If you've ever thought of going to Carnaval...
Then trust us, Carnival in Salvador, Bahia is the place to be!
No where else in the world comes close. With almost three million people taking part—carnaval in Bahia is credited as being the biggest street party in the world.
To fully understand what we're talking about, read an account from a guy that's been there...
It's 5am and I've been in the street for at least 8 hours, dancing, laughing, drinking and flirting my way through the crowds. I'm exhausted, I've spent all my money and lost my friends (I'll see them later at the after party or our favorite food stall) - but I'm still flying. As long as the band keeps going, so will I.
There are around a thousand of us, arms in the air, rocking along behind a trio eléctrico , a giant truck, banked with speakers 10ft tall topped with a 12-piece band. They are playing frevo, old-style carnival music with a frenzied beat - think latino punk rock - which is booming out at 120,000 watts and leaves the crowd no option but to bounce around, in fact, it's called the pipoca (or popcorn) because that is literally what they look like.
As dawn breaks and the band revs up for one last song, the heavens open, washing us down and releasing a wave of euphoria through the crowd. People hug and dance, others jump and shriek in ecstasy. But all I can do, standing there drenched in beer, sweat and rain, is think "This is the best week of my life."
At any one time during the six days and six nights of carnival in Salvador, it is estimated there are one and a half million people dancing in the streets. This is, by some distance, the biggest party on the planet: a week of abandon so joyous and overwhelming you feel that, whatever else is happening in the world that week, this is the only place to be.
This is not the glitzy-glamour Rio carnival you've seen on television. There's an expression in Brazil, "para as inglês ver" - literally, for the English to watch - which means doing something without really getting involved. It applies to Rio carnival where you have to pay to get in to watch gorgeous, scantily clad mulatas shake their stuff under bright TV lights. It's not even in the street, but in a purpose-built, slightly sterile sambódromo. In Salvador, it's the people in the street that make carnival.
The setting also helps. Built on a peninsula overlooking the Atlantic on one side and the stunning Bahia de Todos os Santos (All Saints Bay) on the other, Salvador is the oldest city in Brazil - its first capital - and the old town, the Pelourinho, has the finest collection of colonial architecture in South America.
As carnival has grown over the last decade, The Pelô, as the locals call it, has become a popular overspill area. The cobbled streets and squares and 17th-century pastel buildings are beautifully decorated and this is the best place to head for traditional (read less noisy) Brazilian music and costumes.
But to get to grips with the sheer scale of events in Salvador you need to be in one of the blocos, or carnival group, for which you will receive a (usually hideous) costume and, with a thousand or so other members, be "roped in" around a trio elétrico by a human chain of bouncers, paid to keep the popcorn hoards at bay. Trust me, you'll be glad you did! You can wonder out into the crowd when you're feeling frisky and slide back into the safety of you're Bloco friends.
Live music is ubiquitous in Salvador, but on top of a trio it becomes an event to behold. The lights, huge balloons as big as a house usually advertising a local beer; and constant movement, even at a snail's pace, creates a magnetic attraction so strong that it's almost impossible not to shuffle along with it. Even when you're walking, you're dancing.
Then is all comes to an end...well kind of.
After Carnaval, Salvador is hung over and a little sad, so the best cure is to escape to a beach. You can do just fine staying in town, visiting the likes of Itapuã or Jaguaribe; or take the bus north along the Linha Verde, the green line, with over 100 miles of wide beaches and dunes. But if you're after a real paradise island experience, then head for the after-party island of Morro de São Paulo, where there are no cars and "wheelbarrow taxis" vie for the business of carrying your bags to your pousada (use 'em, it's worth it!).
Morro de São Paulo is just what the doctor ordered after the bacchanal of Salvador. Beautiful beaches with natural swimming pools, laid back atmosphere during the days, great little places to eat, and yes...awesome parties at night.
The evenings usually start off with a nice dinner in the romantic village set up on the hill, then drinks down on the beach where hundreds of people make their way to the well-lit drink stands that create the most amazing fruit drinks I have ever had, especially after a day of lounging and swimming.
They serve up these refreshing libations with the help of a blender as the crowd mingles, talks, and slowly moves into one of the many night clubs located on the beach. There's usually one big party that everyone goes to, sort of a "last tribute" to carnaval.
Every time I think about my week at Carnaval I get a huge smile on my face.
I'm already gearing up for next year, and this time inviting a few more friends...it's one of those things you just have to experience to appreciate.
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