Looking at the extravagant parades and customs on show at the Rio carnival, it’s easy to forget that the tradition of celebrating this annual feast is even vaguely related to religion. The best clue as to its roots is in its moveable date, timed as it is according to the date of Easter. The purpose of celebrating carnival (derived from ‘carne vale’ or ‘goodbye to the meat’) was originally a final binge of food and drink before the start of Lent and the obligatory 40 days of fasting. The celebration has taken on many forms over the centuries, and its European influences have been merged with local traditions to create a series of giant parties which vary widely, not only from one South American country to another, but even within countries.
The Rio de Janeiro carnival is without doubt the world’s most famous, with around 1 million visitors attracted to the city during the long party weekend. Around double that number crowd onto the city’s streets as over 200 different samba schools ensure that the noise and dancing continue without a break.
While the celebrations in Rio are legendary, other cities stake a claim to equally wild carnivals. Salvador in the state of Bahia has what is considered to be the world’s largest street party. Over 15 miles of the city’s streets are turned over to an enormous celebration which is deeply influenced by the city’s rich African heritage. The events are free and attract some of the biggest Brazilian celebrities, who put on performances at various stages around the city. Brave people can try and join the dancing masses behind the floats, but for those who want to enjoy the spectacle from a safe distance there are grandstands with advance ticketing, from where you can comfortably take photos of the parades.
Sao Paulo is not renowned as a carnival city and in fact many locals will head to the celebrations in Rio or Salvador for the party weekend. That said the city does has its own parade and for carnival first-timers it’s still very impressive, with big parades on the Friday and Saturday night of the Carnival weekend. Sao Paulo’s carnival will appeal most to those who want to enjoy samba dancing, as there’s a keenly-fought competition between the city’s many dance schools.
But it’s not only Brazil having all the Carnival fun. The Oruro Carnival is the largest celebration in Bolivia, and the dances, costumes and music have a strong Andean flavour. The Oruro Carnival is also known as the Diablada (Dance of the Devils), and every year it attracts around 400,000 visitors to Bolivia. The Diablada is an bewildering parade which features demonic dancers in extravagant costumes; its cultural value is such that it was short-listed as a masterpiece by UNESCO. The first procession takes place on the Saturday and features 20,000 dancers and 10,000 musicians; it can last up to an incredible 20 hours!