Carnival in Salvador da Bahía, Brazil
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Carnaval in Brazil

When Carnaval comes, the country gets down to some of the most serious partying in the world. A Caribbean carnival might prepare you a little, but what happens in Brazil goes on longer, is more spectacular and on a far larger scale. Everywhere in Brazil, large or small, has some form of Carnaval, and in three places especially - Rio, Salvador and Olinda - Carnaval has become a mass event, involving almost the entire populations of the cities and drawing visitors from all over the world.

When exactly Carnaval begins depends on the ecclesiastical calendar: it starts at midnight of the Friday before Ash Wednesday and ends on the Wednesday night, though effectively people start partying on Friday afternoon - over five days of continuous, determined celebration. It usually happens in the middle of February, although very occasionally it can be early March. But in effect the entire period from Christmas is a kind of run-up to Carnaval. People start working on costumes, songs are composed and rehearsals staged in school playgrounds and back yards, so that Carnaval comes as a culmination rather than a sudden burst of excitement and color.

During the couple of weekends immediately before Carnaval proper there are carnival balls, bailes carnavalescos, which get pretty wild. Don't expect to find many things open or to get much done in the week before Carnaval, or the week after it, when the country takes a few days off to shake off its enormous collective hangover. During Carnaval itself, stores open briefly on Monday and Tuesday mornings, but banks and offices stay closed. Domestic airlines, local and inter-city buses run a Sunday service during the period.

Three Brazilian carnivals in particular have become famous, each with a very distinctive feel. The most familiar and most spectacular is in Rio, dominated by samba and the parade of samba schools down the enormous concrete expanse of the gloriously named Sambódromo. It is one of the world's great sights, and is televised live to the whole country. However, it has its critics. It is certainly less participatory than Olinda or Salvador, with people crammed into grandstands watching, rather than down following the schools.

Salvador is, in many ways, the antithesis of Rio, with several focuses around the old city center: the parade is only one of a number of things going on, and people follow parading schools and the trio elétrico, groups playing on top of trucks wired for sound. Samba is only one of several types of music being played, and, if it is music you are interested in, Salvador is the best place to hear and see it.

Olinda, in a magical colonial setting just outside Recife, has a character all its own, less frantic than Rio and Salvador; musically it is dominated by frevo, the fast, whirling beat of Pernambuco.

Some places you would think are large enough to have an impressive Carnaval are in fact notoriously bad at it: cities in this category are São Paulo, Brasília and Belo Horizonte. On the other hand, there are also places which have much better Carnavals than you would expect: the one in Belém is very distinctive, with the Amazonian food and rhythms of the carimbó, and Fortaleza also has a good reputation. The South, usually written off by most people as far as Carnaval is concerned, has major events in Florianópolis primarily aimed at attracting Argentine and São Paulo tourists, and the smaller but more distinctive Carnaval in Laguna. There are full details of the events, music and happenings at each of the main Carnavals under the relevant sections of the guide.

Source: TravelNow Destination Guides

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