Salvador has all the prerequisite ingredients for a good party: an idyllic climate, a powerful musical and cultural heritage, the mix of Catholic and Candomblé, and a population that loves an excuse to take to the streets and display their ginga (graceful moves).
Billed as the biggest street party on the planet (it’s listed in Guinness Book of World Records as such), Salvador’s Carnaval lures an estimated 2 million local and international revelers to the streets of the Centro, Barra, and Ondina for madness, mayhem, and plenty of dancing.
Carnaval begins on a Thursday in February or early March (it’s the week prior to Lent; the date changes every year according to the Catholic calendar). The merrymaking gets underway timidly (although in Salvador, “timid” is very relative) on Thursday night, when keys to the city are handed over to the Rei Momo (Carnaval King). It then continues until noon on Ash Wednesday, when the leader of the Timbalada bloco, Carlinhos Brown, leads a procession of trios elétricos—massive stages on wheels outfitted with mega speakers (as well as dressing rooms, lounges, bars, and restrooms)—along Avenida Oceânica. The stages propel Carnaval’s major musical artists and their guests around the 25 kilometers (16 mi) of closed-off thoroughfares.
Although being part of a bloco allows you to be right in the center of things, you can also leave your valuables at home and take to the streets.Each trio belongs to a bloco, a type of closed club, which is literally cordoned off from the masses on the sidewalks. For a fee (ranging R$300-3,000, payable at Central do Carnaval stands), you can join a bloco. You’ll get a festive costume (known as an abadá), unlimited beverages, use of the toilet, and protection, courtesy of the cordeiros, who are (very poorly paid) to (wo)man the ropes separating blocos from the rest of the populace, known as the pipoca (“popcorn”).
Although being part of a bloco allows you to be right in the center of things, you can also leave your valuables at home and take to the streets. This will give you a chance to wander around more freely and fully experience the variety of offerings. There are many blocos: indigenous, African—such as Olodum (tel. 71/3321-5010) and Ilê Aiyê (tel. 71/2103-3400,)—and transvestite. Afoxés, such as Filhos de Gandhy (tel. 71/3321-7073), whose all-male members dress in long white robes and turbans, are religiously oriented. There are even hip-hop and reggae groups and DJ-led raves.
Carnaval unfolds in three areas, known as “circuits.” While the Dôdo Circuito in Barra and Ondina tends to attract the big names associated with axé music (Bahia’s signature style of throbbing commercial pop), the Osmar Circuito between Campo Grande and Praça Castro Alves features the more traditional and less commercial blocos. The Circuito Batatinha in the Pelourinho, with its small samba groups and marching bands, is perfect for children and families.
Whether you indulge for one night or all six, as an unadulterated sensory hedonistic experience, Salvador’s Carnaval is beyond comparison. If you can’t take the heat (or the blaring music and chaotic crowds), get out of the city. But if you’re in the mood to dance, sing, pular (jump up and down), and paquerar (flirt) from dusk till dawn and back again, you’ll be absolutely thrilled.
Considering the possible mayhem when you throw a couple of million drunken people together in 35°C (95°F) heat, Carnaval is surprisingly peaceful, thanks to heavy police presence. That said, it’s best to use caution. Certainly, don’t party alone. Pickpockets abound. Be smart and carry photocopied documents and just enough money for snacks, beers, and a cab ride.
Festa Dois de Julho
While the rest of Brazil celebrates independence on September 7, for Bahians independence is all about July 2, when courageous local forces expelled Portuguese troops from Bahian soil. The festivities begin on the morning of July 2, with a procession from the Igreja of Lapinha through the historic center and the Pelourinho, then finishing up in the afternoon at Campo Grande. Politicians of all parties show up, as do traditional marching bands and baton twirlers, but the quasi-mystical Caboclo figures, effigies of mixed indigenous and European race that are carried through the streets in ornate chariots, are the main draw.
Festa de Santa Bárbara
One of the most moving celebrations is held on December 4 in honor of the patron saint of markets and firefighters, the Festa de Santa Bárbara. Due to her association with the fiery and feisty Iansã, devotees, in large part women (including many transsexuals), dress in red and white, the symbolic colors of the orixá. There’s a mass in front of the Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos in the Largo do Pelourinho, then a procession passes through the historic center, stopping at the main fire station and the Mercado de Santa Bárbara, where free caruru (made from more than 5,000 okra) is distributed. Throughout the day and into the night, the streets resemble a dancing sea of red.
Festa Senhor dos Navegantes
In Salvador, New Year’s Day is synonymous with this beautiful celebration in which the effigy of Nosso Senhor dos Navegantes is transported around the Bay of All Saints by a fleet of decorated boats. From Praia da Boa Viagem, religious music and lots of samba accompany landlubbers watching the procession.
Lavagem do Bonfim
The most important religious and popular festa on the calendar takes place on the second Thursday in January. Dressed in traditional white garb and strings of beads, Bahianas lead an 8-kilometer (5-mi) procession of similarly white-attired and perfumed devotees and partyers from Comércio to the Igreja de Bonfim for the washing (lavagem) of the church steps. The festa honors Senhor do Bonfim (associated with the important orixá Oxalá, whose color is white). After the crowd is doused with blessed water and perfume, the party really gets going, lasting long into the night.
Festa de Iemenjá
As the sun rises on February 2, Candomblé worshippers and Bahians from all walks of life begin arriving at the Casa do Peso in Rio Vermelho, where they leave offerings of flowers and perfumes for Iemenjá, the beloved queen of the seas. At the end of the afternoon—when the presents are transported by a fleet of hundreds of decorated fishing boats and tossed into the sea—the streets of Rio Vermelho erupt in major partying.
Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Brazil.