Parintins, an otherwise unremarkable, small river-town with a population of around 100,000 lying roughly halfway between Santarém and Manaus, has become the unlikely centre of one of the largest mass events in Brazil – the Boi Bumbá celebrations, which take place in the last weekend of June every year.
The official name is the Festival Folclórico de Parintins, but it is often called Boi Bumbá after the name for a funny and dramatized dance concerning the death and rebirth of an ox traditionally performed at the festival. The festival’s roots go back at least a hundred years, when the Cid brothers from Maranhão arrived in the area bringing with them the Bumba-meu-boi musical influence from the culture-rich ex-slave plantations.
Tens of thousands of visitors arrive annually at the Bumbódromo stadium, built to look like a massive stylized bull, which hosts a wild, energetic parade by something resembling an Amazonian version of Rio samba schools – and the resemblance is not coincidental, the organizers having consciously modelled themselves on Rio’s Carnaval.
The event revolves around two schools, Caprichoso and Garantido which compete, parading through the Bumbódromo, where supporters of one school watch the opposing parade in complete silence. You thus have the strange spectacle of 20,000 people going wild while the other half of the stadium is as quiet as a funeral, with roles reversed a few hours later. Boi Bumbá has its high point with the enactment of the death of a bull, part of the legend of the slave Ma Catirina who, during her pregnancy, developed a craving for ox tongue. To satisfy her craving, her husband, Pa Francisco, slaughtered his master’s bull, but the master found out and decided to arrest Pa Francisco with the help of some Indians. Legend, however, says a priest and a witch doctor managed to resuscitate the animal, thus saving Pa Francisco; with the bull alive once more, the party begins again at fever pitch, with a frenetic rhythm that pounds away well into the hot and smoke-filled night.
The parade is undeniably spectacular, and the music infectious. But if you’re going to participate, remember joining in with the Caprichoso group means you mustn’t wear red clothing; if you’re dancing with the Garantido school, you need to avoid blue clothes. During the festival, forget about accommodation in any of the town’s few hotels: they are booked up months in advance. Your best chance is simply to stay on a boat; in all the towns and cities of the region – notably Manaus and Santarém – you will find boats and travel agencies offering all-inclusive packages for the event, with accommodation in hammocks on the boats. Most of the riverboat companies offer three- or four-day packages, costing between R$200 and R$700. The trips (26hr from Manaus, 20hr from Santarém) are often booked well in advance, and are advertised from March onwards on banners tied to the boats. There is a lot of petty thieving and pickpocketing, so take extra care of anything you bring with you.