To many minds, Rio and Caranaval are one and the same thing. Carnavalâs the worldâs most bodacious party, and Rioâs the place it happens. The two go together like Munich and Oktoberfest; Berlin and Love Parade; Mecca and the Hajj (though the similarities sort of end there).
Thing is, much as Cariocas (Rio locals) would love have you think it elsewise, Rio isnât the only town to which Carnaval comes. Much like G-strings, beach volleyball and being sexy, Carnaval was not a creation of Rioâs. And nor do they own the rights. The cityâs just the best at hosting it.
Or is itâ¦?
Here are a few other places in Brazil where you can catch the worldâs biggest party, plus quick run-through of what to expect from each.
The score: 2 million+ revelers, 90,000 spectators and twelve of the cityâs best Samba schools competing for Carnaval glory (and $1 million in prize money). No doubt about it, this is Carnaval at its most extravagant. Gigantic decorated floats take it in turns to parade through the cityâs purpose-built SambÃ³drome while glittered-up, dressed-down, Brazilians bronzed, buff and buxom prance, shake and shimmy all that their God/mamma/surgeon gave them. Rioâs Carnaval is foremost a spectatorâs event, though some floats do accept paying customers into their parades and âblocosâ (street parties) are bopping everywhere.
Duration: Two nights (Sunday and Monday).
Costs: Anything from USD60â850, depending on which day you attend and the sector you sit in.
Music styles: Variations of Samba (samba-enredo, samba de bloco, samba de embalo), plus marchinha.
- The Samba parade.
- The thrill of seeing an entire city in party mode.
- This city being Rio de Janeiro.
- Rio de Janeiro itself.
Tips: Buy your tickets and book your accommodation well in advance.
SÃ£o Paulo Carnaval
The score: SÃ£o Paulo doesnât itself have a tradition of Carnaval per se, but Brazilâs biggest city has never been one to miss out on something fun â and that means making its own Carnaval. Like Rio, SÃ£o Paulo celebrates Carnaval as a competitive parade evoking themes of the teamsâ choosing in a SambÃ³drome just north of the cityâs historical centre. The whole routine here is essentially the same as in Rio, just to smaller scale. Where SÃ£o Paulo trumps Rio is its Carnaval Balls: glamorous, masked, extravagant affairs for the cityâs well-heeled.
Duration: Two nights (Friday and Saturday).
Costs: USD $6 to $40
Music styles: Samba styles and marchinha.
- A taste of Carnaval minus the crowds and inflated costs â unlike Rio, SÃ£o Pauloâs Carnaval doesnât swallow the city whole.
- The block parties (no less raucous than Rioâs).
- You can attend SÃ£o Pauloâs Carnaval and still make it to Rioâs.
- The fortnight leading up to SÃ£o Pauloâs Carnaval is a prime time to be in the city, with free music and dancing in the Anhembi Sambadrome for up to 30,000 revelers.
- SÃ£o Pauloâs Carnaval isnât as tourist-centric as Rioâs. Make friends with locals to find out where the best blocos be at.
Salvador (Bahian) Carnaval
The score: Where Rioâs Carnaval runs for two days, Salvadorâs runs a week. Where Rioâs floats swirl through a 700-metre stadium, Salvadorâs sweep through several kilometres of open streets. Where in Rio you pay to witness Carnaval, in Salvador you pay to be a part of it. How does this work? You buy an abadÃ¡ (T-shirt). Said abadÃ¡ serves as your entry ticket to the merry band of revelers that follow about town a Trio ElÃ©trico (lorry truck on which musicians are playing).
Duration: One week.
Costs: $25-$150 for an AbadÃ¡. $80-468 for a camarote.
Music styles: AxÃ© (a fusion of many styles including reggae, ForrÃ³, Frevo and Marcha).
- On Ash Wednesday all the blocos congregate in the Castro Alves Square for a final rave.
- Some Trio ElÃ©tricos follow a route along the Campo Grande circuit (also called Avenidas or Osmar), some go down Barra â Ondina (also called the DodÃ´ circuit) and some take the Batatinha Circuit (through Pelourinho, the Old city). Campo Grande is the original circuit, Barra â Ondina tends to attract the big name performers, and Batatinha is the quietest.
- For those whoâd prefer to take in the action from a distance, thereâs the option of paying to watch from a Camarote (grandstand).
Â Recife & Olinda (Pernambuco) Carnaval
The score: Some attendees of Rio, Salvador and SÃ£o Pauloâs Carnavals have spoken of feeling uncomfortable about the social stratification, ethnic division and class privilege they feel come to the fore during this celebration.
In Rioâs parade, those partying are predominantly white; those working largely not. Many of SÃ£o Pauloâs residents would be unable to afford the entrance to one of the cityâs openly exclusive masked balls, even if they were able to score an invite. In Salvador, those who watch the Trio ElÃ©tricos from the street sidelines (I.e. those who canât afford an abadÃ¡) are referred to as pipoca â Portuguese for âpopcornâ, as thatâs supposedly what they look like jostling for glimpses of the party parading through. Social stratification is of course one of contemporary Brazilâs many sad realities.
The further north you travel in Brazil, the more the countryâs African and indigenous heritages comes into play. You see it in the way people interact with each other, the ways they dress and the foods they eat. You feel it through the rhythms they soundtrack their lives to, the stories they tell their histories through and the myriad ways that they blend together their faiths.
After decades of having their versions of Carnaval banned by the colonial authorities, the locals of twin towns Recife and Olinda crafted their Carnaval a decidedly all-inclusive occasion. Entrance is free, no oneâs competing for anything, and any who wish to take part in the various parades trawling through Olindaâs colonial centre only have to saunter in.
Much as its name would suggest, the festivalâs main parade, the Galo de Madrugada (Dawnâs Rooster), takes place during daylight hours rather than evening. The atmosphere is spontaneous, unpretentious, family friendly and suffused with comedy. The parades, which feature giant paper Mache figurines of famous personalities, are stepped in folklore and tradition.
Duration: 10 Days.
Music styles: Frevo, maracatu, coco, sieve, samba and other African-inspired rhythms.
- Opening dayâs As Virgens do Bairo Novo parade (a highly entertaining drag queen parade).
- Noite dos Tambores Silenciosos (Night of the Silent Drums), when, at midnight on the Monday, the music stops, the lights are dimmed, and a minuteâs silence is held in homage of African ancestors. Once the minuteâs up, the celebrations swing back in to a cacophony of drums and chanting in African languages.
Want to samba the night away at Carnaval? Check out our Brazil small groupÂ adventures