Carnaval plunges Brazil into the most serious partying in the world. Mardi Gras in New Orleans or Notting Hill in London are not even close; nothing approaches the sheer scale and spectacle of Carnaval in Rio, Salvador and Olinda, just outside Recife. But Carnaval also speaks to the streak of melancholy that is the other side of the stereotype of fun-loving Brazil.

Part of the reason is Carnaval’s origins at the time when Brazil was still the largest slaveholding country in the Americas. The celebrations just before Lent acquired a kind of “world turned upside down” character, with slaveowners ceremonially serving their slaves food and allowing them time off work – giving a particularly double-edged feel to Carnaval as servitude reasserted itself come Ash Wedneday. Brazil has come a long way since then, but the traditional freedom to transgress that comes with Carnaval gives its partying an edge that deepens in the small hours, as alcohol and crowds generate their usual tensions – the already high murder rate hits its peak over the festival and traffic deaths are also at their annual high. There is a big difference between day and night. Carnaval during the day is for families, and you can relax along with the Pierrots, masks and brass bands that ply the streets and squares: if you travel with children they will remember a good Carnaval for the rest of their lives. Carnaval at night is memorably spectacular in Rio and the biggest street party you will ever see in Salvador and Olinda, but it’s best to keep your wits about you and your head clear. For more information, see Carnaval dates and the relevant sections of the guide for more information.

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