Ipanema for hours on end.
Carnival is a liberal event, but that doesn’t mean a guaranteed hook-up if you’re looking. Locals will give short and shrift to over-eager chat up lines to visitors (especially you gringos!). So just relax, enjoy yourself and show the same respect as you would at home. Bottom line, you’re sure to have an amazing time at a bloco – whether you hit it off with that foxy carioca or not.
Whatever you do, prepare yourself for sleepless nights, joyful crowds and an ample dose of caipirinhas, the unofficial Brazilian national drink: cachaça with crushed lime, sugar and ice.
By their very nature, blocos are free parties, but there are several side events and Rio Scala’s balls worth checking out for anyone after a more sophisticated experience. The Rio Tourist Board guide has more information.
Salvador attracts more people than anywhere else in the world to celebrate Carnival; you can expect around literally 2 million people.
Unlike Rio, Carnival in Bahia isn’t celebrated to the beat of the samba, but in time to a different kind of music called axé. The recipe is simple but unique: add jazz-like solos to Afro-Brazilian percussion and lay over a simple melody.
Carnival is celebrated all over city rather than having a stadium as a venue for the parade. Thousands of people throng the streets from early dawn and dance their way through until late in the evening. There are two parade areas in Salvador, Barra/Ondina and Campo Grande/Avenida.
A trio elétrico is a done-up semitrailer, loaded with thousands of watts of sound equipment and a band playing on top. Stay tuned with Ivete Sangalo, Chiclete com Banana, Daniela Mercury and Claudia Leitte trios. They are the stars of the Carnival in Salvador.
There are three ways to join a trio elétrico. Buy an abada (a colorful t-shirt that identifies you as a member). Or dance inside a safety area surrounding the trio as a part of the crowd outside (inside is not much less crowed though). Or you can simply dance on the streets for free, what Brazilians call pipoca (means popcorn), a funny way to describe how a jumping crowd looks like when seen from the distance.
Those who prefer to see the procession from a more comfortable vantage point, there are fixed cabins called camarote all along the avenues offering drinks, food and DJ’s. This is the place to join Brazilian celebrities such as Gisele Bündchen and the soccer player Neymar.
Olodum is widely-credited with developing the music style known as samba-reggae, and for its active participation in Carnival each year. This bloco is closely tied to African roots, as seen through the percussion instruments, dancing and unique rhythm. In 1995, Olodum appeared in one of the music videos for Michael Jackson’s single, They Don’t Care About Us.
The Afro-Brazilian bloco Ilê Aiyê is another attraction of the Carnival in the city. The group was founded in 1974 in the neighborhood of Liberdade, the largest black population area of Salvador. They work to raise the consciousness for the local black community.
Don’t expect prim and proper manners among big crowds. People will definitely step on your toes – to say the least. You will be chatted-up by over-excited axé addicts flying around and should be on your best street-smart mode – tip is to carry only the minimum cash needed plus a fat-looking wad to hand over to would-be thieves. And be prepared to stand in long lines to use any toilets along the paredes. But hey, lighten up! It’s Carnival in Brazil!