With a little more than a month heading up for carnaval, i figured maybe some people are planing on coming over to it, but it seems foreigners do not really get exactly what carnaval is, or maybe the advertising is just really misleading, or maybe i just focus too much on the culture side of it. So anyway i thought that my personal, biased, uncommon experience with carnaval could come in handy…
The first thing you must know is that carnaval is not a party. It isn’t even a lot of parties. Carnaval is a time when anything goes. That a lot of people think that in this case parties are in order is, well, predictable.
That’s why carnaval is not something you should buy a ticket for and go, like you go to a movie. Carnaval is more like a full-time job, more like intense and overwhelming than like a good party. It does definitively require some preparation.
For example, two foreigners who were staying at our house in Recife in 2007 complained that brazilians use carnaval as an excuse to do stupid stuff. They are completely right about this, you see, but the very fact that they complain shows they didn’t get it at all. To live carnaval you must, you totally must, be able to cope with some shit coming your way.
Another consequence of this is that different cultures/cities have completely different carnavals. Each of them is a different story. And each is about one kind of music. This is kind of bad news, because it means that you can’t really get to know everything about carnaval. I knew 2 girls who tried to spend 2 days here, 2 there and 2 somewhere else, but i strongly advise against this. There is some sense behind the noise and madness of carnaval, and getting the intro apart from the conclusion you’ll have an indistinct picture. I say: Choose one and dive!
So, those are the main places for carnaval:
Rio de Janeiro
Rio plays samba.
Rio is going through a carnaval rescue operation: It had became too commercial and soulless, and they are trying to go back to their street-party roots, but that is a long process. There is certainly a lot of amazing left in Rio’s carnaval, but i guess for a foreigner it could be very difficult to sift between the best and the rest.
You can usually find in the newspapers lists of the main street parties (called blocos), sometimes even with little stories about each one, and since many of those blocos happen at places that aren’t close to each other, it is definitely important to check the list before everything starts, instead of just trying to find what’s next from moment to moment.
The most famous of carnaval things is the big parade that happens in Rio’s “sambódromo”, which in a way epitomizes the “too big” side of things, but is still impressive and loads of fun. But an often overlooked fact is that the winners of the parade repeat their shows on the weekend after carnaval (it’s called “Desfile das Campeãs”), so that you could for example spend carnaval somewhere else and come to Rio just for the parade, or go to even more street parties.
Another tip: People in Rio are not so nuts about costumes as in other places, but i’ve seen loads of facial paint, you might try to get creative…
Absolute must do in Rio’s carnaval:
- The “blocos” in the streets of Santa Teresa neighbourhood
- Monobloco, but find where they’ll play with the full drums
- Lapa in the night’s end, ’cause everyone is there anyway
- and maybe, just maybe, go to Bola Preta, because it is just huge, but be sure to have on you nothing you would miss if stolen
Ouro Preto plays Marchinha.
In Ouro Preto there are huge Republicas (equivalent to frat houses), and during carnaval they stock humongous quantities of beer and lodge loads of tourists. The parties at the Republicas are more like a normal party, and this kinda splits Ouro Preto’s carnaval into 2 worlds. But to a foreigner this might be actually a good thing, since usually everyone staying at the same Republica get to know each other and then they can tell you what to do.
Ouro Preto has tradition to the hilt, and if you can manage to resist the free beer in the Republica you can see lots of things. And since Ouro Preto is not really big, you can mostly wander about without much plans.
There is another city nearby called Diamantina, famous for it’s carnaval and it’s “Batucada”. Diamantina will be much smaller and quieter than Ouro Preto, though.
Not to miss:
- free beer — come on
- craft cachaça, also called “artesanal” or “de alambique” or “da roça” — me and some friends used to get drunk on something we called “mill hovert” which was cachaça with sugar cane juice
- Zé Pereira dos Lacaios, the oldest carnaval “bloco” on existence
- town hall organized MPB shows
- the permanent mess of “Rua Direita”
Recife plays frevo.
My personal favourite. Recife and Olinda, once two different cities, are now part of the same metropolis, and people joke about the law of carnaval being Olinda in the day, Recife in the night. Recifeans usually rent a house at Olinda so they can wake up close to the mess, and this is definitely a good strategy, even more because it is usually not too expensive. And even though having foreigners is not even remotely as common as in Ouro Preto, there are many houses that do, probably hard to find but not too hard.
