Carnival: Brazil and Beyond

Carnival: Brazil and Beyond

January 21, 2011

Christmas is over,  the New Year’s confetti has been swept up, and the January doldrums threaten to take over.  Don’t despair – the biggest party of the year beckons.  Yes, soon it will be Carnival time, and as the Al Johnson song says, “it’s Carnival time and everybody’s havin’ fun!”

Carnival is the world’s biggest party.  It takes place in the week (or weeks – heck, why limit it to just 7 days?) leading up to the start of Lent.  Lent begins on March 9 this year, so in many cities the the first week of March will be filled with parades, masked balls, music, dancing, and revelry.

The most famous Carnival in the world is no doubt that of Rio de Janeiro.  If you are interested in samba, this is the Carnival to attend.  The city’s top-notch samba clubs compete for honors, each trying to outdo the others, in the specially-built Sambadrome.  The main parades on Sunday and Monday nights last all night, literally.  This party is not for the faint of heart, but is a once-in-a-lifetime extravaganza.  If you go, definitely do one night of Samba madness at the Sambadrome.  It’s a mind-blowing swirl of color, music, and dance, all executed with absolute precision and absolute frenzy.

The celebration further north in Salvador de Bahia is less famous in the United States, but in Brazil is known as the largest outdoor party in the world.  Here the sound is African, with reggae and axé replacing the samba of Rio.  There are still huge parades with scores of costumed dancers, but the emphasis is more on music.  Stages are set up all over the central portion of the town, and huge trucks loaded with some of Brazil’s top performers  troll the streets, blasting out music.

If those are too big and crazy for you, try going to some of the smaller towns in Brazil.  Carnival is a nation-wide happening, and even the smallest town will have a parade, music, dancing, and parties.

If Brazil is just too far away, a much closer celebration occurs in Veracruz, Mexico.  This is Mexico’s largest Carnival, and one of the largest in the world as well.  Over 3 million people throng the streets to see parades, listen to music, and dance all night.  The beat in Veracruz is likely to be cumbias, or marimba music, or the local specialty known as danzón.    While this name may not ring a bell, you probably know one very famous danzón piece – La Bamba.

The other sound you are likely to hear is explosions.  Mexico’s Carnival celebrations usually include paper-maché dummies of ill spirits (unpopular politicians are always big), being burned in effigy.  Often a little gunpowder is placed inside, for a satisfying explosion as it burns.

Other parts of Mexico also celebrate, but not with the wild abandon of Veracruz.  Merida, for example, has parades, but they are very much family oriented and don’t feature the mad street party found in Veracruz.

Virtually every country in Latin America celebrates Carnival to some extent.  In Venezuela, it’s a public holiday.  Schools close (usually after Carnival parties on Thursday or Friday), and people decamp for the beach.  Those left in town get wet too – water balloons and water guns are a favorite way of celebrating.  Prepare to get soaked!    In Ecuador, both water balloons and burning effigies are popular (kind of an all-around celebration).

Wherever you are for Carnival, prepare to have a great time but don’t lose your head doing it.  Make use of your hotel’s safe and leave all your valuables behind.  Only take with you what you can afford to spend, or lose – theft happens in those crowds.  Remember that alcohol clouds your judgement.  Carnival celebrations are a really good place to use the buddy system – find a fellow traveler, and keep tabs on each other.  It doesn’t have to be oppressive, but it’s good to know that someone else knows you are there, and can offer a second opinion on situations.  And you can help each other stumble home at dawn, barely able to walk after your crazed night of dancing and revelry.  It’s Carnival time, and everybody’s havin’ fun!


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