Brazil might not have a monopoly on exhibitionism, but it comes pretty damn close. There’s no other country on the planet where the unbridled pursuit of pleasure is such a national obsession, transcending race, class and religion. Brazilian bacchanal reaches its apogee during Carnaval, when the entire country enters a collective state of alcohol-fuelled frenzy. Rio is home to the most glitzy and outrageous celebration of them all, an X-rated theatre of the absurd and the greatest spectacle of flesh, fetish and fantasy you are ever likely to see. For this four-day blowout before Lent the streets of the Cidade Maravilhosa are overrun with Amazonian-sized plumed headdresses, enormous floppy carrots, cavorting frogs, drag queens and head-to-toe gilded supermodels clad in impossibly tiny tassels, sequins and strategically applied body paint, challenging the ban on complete nudity.
The centrepiece of Carnaval is the parade of the sixteen samba schools (a neighbourhood association, there’s nothing academic about it) down the kilometre-long parade strip of the colossal Sambódromo (a specially constructed parade stadium). Samba schools often hail from the poorest communities and spend nearly the entire year preparing a flamboyant allegory of their chosen theme, which is dramatized through a highly choreographed display of impassioned songs, wild dances, gigantic papier-mâché figures, lavish costumes and pulsating percussion.
It doesn’t take long for such organized celebrations to erupt with infectious delirium as the whole city voraciously indulges in sensual pleasure at every turn – Rio’s denizens, also known as cariocas, have never been known for their temperance. The neighbourhood blocos, or parades, are the most accessible, authentic and impromptu way to immerse yourself in the city’s sexually charged atmosphere. This is a freewheeling fantasy land in which trucks are converted to moving stage sets with bands and loudspeakers and anything goes. Even the most rigid of hips will gyrate freely, and as the night unravels, the more you’ll have to try to forget in the manhã.
Carnival starts on the Friday before Ash Wednesday. Tickets for the Sambódromo can cost anywhere from US$200 for the bleachers to over US$1000 for a covered box.