Recife is particularly rich in different forms of cultural expression, with seemingly infinite different kinds of music and rhythms. And mostly they are very approachable, since the hipster youngster in search of folkloric stuff is already traditional there. But for it to really get interesting you must try to understand the specifics of each, and their differences. And by the way this usually leads to interesting conversation. Everyone has his preferences, i for what it’s worth have an unending love for Coco.
Another good thing of Recife’s carnaval is that (mostly by night) there are lots of parties and shows of less folkloric music, eventually with some straight Rock, which is very refreshing at times.
In Recife people usually take costumes very seriously, some do spend the year planning their costumes. It might sound as a lot of trouble, but the best costumes are the ones easy to improv and that make it really easy for people to play with you, so you end up with the most random encounters. And of course there is the “Enquanto Isso na Sala da Justiça” bloco where everyone dresses up as a super-hero, which you should not miss for anything.
Other unmissable things:
- try Axé, a sweet beverage you can buy at “Alto da Sé”, one should be sufficient to get wasted, but, you know, buy 2 just in case
- baque-virado maracatu, so unbelievably loud when first seen live it takes a long time for you to realise it does not actually variate — and by the way if you do get to realise it is repeating, find the “batuque” groups that ditch religious authenticity in favour of musical expression, like Quebra-Baque
- giant dolls, i repeat, GIANT DOLLS!
Salvador plays Axé.
I haven’t gone myself to Salvador’s carnaval, but it is at least as culturally rich and intense as Recife. Many blocos in Salvador are enclosed by a rope, so you must have a soft shirt called abadá which allows you to enter, and each bloco has it’s own, and they are expensive, and yes, you can buy them with one year of antecedence. Then again, i have friends who do not buy all that stuff and love Salvador’s Carnaval. I won’t be giving suggestions, but i do believe that the city will be crawling with stuff to do and see and party. And since Salvador is so used to “gringos”, it might be easier to navigate “without inside information”.
Those 4 could be said to be the “main” carnaval cities. But of course there are many smaller carnaval’s which should also be equally amazing, even if less intense.
Small cities like Paraty (in the state of Rio), São Luiz do Paraitinga (in the state of São Paulo), Cavalcante (in Goiás) and many others have street parties and all that carnaval stuff. Again, each and everyone will have it’s own culture to be explored. And i guess going to somewhere really unknown might actually carry with it some bragging rights.
I also know for a fact that São Paulo, the city that could be said to be the capital of the anti-carnaval ethos, also has a lot of carnaval to it. Street parties and big parades included. But since there is a lot of mixed information i would say that this is only possible in case you know someone who really is inside the world of São Paulo’s carnaval — even for a brazilian like me.
And there are also parties that happen at the same time of carnaval but try to be non-carnaval in the sense of getting rid of the music. In the South there is Psicodália which is mostly a rock feast. And, usually near São Paulo, there happens an e-music festival called SoulVision.
Finally, there are many parties that emulate carnaval at other periods of the year, the “Micareta” or “Micarê”, also called “carnaval fora de época”, which means “out of time carnaval”. These parties follow most closely the Salvador kind of carnaval. Famous ones include:
- Micarê Goiana (formerly Carnagoiânia), in the central region of Brazil
- Carnatal and Fortal, in the north-east
- CarnaRibeirão, in the state of São Paulo
That is already a lot of information, i wanted to give you an general overview of everything. Search further into what you find interesting. Google, as always, is your friend. But do know that there is too much to see, and that there are many other options than what you find in lonely planet.
Actually, during the whole carnaval, it seems like at no time there’s fewer than 3 things happening simultaneously that you simply can’t miss. It’s (as we would say) frenetic. The best thing to do is to single out some 2 or 3 things for the whole carnaval you’ll seriously stop anything to go, and the rest of the time just keep your ears open.
This also means that we tend to over-exert ourselves during carnaval. A bit of a flu the week after is part of tradition. Just in case, take some C vitamin each day of carnaval.
Try to avoid the experiences that are simply out of reach. For example, in Recife there is a show called “Quanta Ladeira” that is a bunch of very talented musicians making foul-mouthed jokes about everything. It is completely sensational, but so full of slang and inside jokes that you’ll probably find it boring unless you speak better Portuguese than most Brazilians.
Carnaval food is also perilous. I say take some risks, but never forget to eat some more familiar stuff. And go for the energetic stuff, your body needs it.
And, to close it off: Maybe the most important advice for carnaval is the same as for trips. Be open. Improvise. Embrace the possibility that things are not the way you think they are, by making yourself a little less predictable.
Everything will be over after Wednesday.