Today I’m almost two weeks removed from the most beautiful, insane festival imaginable. It’s taken all of those two weeks to recover from illness, jet-lag, and a brief, depressing period of being back to normalcy. However, here I am, finally ready to try putting into words how great my Brazilian Carnival experience was. Vamos!
What is the Brazilian Carnival?
Based on what I was told alone, the Brazilian Carnival is basically a pre-lent sin-fest. The whole country gets together for “four days” of letting loose, prior to making their sacrifices for lent. I use quotes on the length because I am told there is about a week of both pre- and post-Carnival, beyond the official dates. For future reference within this post, I personally was only there for the four days.
To give you a more proper description, see the following, from Wikipedia:
The Carnival of Brazil (Portuguese: Carnaval do Brasil, IPA: [kaʁnaˈvaw]) is an annual Brazilian festival held between the Frida afternoon (47 days before Easter) and Ash Wednesday at noon, which marks the beginning of Lent, the forty-day period before Easter. On certain days of Lent, Roman Catholics and some other Christians traditionally abstained from the consumption of meat and poultry, hence the term “carnival,” from carnelevare, “to remove (literally, “raise”) meat.”
As you can see, the locals who explained it to me have a different definition than what’s official.
Where did I go and what did I do?
The trip consisted of two days in Salvador and two days in Rio de Janeiro. I will detail my thoughts/experience on each below. First though, I’d like to give you 5 travel tips I picked up along the way.
- Get a below-the-clothes fanny pack like this one. Keep your stuff safe, keep your pockets empty, take the target off yourself.
- Look closely at your itinerary. On the final leg of our trip, from Sao Paolo to Salvador, there was apparently a stop the plane intended to make in some other city. This stop wasn’t mentioned clearly at all on our itinerary and we actually got off the plane, thinking we were in Salvador. We were lucky we realized it in time when we saw our Airbnb was a quick 7.5 hour car ride from the tiny airstrip we were at… We were luckier when the Portuguese speaking security people let us back out and onto the near-departing plane.
- Travel with amigos. More safe, more fun.
- Know key words in either Spanish or Portuguese. This isn’t 100% necessary, but it’s good to at least know “thank you” and “bathroom.” Though not many people I met in Brazil spoke Spanish, it was similar enough to Portuguese to hold a basic, if broken, conversation. I’ll talk more about language as a part of the experience below.
- If you lose your phone in the Uber to the airport, do it before the trip. Sorry, Alex. But it was a learning experience. My buddy misplaced his phone in our ride-share to the airport. The silver lining though was it allowed him to be unplugged. It was also easy enough to meet up with the driver when we got back to the states. So be like Alex, don’t lose your phone in Brazil.
If you followed the Wikipedia link above, you would have seen there is a difference in celebrations between the northern and southern cities. The “main event” in Salvador (northern) features big floats with musicians jamming out on top. The locals follow these floats en masse, dancing their hearts out from sundown to sunrise. Fun fact: these people are actually referred to as “popcorn,” because of the way the look dancing in the large crowd.
On either side of the street are paid party areas called Camarotes, where you can watch the street festivities pass by. The Camarotes also feature their own entertainment, with musicians, free food/alcohol, and other recreational activities. This is where we spent each of our evenings, going to Camarote Salvador the first night and Camarote Harem the second.
Beyond the parties, Salvador felt small for being such a big city. The conditions of the favelas are tough and you should be aware of your surroundings, but the people we met in general were really nice. From having water gun shootouts with local Brazilian kids, to watching the sunrise with strangers, it was amazing to see how neighborly it felt there.
Though I didn’t have enough time to retain specific location names, there are also a few things I recommend you take the time to do while in Salvador:
- Eat, eat, and eat some more. Wow. The street food was fantastic. The sit-down restaurant food was fantastic. Even the mall food was fantastic. There were times I didn’t even know what exactly I was eating and was still blown away. Got through Salvador without getting sick too!
- Moto taxis. They are probably really dangerous on those roads and the manic drivers don’t help, so don’t do them… unless you like fun. The best part was asking for a joy ride to the market square area. This detour included a hillside ride by the water. It can be nerve-wracking with certain drivers, but you should wear a helmet and do it anyway.
