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
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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.

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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.

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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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São Paulo’s Rainforest

Pico do Jaraguá
São Paulo from the Pico do Jaraguá

With a population of around 12 million, São Paulo is the biggest city in Brazil and South America as well as the entire southern hemisphere. It’s also the sixth most populous city in the world. It has an absurdly large amount of shopping centres and has the largest fleet of helicopters on the planet. But there’s another superlative that’s not so well-known: on the northen edge of the metropolitan area lies what is allegedly the largest urban forest in the world, the Parque da Cantareira.

Cantareira Reservoir
Cantareira Reservoir

While São Paulo itself is a concrete jungle of five and a half thousand skyscrapers, the Cantareira spreads for 80 million square metres of Atlantic rainforest. There are several areas (or núcleos) which have been developed for tourism. Last weekend I visited the Núcleo do Engordador which has a relatively easy trail past some waterfalls. The Cantareira reservoir provides water to the city, but has been severely depleted this year. It was developed in the 19th century as the city began to grow and this núcleo has a fascinating little museum, the Casa da Bomba, which houses disused pumps, including a steam driven one dating from 1898 and shipped all the way from Lincoln, England.

Cachoeira do Véu
Cachoeira do Véu

There are little bits of the UK all over Brazil. The Estaçao da Luz train station in São Paulo was designed by a British architect and all materials for construction were brought over from England. In the Amazon the Manaus opera house was constructed with steel from Glasgow.

Pump House
Pump House

In another part of the forest, the Núcleo da Pedra Grande has a trail which eventually opens out to give you an incredible view of São Paulo. Near here the Horto Florestal is a small little park which is home to caipibaras, the biggest rodents in the world. Further to the west is the Pico do Jaraguá which at 1,135 metres is the highest point of the city and has similar outstanding viewpoints.

Caipibara
Caipibara

The beaches to the south of São Paulo are an easy weekend getaway, but to escape the crowds a visit to the Parque da Cantareira is highly recommended. Breathing in the oxygen here just feels healthier and as you walk along the trails, observing ancient trees and listening to the birdsong, it’s hard to believe the city is less than a 2-hour bus ride away.

São Paulo seen from the Núcleo da Pedra Grande
São Paulo seen from the Núcleo da Pedra Grande