The unofficial start for Carnival in Brazil is during the New Year celebration. After midnight, and long into the New Year, Brazilians will be dancing to all sorts of Carnival music until early Ash Wednesday. In some places even a month after that.
Carnival is, by far, the most important Brazilian festival. It is joyfully celebrated in the four corners of this big country. The music, the tradition and costumes vary depending on different religions and heritage. Nevertheless it, is celebrated everywhere in Brazil. From small villages, medium towns, to the mystic Afro-Brazilian Salvador da Bahia, the megalopolis São Paulo and the temple of Carnival itself: Rio de Janeiro.
Carnival in Brazil is an experience like no other and it is unique each and every year. It is not about the costumes, the themes or the music. It is much like a feeling of renovation, a celebration of life the way Brazilians can do so well. And one doesn’t have to be in the posh boxes of Rio’s Sambodromo to celebrate, to dance, to feel the joy.
Anybody can celebrate dancing and playing with friends on the streets without a fancy costume. There is only one requirement: be ready to party!
The Most Famous Carnivals
The Big One: Carnival in Rio de Janeiro
Carnival in Rio de Janeiro doesn’t really need any introductions as it is the most famous in the world. The two-day Special Group parade is broadcasted to dozens of countries, and the “Samba Enredos” CD of the year are sold around the globe. It is a magic show of lights, costumes, huge floats carrying Brazilians beauties and celebrities who do the samba with mastery on the floats.
There are several parades, but the most famous and luxurious are the ones of the Special Group, which is divided into two groups. Seven clubs parade on Sunday and the other seven on Monday. Both parades begin at 9:00 PM.
There are fireworks before every “Escola de Samba” (schools of Samba, as Brazilians call them), announcing the show.
It is breathtaking. A wave of color and energy shines through the path of samba in the form of dancers of all ages singing and executing artful dance steps. When the drummers stop in front of you, you feel the beat inside your body, your feet move without any conscious thought on your part. At this point, it is the dominion of the Samba.
The Sambodromo (parade stadium) offers a good infrastructure with food kiosks and shops, but you are free to take your own food if you want. You can take up to two plastic bottles with beverages and two food items (fruit or sandwich). It does help if you want to avoid lines. The Sambodromo complex is divided into boxes, individual chairs and bleachers. There are seats in all price ranges.
The Magic of Salvador da Bahia
In Salvador, in the state of Bahia, the beat is a different one. Here “Axé” is what puts the crowds into motion.
“Axé” has African roots but was born in Bahia, and it has become extremely popular throughout Brazil. The musicians go on top of a huge truck, called “Trio Elétrico”, playing and singing and the crowd follows along dancing.
Salvador has become one of the favorite Carnival destinations in Brazil in the last few years. It carries the romanticism of a Carnival that is celebrated in the streets. The city closes some of the main avenues (called “Circuitos”) and the “Trio Elétricos” do the rest, i.e., lure thousands of people behind them, like a magnet.
Due to its extreme growth in popularity which has been attracting lots of foreign and Brazilian tourists alike, it is a very organized event. There are boxes along the streets. Hotels, bars and restaurants use their balconies as boxes (you pay a fee and can enjoy the festival in a more “tranquil” way).
The thrill in Salvador da Bahia is to follow along behind the “Trio Elétrico”. It is extremely fun and that is the true spirit of the Carnival: a people’s party! You have to be in shape though. It takes a lot of energy to keep up with the dancers and Axé is a fast, demanding dance style.
Carnival in Recife and Olinda: Plain Upbeat
Recife and Olinda are cities in the state of Pernambuco, in the northeast Brazil. Two charming cities filled with historical buildings, where you can see such an excellent display of Brazil’s colonial past. It is an amazing experience to go dancing between the historical buildings.
Recife and Olinda are only 7 km apart from each other, so you can enjoy Carnival in both of them and have a good taste of what has become the best destination for Carnival in Brazil.
The Carnival festivals of Recife and Olinda have all the components of a true people’s Carnival: they are celebrated on the streets, organized by the people and they are free and spontaneous. To top it off, “Frevo” is an exhilarating rhythm which makes this an unforgettable Carnival experience to anyone who experiences it. Maracatu”, “Coco” and “Coboclinhos” are also very popular rhythms in Recife and Olinda. The rule is to have fun, dance, make friends and celebrate Carnival in a free-spirited way.
Carnival in Brazil Tips
Carnival in Brazil is a big event. Brazilians travel around the country and foreigners travel to Brazil. So make your travel arrangements early. Tickets to Rio de Janeiro’s samba parades may be booked as early as November and they sell out quickly. In order to find good hotel deals, the earlier you book, the better.
It is a good idea to get to Brazil a few days before Carnival and leave a few days after because airports, bus stations, roads, etc. tend to be congested at this time.
It is summer in Brazil and very hot, therefore pack light, comfortable clothing. Carnival is an informal event, unless you are going to one of the Gala Balls. In this case, you had better get a nice costume. For the parades, shorts and a T-Shirt are perfect.