Carnaval! This word is a special one, it immediately transports us in a magical place where we imagine ourselves letting go of so much of the social pressure that usually constricts us, where we can go as wild as nature intended and let go of some steam.

In a Latin American context, Carnaval usually means Rio, with Christ wearing a party hat and opening his arms up to give us his blessing for the madness about to go down. Well if you think that the Carnaval is only celebrated in Rio, you couldn’t be more wrong.

(Just) a little background

Carnaval is celebrated all over Latin America. Yes, Brazil gets particularly into it but it is not even in Rio that Carnaval is most important, it is in Salvador (more up north). Outside of Brazil, neighbouring countries such as Uruguay and Paraguay also get pretty into it but really, in February, you’ll find Carnaval celebrations everywhere on the continent.

There is some debate apparently on the origins of Carnaval, whether it was brought by the Christians or an expression of the cultures of local indigenous tribes and the large slave population on the continent. What is for certain however is that celebrations vary and that it has now become more than any one culture’s expression.

Brazil

In Brazil, my experience of Carnival is that it revolves around 2 things: huge street parties/festivals and samba parades.

Samba parades

The different school of a town will compete for the title of the best samba school and the amount of efforts to prepare the parade is simply mindblowing. I am not sure if the rules of the competition are always the same but in Florianopolis, here are the main ones:

  1. You need at least 900 dancers in your parade
  2. Parades last 1h10, anything longer and you start losing points
  3. You need a theme for your whole parade (the winner in 2018 chose the history of… Basil… Yes, the herb. So it can really be anything!)

Here you can find the parade of the winner of the Florianopolis parade 2017.

As far as I saw, you also must have 3 huge parade floats but I’m not sure it is a rule. Anyway, the majority of people in the parade don’t dance much, it’s like any club you’ll find around the world, a few people dance the night away, hips bouncing, arms flying while the majority just shakes their body from one side to the next. One reason for that is the fact some school struggle to get their 900 people and recruit anyone from the community on the day of the parade. So if you are a lucky foreigner with a local contact, you can get into the parade fairly easily and for free. All you will have to do is mimic your comrades and fit into the costume while lip singing on the song created for your school’s parade. Easy!

Street parties

Nothing you haven’t seen at your local street party here. The military police does the security so we have soldiers just like in Europe and alcohol flows generously. The main theme for costumes seem to be for guys to dress like girls and and girls to dress like sexy-whatever (nurse, angel, devil, etc.). The music is different as there are a large quantity of official Carnaval songs that are played over and over but you will also probably hear some Brazilian Funk. Nop, nothing like the Funk you know, forget about James Brown, Tower of Power or the likes, this is electronic music, inappropriate lyrics and an engaging beat. Sounds familiar? Yes, it is a locally-flavoured commercial music.

Uruguay

Now if you are the shy type, the kind that likes juice over beer and watching over doing, you’ll enjoy the Carnaval in Urugay much more. It is more artistic, much more diverse and a lot less inebriated-party intensive. While there are also samba parades (called Desfiles de Tambores), they involve a lot less dancers and a large crowd of enthusiastic drummers, you will find a series of shows available as well. From musical satires about the past year’s events, to dancing competition, singing competitions, there are more than 7 categories I think for artists to compete and offer the public quite a show.

Montevideo, the capital, is where the most activities take place but other cities in the country also celebrate it in a smaller fashion.

Other famous Carnaval destinations

The North of Argentina also offers an apparently famous carnaval in Humahuaca where devils roam the streets, asking people for gift in exchange for good luck in the coming years. In Oruro, Bolivia, the otherwise dull town apparently rises to the occasion and transforms itself in a colorful parade of elaborated costumes with endless festivities. Anywhere you will be on the Latin American continent on a February, there will be an unforgettable Carnaval experience nearby.

Find the Carnaval that suits you

So if you’re dreaming of going to Carnaval or if you always thought this was not something for you, do take the time to look past Rio de Janeiro. Do a little research, figure out your options and go have a great time. It is a very rich cultural experience, you will learn more about the local culture, its mixed origins and how they collided to create the beautiful celebration you are witnessing. Carnaval can be almost anything that you’d like, small or huge, quiet or mad, artistic or alcoholic and so many options in between!