Born and bred in Brazil, Salvador’s carnival – the biggest street party in the world – is a massive extravaganza of bahian rhythms, colours, heat and non-stop partying
Welcome to a city which pulsates with energy: Salvador is a veritable Brazilian melting pot, a tropical Northeastern metropolis where more than 80% of the population have African descendency. Located on All Saints’ Bay, in the state of Bahia, it’s one of those beautiful spots where you can watch the sun rise over the sea at dawn and then set behind the city at dusk, sending the whole place into an orange blaze. Heaving with colour, rhythm, heat and natural beauty, Salvador is a city which can leave any visitor breathless.
And it is here, in this wonderful city, that the largest street party in the world takes place, as stated in the Guinness Book of Records. According to Salvador’s local council, more than two million revellers, including Bahians, Brazilians and tourists from all over the world, take to the streets during six days of partying. You can pay to join the blocos (groups of musicians leading a processions down the street), the trios elétricos (lorries equipped with sound systems, musicians and dancers), or the camarotes (stands from where you can watch carnival go by), but if you really want to get into the swing of it – and avoid spending a small fortune on tickets and the mandatory fancy dress – you can just get down with the crowds in what is known as the “popcorn”.
Whichever way you decide to spend your carnival in Salvador, one thing’s for sure: you won’t ever forget those long days of partying, rhythms, happiness and excess. The Ash-Thursday hangover, complete with aching legs from long nights dancing, and ringing ear drums, is part and parcel of the experience – even for those who stick to mineral water. Complete and utter exhaustion is the best way of explaining post-carnival Salvador syndrome. But the memories and feeling of satisfaction that accompany it, make it all worthwhile.
Something for all tastes | Axé music, a typically Bahian sound
which mixes reggae, samba, frevo and maracatu is the star of carnival in Salvador, but it’s not the only thing you’ll hear. Traditional afoxé, percussion, forró, rock bands and electronic music are all options if you’re not really up for axé successes like Chiclete com Banana, Banda Eva, Asa de Águia, Ivete Sangalo and Claudia Leite.
Today there are three carnival circuits in Salvador. The oldest is the Osmar (in Campo Grande) which begins at 10am on the Sunday, and runs 6km through the city centre. Then there’s the Dodô, which starts at the Barra lighthouse and goes up to Ondina, following 4km of beach which is where the crowds are at their wildest. Unlike Osmar, Dodô begins at 4pm, and sunrise is the peak of the party, when the last trios to come down the avenue coincide with the first rays of sun on the beach.
One alternative to the main avenues – and a good choice for the kids – is the Batatinha, a haven for the Afro and Afoxé blocos who bring to life the old-fashioned carnival experience. It’s concentrated in the Pelourinho, the postcard-perfect heart of Salvador’s historical centre, which has been restored to its former beauty and declared a World Heritage Site.
If you want to find out more about Afro-Brazilian traditions, you can actually participate in the afoxés, whose carnival performances mix religiosity and festivities with the traditions of candomblé (a religion originating in Africa and practiced in Brazil). The biggest afoxé bloco, or group, in Salvador is the all-men’s Filhos de Gandhy, which celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2009. Founded by the stevedores of Salvador’s port, and inspired by the principles of peace preached by Mahatma Gandhi, they are easily identified by their blue and white clothes, turbans and long necklaces, and the plastic vials of cologne they carry, to spray on the crowds – often demanding kisses!
The ticket to a trio elétrico is an abadá: t-shirts or patterned cloth for your fancy dress, sold all year long from Ash-Thursday of the previous year so that people can bag their places early on! Brazilian tourists generally tend to go for the more famous blocos, like Nana Banana (including groups like Timbalada and Chiclete com Banana), Coruja (Ivete Sangalo), and Crocodilo (Daniela Mercury). In contrast, foreign tourists seem to go for more traditional groups like Ilê Aiyé and Filhos de Gandhy.
Then there’s the option of seeing the trios and blocos go past, from the comfort of a camarote stand. As well as a privileged view of the avenue, there are lounges with sofas and armchairs, massages and beauty parlours on offer, air conditioning and an open bar (the most expensive tickets will get you food and drink all night). The most popular camarotes are on the Barra-Ondina circuit, and include Salvador 2010, Camarote do Reino, Oceania, Ondina and Monte Pascoal. Entry to the camarotes and blocos varies from R$80 (around £30) to R$800 (£300) per day, depending on which one, and the day.
How to wind it down | Because it’s a popular destination for tourists, Salvador has a good choice of accommodation for all tastes and budgets, from hostels to luxury hotels. If you’re only going for the week of carnival, you’ll want somewhere comfortable to relax, where there’s a good breakfast on offer. The most important factor to consider is location, with millions of thousands of tourists in the streets and heavy traffic on top of the carnival routes taking up the main roads through the city.
Most visitors tend to go for the Dodô Circuit, and if that’s your case then you should look for somewhere to stay in Barra, Ondina, or Rio Vermelho. You can often find apartments, rooms or even houses to rent in these areas, a good idea if you’re in a group.
The other thing you shouldn’t miss out on is trying the Bahian cuisine: and top of this list is acarajé, a snack made from beans, fried in palm nut oil and filled with a paste called vatapá, and prawns and salad. Beware – when you order yours, the Baiana making it will ask you if you want it hot or cold, but she’s not talking about the temperature, she’s talking Bahian chilli – which are fiery and strong. Just like Salvador. And unforgettable, too. JD
By Kátia Pensa Barelli