Discard your notions of Mardi Gras celebrations when you travel to South America during Carnival season. Each Carnival celebration is distinct, a mixture of pre-Lenten festivities and local cultural traditions. Rio Carnival is by far the most popular Carnival festival in South America but there are plenty of other lively Carnival celebrations in South America.
Carnival: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Rio Carnival takes place every late February or early March. The Rio Carnival festival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is one of the rowdiest, most colorful, and most festive celebration you’ll find anywhere. Known as the World’s Largest Party, Rio Carnival is an elaborate music and dance-filled bacchanalia that go on for several days. For months leading up to the event, groups of dancers and musicians called “Samba Schools” begin practicing their routines for the Carnival Parade. During Carnival week, the samba schools compete in the Sambadromo, a stadium in the center of the city that was built specifically for the purpose of the Carnival parades. At the end of the week, the winning samba schools are welcomed back to the Sambadromo to perform in the Champion’s Parade, an exciting moment where the best of the best strut their stuff.
For those who want to make the most of their Rio Carnival tour, it’s possible to participate in the Rio Carnival parade: you can wear a costume and parade with a samba school like a real Brazilian. Another way to go behind the scenes during Rio Carnival is to take a tour of the Sambadromo beforehand. There’s a museum within the stadium that showcases memorabilia, costumes, and photos from previous Rio Carnival festivals.
Throughout the Carnival week, other parties and celebrations continue in the city. House parties, beach parties, and sidewalk parties are seemingly ubiquitous and continue throughout the night. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a single restaurant, hotel, or other business that doesn’t participate in Rio Carnival celebrations. Rio hotels and Sambadromo tickets are often booked months in advance, so those considering a Rio Carnival tour should start making their Rio Carnival 2012 plans now.
Read our previous blog post on How to Find Last-Minute Vacation Packages to Rio Carnival.
Carnival: Cajamarca, Peru
Cajamarca, in the northern mountains of Peru, is well-known for its old-world colonial charm, but during the Carnival season in late February and early March, Cajamarca turns into a colorful and lively fiesta that rivals that of Lima’s. Brightly-costumed dancers parade around King Momo, the King of Carnival, to the light-hearted cumbe-cumbe and coplas music typical of Cajamarca. Revelers imbibe in chicha, a corn-fermented beer, throughout the week. In the evening, dancers venture out in masks and clown costumes. Face-painting, balloons, and floats decorate the Plaza de Armas. Often, paraders and unsuspecting passerby alike find themselves the victims of water fights, a traditional Carnival pastime found throughout Peru.
Like Rio Carnival, the Cajamarca Carnival thrives on friendly competition from the barrios, or neighborhoods, of the city. Carnival troupes prepare throughout the year for their chance to shine during Carnival. The neighborhoods don’t compete in samba parades, however; instead, they showcase their best wares, such as wine, hydrangeas, sweets called “cherimoyas,” or apple custard, and fine hand-crafted guitars. Carnival queens from the barrios also participate in a pageant to find the chica who best represents the beauty of Cajamarca. One of the most traditional Cajamarca Peru Carnival events is called palos cilulos, a game similar to the piñata, in which participants try to chop down a yunza tree that’s filled with gifts and balloons.
At the end of Carnival week, the King of the Carnival parades into town singing traditional songs, and then the locals symbolically bury the king. Some come dressed in mourning to the Baños del Inca, where the king is buried, to listen to his will and testament, and participate in a morbid satire that is as elaborate as it is hilarious.
Check out our Northern Peru Tour to Cajamarca, Trujillo, and Chiclayo.
Carnival: Oruro, Bolivia
Located near Lake Uru Uru and southwest of Cochabamba, the highland mining town of Ororu is a popular destination for Bolivia Carnival party-goers. Legend has it that the distinctive traditions of the present-day Oruro Carnival has its roots in ancient Andean history. Pachamama, Mother Earth, and other deities were celebrated in a festival called the Ito, which the Spanish tried to quell, so the festival became a thinly-veiled Christian holiday known now as the Carnival of Oruro. Since then, its taken on more layers of religious and pagan meaning, so much so that UNESCO declared the spectacle a “Masterpiece of Oral Heritage and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” in 2001.
The Oruro Carnival kicks off with dedication to the Virgen del Socavon, Virgin of the Mineshaft, which commemorates the 18th century event when a silver mine was discovered in Oruro. Thousands of folk dancers troupe around the city, passing landmarks and finishing at the Tunnel of the Virgin. During the parade, Christian stories and morality plays are re-enacted, a tradition that has continued since the early 1800s. One of these plays tells the tale of the triumph of good and evil. Dancers perform a Diablada, a spectacularly costumed Dance of the Devils.
Other dance styles include the Morenada, Tobas, Caporales, Incas, Negritos, Tinku, Cullaguada, Llamerada, Pujllay, Doctorcitos, Potolos, Tarqueada, Autoctono, Estilizada, Kallawayas, Kantus, and Wititis — all of which have their own folkloric traditions in the history of Bolivia.
Carnival: São Paulo
The São Paulo Brazil Carnival is similar to the Rio Carnival in that a stadium performance of samba schools is the main attraction. The São Paulo Sambadromo of Anhembi holds festivities on the Friday and Saturday night of Carnival Week, just before the Rio Carnival parade begins. Huge floats decorated according to a certain theme are the centerpieces for each samba school. The samba school Unidos de Vila Maria chose the theme of the Centennial of Japanese immigration to Brazil to represent their parade during the 2008 São Paulo Brazil Carnival. A few of the samba schools, called afoxes, are distinctly Afro-Brazilian in theme.
Masked balls and blocos, open-air parties and street parades, are common throughout the city. Avenida Paulista and Vai Quem Quer are the most famous of the blocos. Concerts with major names such as United Peruche and Nene da Vila Matilde will perform at the São Paulo Brazil Carnival 2012.
Carnival in São Paulo is an excellent option for revelers who want to experience a Brazil Carnival, but aren’t willing to pay the high prices found in Rio de Janeiro during Carnival season. São Paulo Carnival is also less rowdy and raucous than Rio Carnival, although it is still a thrilling show full of Brazilian samba sights and sounds where tens of thousands of fans gather to celebrate Carnival in style.
Check out our Tango, Samba, and Rio Carnival tour package!