When it comes to Carnival in Brazil, Rio de Janeiro is the place to be. Or is it? In fact, there are other popular alternatives like Salvador – the country’s third biggest city. Yet, many prefer the much smaller UNESCO World Heritage Site city of Olinda. Here is why.
I was somewhat disappointed to learn that the highlight of Rio de Janeiro Carnival (Carnaval in Portuguese) was more like a show you watched from the stands, and that you could not parade down the street dancing to the intoxicating Brazilian music alongside the spectacular-looking performers and euphoric crowd.
Then I heard about Carnival in Olinda, which sounded more like how I had imagined Brazilian Carnival to be. It was ‘authentic’, ‘local’, but most importantly, it was a festival put on ‘by people’ and not just for people to watch, which meant I could join in and really experience the Carnival spirit.
Olinda is situated in the Pernambuco state, northeast of Brazil. This pretty, relatively small city was inscribed on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site list in 1982. Its narrow hilly cobblestone streets give it the quaint mountain village feel, in complete contrast to the neighbouring modern city of Recife, the capital of Pernambuco.
You have a nice view of the ‘village’ and Recife, from its highest point on Rua Bispo Coutinho (Bispo Coutinho street).
The days were sizzling and cold beers were flowing. This was one unique experience I was not going to forget in a lifetime.
Everyday before lunch time streets filled up with people, turning the city into one giant party but with each street retaining its own flavour.
Walking down some streets like Rua do Bonfim and Rua Bernardo Vieira de Melo, was a pure adrenalin rush; tightly squeezed in between sweaty bodies that had formed lines to get through human waves being heaved and heaving.
Carnival highlights in Olinda:
- A series of parades by blocos (‘blocks’ of bands/performers) down Avenida Sigismundo Gonçalves (Sigismundo Gonçalves avenue), each followed by an energetic crowd dancing to the cheery rhythm of drums and horns.
- A parade one day for hundreds to show off the most creative and hilarious costumes I have ever seen – Do not miss it. Even better, see if you can outdo some of them!
- Walking up and down streets bursting with people is probably the most popular and fun activity at the Carnival.
Another great advantage of Olinda as your Carnival destination is the fact that Recife is only a short taxi ride away (or 25 minutes by bus), where you can experience big city Carnival parades, shows and atmosphere. The events are free (like in Olinda) and jam-packed Carnival program is readily available so you can plan your days and nights ahead.
Carnival highlights in Recife (Get there early):
- Desfile do Galo da Madrugada (Parade of the Rooster of the Early Hour) is said to be one of the biggest carnival parades in the world.
- Noite dos Tambores Silenciosos (Night of the Silent Drums)
- Free outdoor concerts in Recife Antigo
The culture in the north of Brazil is different from that of the south. It has more African influence, different style of food and music, and is more laid back. Throw in some warm climate to the mix, and you have the makings of one exciting Carnival.
Tips and Warnings
Do not take anything with you when you go out into busy streets – other than the clothes you have on, some money you can afford to lose and a photocopy of your ID.
You can expect accommodation (pousadas) to get fully booked out before Carnival, popular hotels weeks before. However, you can still find a place to stay even at the peak of Carnival if you are desperate to be there. Look for ‘Aluga-se’ signs put up by locals offering rooms in their houses (or the entire house). You will also quickly catch the eyes of those wanting to find you accommodation on your behalf when you walk around with your backpack.
I was pleased to see only one serious incident during the entire Carnival despite all the alcohol consumed, and all credit to the fun-loving people of Brazil. But there is always the potential for something to go horribly wrong in an instant so please be on the safe side.
There are also plenty of non-alcohol related concerns and opportunists who target tourists and those with their guards down during Carnival.
I was warned by some locals about some streets just outside the usual tourist area, especially at night.
Related post: Salvador, Brazil