There’s no bigger bash on Earth than Carnival in Brazil, and while Rio de Janeiro might host the best-known celebration, cities in every corner of the country party just as hard. Commemorating 40 days of sacrifice before Easter, per Catholic tradition, Carnival means packing in as much revelry and debauchery as possible before the season of solemnity begins on Ash Wednesday. In 2013, Carnival runs officially from Friday, February 8th, through Tuesday, February 12th, with parties and parades starting even earlier in many places. Wherever you are in Brazil, there’s sure to be a celebration nearby.
Rio bills its Carnival celebration as “The Greatest Show on Earth,” referring specifically to the glitzy, gaudy two-day parade held in the purpose-built Sambadrome. The parade is actually a competition, in which large, organized groups called samba schools (so named because the first one established itself in front of a teachers college) wage war based on categories such as parade theme, costumes, floats, harmony and organization, and samba lyrics and melody. The winners capture nation-wide fame and a large cash prize, with last year’s champs Unidos da Tijuca being the school to beat. Outside of the Sambadrome, roving block parties snake through neighborhood streets all over the city, with revelers in costumes and face paint pulling innocent bystanders into the fray.
But don’t think Rio’s got the only game going. São Paulo may be too busy to shut down completely, but Brazil’s business capital has its own Sambadrome and cadre of popular samba schools, including perennial favorites Vai-Vai, that compete with just as much verve and fervor as their Rio counterparts. The city also hosts a few block parties, with boisterous Acadêmicos do Baixo Augusta being one of the largest.
For a more authentic Carnival experience that doesn’t require as much advanced preparation in order to participate, head to Salvador da Bahia. Celebrated as the epicenter of Afro-Brazilian culture, Salvador’s parades involve immense moving sound systems topped by MPB (Brazilian pop) and axé (samba-reggae) bands performing for the booty-shaking multitudes. Visitors can easily jump into the beachfront parades as participants, or join costumed party-people making merry on the cobblestone streets of the historic district, Pelourinho.
Beach towns further up the coast, including Recife and neighboring colonial gem Olinda, as well as popular resorts Natal and Fortaleza, all throw Salvador-style bashes, with old-school masks and costumes alternating with the amped-up disco atmosphere of the sound system parades. In Brazil’s south, gay-friendly Florianópolis—aka Floripa—draws LGBT revelers from around Latin America for its massive circuit parties and beach bashes.
And, almost every small village and mid-sized town throughout the country will have some sort of celebration, so even if you’re stuck in the sticks, you won’t be out of luck.