The origins of Carnival can be traced back to Greek and Roman celebrations. The Catholic Church, in turn, supported carnival as a prelude to Lent and the Easter celebration and, later, medieval Portuguese and Spanish ‘conquistadors’ brought carnival to the New World where it began to absorb and incorporate African and South American elements.
The Rio carnival dates from around 1850; although European culture was the dominant feature, native cultures gradually took hold as carnival celebrations were claimed by the people. Soon, the tradition of temporary role reversal became part of the fun: slaves became free, masters became slaves, and cross-dressing of all kinds was practised.
Today, the people still own the carnival, and colorful street parades, dancers, bands and crowds all join together to celebrate Brazil’s vibrant cultural traditions.
Rio de Janeiro
Rio is the world’s carnival capital, and its festival consists of five full days of celebrations backed by a samba beat. It usually begins in February, during the run-up to Lent, with the ‘Fat King’s’ coronation in Brazil’s summer heat. Once under way, the fun continues non-stop in every part of the city until the majestic Samba Parade, which closes the celebrations. While Rio’s carnival is predominantly a display of bands, dancing and singing in the streets, it is also about samba schools, months of preparation, and intense rivalries between the inhabitants of Rio’s ‘favelas’, for whom carnival is the crowning moment of the year.
Carnival visitors tend to stay in the Zona Sul area by the sea, close to the famed Ipanema and Copacabana beaches where hotels traditionally offer short-break packages of four or five nights at carnival time.
The Salvador Carnival is an enormous street party which attracts around 2 million participants. For six days, from the very end of February, bands endlessly parade through the streets aboard Trios (large trucks) grouped together in ‘Blocos’. Carnival parades start off at twenty-minute intervals, either from the Farol da Barra or Campo Grande square. Spectators can enjoy the carnival as: ‘pipoca’, dancing amongst the crowds for free; ‘camarote’, watching from special cabins along the route; or ‘abada’, dancing in secure areas beside the bands.
Visitors tend to stay in the Barra area, near to the best parades. Accommodation which directly overlooks a parade is popular but can be costly, whereas facilities further away charge more affordable rates. However, the choice depends upon how close you wish to be to the heart of the action.
Olinda’s carnival, which reflects the city’s rich blend of cultures, is located amidst an internationally famous Unesco heritage site. Every year at the end of February, Olinda offers its visitors the experience of a lifetime focused around ‘Cidade Alta’, the historic city-centre where revellers know the carnival excitement will be at fever pitch. Bands with drums and horns occupy every street, each entertaining the crowds in their own unique musical style. Olinda’s carnival has the most authentic native Brazilian feel, the wildest costumes, giant flowing street parties and excitable crowds.
Carnival visitors stay in Olinda’s ‘pousadas’ – large, comfortable houses converted to hotels, or else in nearby Recife where accommodation is a little cheaper.
Every Brazilian carnival is an intense and unforgettable festival experience which completely consumes its host city for days on end. If you’re keen to dive in but are unsure where to go, a tailor-made Brazil holiday may be the ideal place to start, as tour experts can give you the lowdown on the best events and most incredible spots throughout the carnivals. Every region proudly hosts its own unique version of the celebration, each driven by a swirling music and hypnotic beats which, once heard by the visitor, live long in the memory as part of the holiday of a lifetime.