Carnival in Brazil

Sambodromo 52
São Paulo Sambódromo

It’s Carnival time again and in Brazil it’s the biggest event in the calendar. Samba schools have been painstakingly building their floats and dancers and musicians have been practising for months. Carnival is the highlight of the year for many people and it starts this weekend and lasts until Ash Wednesday. I live in Bixiga, São Paulo, near the Vai Vai samba school and pretty much every Sunday during the year you can hear them rehearsing. I have got used to falling asleep to the distant sound of beating drums.

Sambodromo 19
Rio Sambódromo
Sambodromo 37
Rio Sambódromo

Both Rio and São Paulo have huge parade grounds, called sambódromos, where the schools compete and a winner is crowned. The scale of the floats is astonishing and the competition intense. Big names are contracted to design the floats and costumes according to sometimes surreal and grandiose themes. Tickets to the sambódromos are not cheap, but it’s worth going once just to savour the atmosphere.

Sambodromo 11
Rio Sambódromo

The sambódromo parades happen over just two days in each city, but the rest of the time you can join a bloco (or street parade) for free and dance or follow the crowd. These are often local community groups and have a great atmosphere.

Street Carnival 3
Local bloco in São Paulo
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Carnival in Pelourinho, Salvador

Salvador has probably the biggest and wildest Carnival of all. Here the parades make their way right through the city streets on two established circuits, one near Campo Grande and the other in the beachside neighbourhood of Barra. Giant trucks with amplified sound called trios elétricos move slowly through the streets pumping out the local music called axé which is very different from the samba of Rio.

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Trio elétrico in Salvador

You have several choices of how to participate in Carnival in Salvador. The most expensive but safest way is to buy a seat in a camarote (or private box) and watch from above the street. Another way is to buy an abadá (or a kit comprising of a t-shirt or vest) which allows you inside the roped-off section which follows each trio. Another way (free and therefore my favourite) is to follow the trios and dance pipoca style (which means popcorn). You’ll be jumping up and down with all the locals and things can get very crushed.

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Filhos de Gandhi, Salvador

Wherever you go during Carnival, leave all your valuables at home. Pickpocketing is quite blatant, particularly in Salvador, so do as the locals do and stuff a few notes in your shoe or down your bra – just enough to buy some beers and a caipirinha. It’s not cheap visiting Brazil during Carnival as most hotels will demand a five night package with rates that work out 3 or 4 times the usual amount. However, it is one of the best parties on the planet and not to be missed.

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Rio Sambódromo

 

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Exploring Brazil – Part 1 – Rio de Janeiro

Sunset behind Christ the Redeemer
Sunset behind Christ the Redeemer

Rio de Janeiro has one of the most jaw-droppingly spectacular settings of any city in the world. Whether viewed from street-level while sipping a caipirinha or watching the sunset from Sugar Loaf mountain, the place never fails to impress and inspire. I once taught a student from Rio who commuted to São Paulo for work and English classes, but always went back to his home city for the weekend. Like all cariocas, residents of Rio, he was proud of his city and also knew how lucky he was to live there. He gave me a tip – sit on the right side of the plane when flying from São Paulo to Rio for some incredible views if you are arriving at the local airport. No matter how many times he had done this journey, he told me, he always got quite emotional at the sight of Rio from the air.

Night view over Rio
Night view over Rio

You could spend days or even weeks here. There are must-see sights like taking the cable car up Sugar Loaf Mountain and the funicular railway up to the statue of Christ the Redeemer. But for me one of the best things about Rio is simply hanging out and people watching. The beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema have a spectacular setting and each area of beach attacts its own crowd. But rememember these are city beaches and just one block back from the seafront you’ll find bars, restaurants and boutiques with locals strutting the streets in speedos and bikinis. It’s all very laid-back.

Sugar Loaf
Sugar Loaf

The centre of Rio is the business area and also has plenty of colonial era buildings, many of which are currently being restored. Lapa is the place to go on a Friday night when the neighbourhood becomes one vast outdoor party, with food and drinks stalls lining the streets and samba music blaring out everywhere you go. I first went there in 1998 before it had been re-developed and was still a pretty dodgy area, with the only music coming from speakers propped up in the doorways of decaying buildings. Nowadays there are some high-end restaurants and it’s pretty safe, but watch your pockets in the crowds.

Fisherman in Arpoador
Fisherman in Arpoador

In fact, safety is one of the major concerns that first-time visitors have, although I reckon that reports of violence are often exaggerated in the foreign press. When I first came to Rio in 1996, I was convinced that I was going to be jumped on by gangs of thieves within moments of leaving the airport. Now, I don’t believe it’s any more dangerous than many big cities around the world. You just need to have your wits about you and don’t take any risks.

Museum of Contemporary Art, Niteroi
Museum of Contemporary Art, Niteroi

If you want to see more than just the obvious tourist sites, head for neighbourhoods like Catete and Botofogo. These lie between the centre and Copacabana and began to be developed as the city expanded in the 19th century and contain some lovely turn-of-the-century buildings. Also recommended is the Parque Lage, a wonderful oasis near the Botanical Gardens. Another worthwhile day trip is to take the local ferry across the bay to Niteroi and visit the Museum of Contemporary Art designed by the great Brazilian architect, Oscar Niemeyer. But if this all seems like too much effort, it’s quite easy to just sit down at one of the many barracas or beach bars, buy a fresh coconut juice and watch the world go by.

Búzios
Búzios

As fun and as exciting as Copacabana and Ipanema can be, you really need to get out of the city and explore the fabulous beaches along the coast. Heading north for a few hours takes you to Búzios, a place made famous by Brigitte Bardot in the 60s. In fact there is a statue of her in the town. It’s quite upmarket and the beaches are small and nestled in picturesques coves.

Brigitte Bardot, Búzios
Brigitte Bardot, Búzios

Heading south on the way to São Paulo is Paraty. It’s an old town with many beautiful colonial buildings and cobbled streets – practical shoes are a must here! – which partly flood when the tide comes in. There are no beaches in the town itself, but there are boats in the harbour which will take you around some stunning beaches and islands. A short busride away is the town of Trindade, popular with surfers and with a very different vibe.

Paraty
Paraty

If you’ve ever thought about going to Brazil, now is a good time to visit. The clocks have gone forward and summer is approaching. Not only that, but the devaluation of the real means that visitors are going to get some great bargains. Although Brazil is not a cheap destination by any means, the real is now worth only half of what it was a year ago, making things much more affordable. The effects of El Niño are also promising record temperatures this summer. There’s no better place to start than Rio de Janeiro, a cidade maravilhosa, or the marvellous city.

Praia Cachadaço, Trindade
Praia Cachadaço, Trindade
Paraty street
Paraty street