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Known as the Mardi-Gras of the southern hemisphere, Carnival Brazil is an opportunity to let loose and get dressed in flamboyant costumes with lots of singing, dancing and partying. It’s a week-long party festival held in Brazil each year – usually in February or March – and 40 days before Easter to mark the beginning of lent. Celebrations are held right across the country, but more popular destinations include the city of Rio de Janeiro, Bahia and Pernambuco. But before you get on your dancing shoes, let’s take a look at how Carnival began and what it’s like today.

Rio Carnival dancers

Image: Nicolas de Camaret

1. Originally, Carnival was a food festival because it was the last time you could eat before the 40 days of lent. Legend has it the world ‘Carnivale’ came from the Latin expression ‘carne vale’ which translates to no meat.

2. African influence is very evident in the Carnival we see today. Carnival dates back to the 1600s when Brazil became a colony of Portugal and African slave trade was present. Carnival adapted tribal practices where people paraded around the village to ward off bad spirits in crazy costumes and tribal masks – commonly used in celebrations today.


Rio Carnival float

Image: Nicolas de Camaret

3. The African slave trade that came to Brazil brought with them their culture and love for music. Slaves who originated from Angola and West Africa started to share their love for Samba with the locals. FYI – Samba is a lively, rhythmical dance that requires fast foot work with lots of rapid steps accompanied by swaying and rocking motions.

4. Carnival begins on a Friday with the Mayor of Rio handing over the city’s keys to King Momo – a mythical figure who is said to lead the festivities.  King Momo’s job is to keep an eye on everyone and make sure you’re in a party mood. If you dance, the King will dance too!

Rio Carnival parade

Image: Nicolas de Camaret

5. The origins of Carnival are very much about the concept of pretending. Pretending to be someone else or something else sees social conventions being turned upside down. From poor people wearing expensive costumes and men wearing women’s clothing – pretty much anything goes!

6. Today Carnival takes place in streets, bars and nightclubs with hundreds of bands, singers and orchestras to entertain party-goers with samba music. The festival has evolved over time with the addition of masquerade balls and big street parades with large groups of people playing music and dancing.

Rio Carnival

Image: Nicolas de Camaret

7. The Samba parade – a highlight of the Carnival celebration – is a fierce competition of more than 200 Samba schools in Brazil. Each school is judged by their elaborate floats, costumes, dancing and music – with some schools forking out more than $3 million on outfits and preparations. The city’s poorest residents, often from the slums, typically make up the majority of the schools.

8. It’s the largest festival in the world attracting around 1.1 million people with more than 5.3 million people taking part in street parties. And if you don’t believe us, the annual carnival even made the Guinness World Records!

Rio Carnival float

Image: Ben Tavener

9. Brazil is not the only place that celebrates Carnival. Streets are packed throughout the Caribbean including Barbados, Jamaica and Cuba, and even in large cities like Canada and the US – where Caribbean people have settled including Brooklyn, Miami and Toronto. While the parade is not as extravagant as Brazil, it’s a great opportunity to embrace the culture and escape to a fantasy land.

10. Think plenty of beer! Thousands of gallons of beer are drunk during Carnival, but it’s got authorities clamping down on those who urinate on the streets.  So avoid the fine and use one of the 25,000 portable toilets available.

If you want to get your Samba on, then head to this year’s Carnival with celebrations kicking off from Friday 24 February. Have the time of your life and be sure to have a dance with King Momo – there’s no doubt he’ll be keeping an eye on you.


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