Carnaval is the most important festival in Brazil, but there are other parties, too, from saints’ days to celebrations based around elections or the World Cup.
When Carnaval comes, the country gets down to some of the most serious partying in the world. A Caribbean carnival might prepare you a little, but what happens in Brazil is more spectacular, goes on longer and is on a far larger scale. Every place in Brazil, large or small, has some form of Carnaval, and in three places especially – Rio, Salvador and Olinda, just outside Recife – Carnaval has become a mass event, involving seemingly the entire populations of the cities and drawing visitors from all over the world.
When exactly Carnaval begins depends on the ecclesiastical calendar: it starts at midnight of the Friday before Ash Wednesday and ends on the Wednesday night, though effectively people start partying on Friday afternoon – over four days of continuous, determined celebration. It usually happens in the middle of February, although very occasionally it can be early March. But in effect, the entire period from Christmas is a kind of run-up to Carnaval. People start working on costumes, songs are composed and rehearsals staged in school playgrounds and backyards, so that Carnaval comes as a culmination rather than a sudden burst of excitement and colour.
During the couple of weekends immediately before Carnaval proper, there are carnival balls (bailes carnavalescos), which get pretty wild. Don’t expect to find many things open or to get much done in the week before Carnaval, or the week after it, when the country takes a few days off to shake off its enormous collective hangover. During Carnaval itself, stores open briefly on Monday and Tuesday mornings, but banks and offices stay closed. Domestic airlines, local and inter-city buses run a Sunday service during the period.
The most familiar and most spectacular Carnaval is in Rio, dominated by samba and the parade of samba schools down the enormous concrete expanse of the gloriously named Sambódromo. One of the world’s great sights, and televised live to the whole country, Rio’s Carnaval has its critics. It is certainly less participatory than Olinda or Salvador, with people crammed into grandstands watching, rather than down following the schools.
Salvador is, in many ways, the antithesis of Rio, with several focuses around the old city centre: the parade is only one of a number of things going on, and people follow parading schools and the trio elétrico, groups playing on top of trucks wired for sound. Samba is only one of several types of music being played; indeed, if it’s music you’re interested in, Salvador is the best place to hear and see it.
Olinda, in a magical colonial setting just outside Recife, has a character all its own, less frantic than Rio and Salvador; musically, it’s dominated by frevo, the fast, whirling beat of Pernambuco, and is in some ways the most distinctive visually, with its bonecos, large papier-mâché figures that are the centrepiece of the Olinda street parades.
Some places you would expect to be large enough to have an impressive Carnaval are in fact notoriously bad at it: cities in this category are São Paulo, Brasília and Belo Horizonte. On the other hand, there are also places that have much better Carnavals than you would imagine: the one in Belém is very distinctive, with the Amazonian food and rhythms of the carimbó, and Fortaleza also has a good reputation. The South, usually written off by most people as far as Carnaval is concerned, has major events in Florianópolis, primarily aimed at attracting Argentine and São Paulo tourists, and the smaller but more distinctive Carnaval in Laguna. For full details of the events, music and happenings at each of the main Carnavals, see under the relevant sections of the Guide.
The third week in June has festas juninas, geared mainly towards children, who dress up in straw hats and checked shirts and release paper balloons with candles attached (to provide the hot air), causing anything from a fright to a major conflagration when they land.
Elections and the World Cup are usually excuses for impromptu celebrations, while official celebrations, with military parades and patriotic speeches, take place on September 7 (Independence Day) and November 15, the anniversary of the declaration of the Republic.
In towns and rural areas, you may well stumble across a dia de festa, the day of the local patron saint, a very simple event in which the image of the saint is paraded through the town, with a band and firecrackers, a thanksgiving Mass is celebrated, and then everyone turns to the secular pleasures of the fair, the market and the bottle. In Belém, this tradition reaches its zenith in the annual Cirio on the second Sunday of October, when crowds of over a million follow the procession of the image of Nossa Senhora de Nazaré, but most festas are small-scale, small-town events.
In recent years, many towns have created new festivals, usually glorified industrial fairs or agricultural shows. Often these events are named after the local area’s most important product, such as the Festa Nacional do Frango e do Peru (chickens and turkeys) in Chapecó. Occasionally, these local government creations can be worth attending as some promote local popular culture as well as industry. One of the best is Pomerode’s annual Festa Pomerana, which takes place in the first half of January and has done much to encourage the promotion of local German traditions.