Olinda is, quite simply, one of the largest and most beautiful complexes of colonial architecture in Brazil: a maze of cobbled streets, hills crowned with brilliant white churches, pastel-coloured houses, Baroque fountains and graceful squares. Not surprisingly, in 1982 it was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Founded in 1535, the old city is spread across several small hills looking back towards Recife, but it belongs to a different world. In many ways, Olinda is the Greenwich Village of Recife; it’s here that many of the larger city’s artists, musicians and liberal professionals live, and there’s a significant gay community. Olinda is most renowned, though, for its Carnaval, famous throughout Brazil, which attracts visitors from all over the country, as well as sizeable contingents from Europe.
Olinda’s Carnaval, with a massive 560 blocos, is generally considered to be one of the three greatest in Brazil, along with those of Rio and Salvador. It overshadows the celebrations in neighbouring Recife and attracts thousands of revellers from all over the Northeast. It’s easy to see why Olinda developed into such a major Carnaval: the setting is matchless, and local traditions of art and music are very strong. Like the other two great Brazilian Carnavals, Olinda has a style and feel all its own: not quite as large and potentially intimidating as in either Rio or Salvador, the fact that much of it takes place in the winding streets and small squares of the old city makes it seem more manageable. The music, with the local beats of frevo and maracatu predominating, the costumes, and the enormous bonecos (papier-mâché figures of folk heroes, or savage caricatures of local and national personalities), make this celebration unique.
Carnaval actually gets going the Sunday before the official start, when the Virgens do Bairro Novo, a traditional bloco several hundred strong, parades down the seafront road followed by crowds that regularly top 200,000. By now, the old city is covered with decorations: ribbons, streamers and coloured lanterns are hung from every nook and cranny, banners are strung across streets and coloured lighting is set up in all the squares. Olinda’s Carnaval is not only famous for its bonecos, which are first paraded around on Friday night and then at intervals during the days, but also for the decorated umbrellas that aficionados use to dance the frevo. The tourist office has lists of the hundreds of groups, together with routes and approximate times, but there is always something going on in most places in the old city – the area around the Pousada dos Quatro Cantos is one of the liveliest during Carnaval. The most famous blocos, with mass followings, are Pitombeira and Elefantes; also try catching the daytime performances of travestis, transvestite groups, which have the most imaginative costumes – ask the tourist office to mark them out on the list for you.
Inevitably, with so many visitors flocking into the city, accommodation during Carnaval can be a problem. You might as well forget about hotels in Olinda if you haven’t booked a room months in advance. Many locals, though, rent out all or part of their house for Carnaval week; the municipal tourist office has a list of places and prices, which start at around R$600 for the week, going up to as much as R$5000. If all the places on their lists are full – more than likely if you arrive less than a week before Carnaval starts – or if you fancy your chances of getting a cheaper and better deal on your own, wander round the side streets looking for signs saying Aluga-se quartos; knock on the door and bargain away.
It’s easier to find a room in Recife, but, unless you dance the night away, transport back in the small hours can be difficult; buses start running at around 5am, and before then you have to rely on taxis, which means paying an exorbitant fare and running the risk of drunken taxi drivers – dozens of people are killed on the road during Carnaval every year, and it’s best to avoid travelling by road in the small hours.