- Malls and markets. They are a big deal here and a cultural experience. I’m not typically one to get excited about the tourist shops in a place, but the markets during Carnival are just another spot to continue celebrating during the day.
Rio de Janeiro
So there are three main options I am aware of, but since Rio is a massive city, there’s probably more.
- The Rio Samba Parade. If pageantry is your thing, this has to be the most extravagant parade in the world. Different samba schools give the wildest performance they can with the hopes to be judged as the best. This carries on through the night so I imagine you’d be sitting for a while. My group decided not to go to the parade, but it plays on every TV you’ll see around town.
- Lapa. For those who know Austin, TX, think dirty sixth street but WAY dirtier. Lapa refers to a specific area in the city where there’s basically a bunch of clubs. People hang out on the street and there’s ample opportunity for various shenanigans. We went here. It was wild. I’ll leave it at that.
- Blocos. These are kind of like the floats in Salvador except they are fixed in one place, with tons of people gathered around them. Again, shenanigans are a plentiful resource. I sadly missed out on this. 🙁 By this point in the trip, getting a cumulative 8 hours of sleep in three days had caught up with me and I was also locked in the bathroom sick. My friends who went highly recommend the blocos though!
Rio definitely felt a little more sketchy than Salvador. It seems it is a more dangerous place in general, especially in the favelas. As mentioned previously, I also got sick within the first meal I had there. The food overall didn’t quite knock my socks off the way Salvador’s did.
Okay, now that the bad stuff is out of the way, let me say Rio is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Christ the Redeemer is as magnificent as advertised, as are the views from its platform. You can really see EVERYTHING from up there. Back down the hill, the beaches are very pretty too with all the cliffs towering above them. The environment feels like Florida, but with hills.
One of the difficult things about going to Brazil during Carnival is the amount of partying limits sight-seeing time. Because of this, I would definitely want to extend my trip to at least a full week next time. Especially in Rio, there were so many other hiking and exploring opportunities we simply didn’t have time for. So if those types of activities are more your speed than the parties, there’s still so much for you to experience there.
My overall, heartfelt summary
Before I departed for this trip (and after too), the question of safety came up a lot. Now, I’m not going to lie or sugar coat it or act tough–parts of Brazil are very dangerous. As strange as it is that the favelas have the best hill views, stay the hell away from them.
What I need to make absolutely clear though about my Brazilian Carnival experience is this…
GO THERE ANYWAY!
Have a wild destination in mind you’ve heard can be life changing? Is it expensive? Can it be dangerous if you aren’t careful? Are there other reasons you’re worried about going? Guess what: you live one fucking time. Go anyway. Want to know why? Because…
Those ridiculous limits in your head, you will smash them.
Before I left, the concept of parties that went until well after the sun rose scared the crap out of me. I worried my body wouldn’t be able to handle it as that isn’t quite my normal routine. Boy, was I wrong. When we returned from those long nights/mornings I was on so much adrenaline I didn’t even want to sleep. And no, no drugs and hardly any alcohol were involved. Oh, and guess what else…
Don’t speak the local language? GOOD.
It’s fantastic to struggle together with others, especially people who you’re also celebrating life with. You’ll learn that words matter way less in communication than we assume. You’ll see you can show people what you’re thinking or feeling, rather than telling them (and they’ll do the same back to you).
Not the smoothest small-talker? Great. You’ll learn you don’t even need to make quick jokes or spit game. What you will do is laugh with people without any reason for doing so; you’ll turn a communicative roadblock into a reason to dance; and you’ll form extraordinary confidence, friendships, and memories in the process. To summarize it all in four words…
Your worldview will change.
Brazilians come from many different walks of life. But for four days, they are one people. During this time the filthy rich and dirt poor all look the same: they look happy. And why shouldn’t they be? The music that fills their streets is vibrant (hear Vai Malandra for your next song on endless repeat), their food and scenery are as good as it gets, and their women are… WOW. 😉
So please, I beg you to take my word for it: At some point in your life, invest the money and time to go and have your own Brazilian Carnival experience. I know 2018 isn’t the only year I plan on going, so maybe I’ll see you there!
Thank you for reading about my Brazilian Carnival experience!
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