The Best Brazilian Festivals
They're cheaper, less touristy and far away from Rio: from Bahia to to Recife, Alex Robinson gives a breakdown of the best Brazilian festivals.
Festo do Bonfim in Salvador (Jan)
Salvador in Brazil’s balmy beach state of Bahia is one of Latin America’s most memorable cities. Brazil's spectacular first capital bristles with baroque buildings, its pearly beaches are bathed in a balmy Atlantic breeze, and nowhere in the new world has richer or more vibrant African-American culture. The spectacular martial art dance of capoeira is played here daily – on cobbled streets and in crumbling Portuguese forts, the saints of the spirit religion of candomblé are invoked nightly in temples or terreiros in the busy back streets of the city, and the city has given the world samba, the rhythms of bossa nova and batucada and the tropicália music of Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso.
Bahia’s most colourful and traditional festival is held in January and sees thousands of Bahians in traditional Yoruba costumes parade some 8 km from the towering beachside Church of Conceição da Praia to Bonfim, perched on a promontory overlooking the glittering Bay of All Saints. Hundreds of Bahian women stop here to wash the steps of one of Brazil’s most striking baroque churches, before joining thousands gathered on the surrounding beaches for an all-night festival which celebrates the saints of Catholicism and their candomblé counterparts.
Carnival in Recife (Feb - Mar)
Brazil is famous for Carnival – a week of raucous revelry immediately preceding Lent. Many people associate the festival with Rio. But carnival takes place all over Brazil, and there’s nowhere better to experience it than in the twin colonial cities of Recife and Olinda in the country's perpetually sunny, and beach-lined North East.
In carnival week, millions throng
in the cobbled streets of Olinda to dance frenetically to frevo – Brazil’s most
feverish carnival beat. And they crowd into the baroque city squares of Recife
to feel the visceral pounding of the huge maracatú drum orchestras. And they party
from dusk to dawn and then to dusk again in both cities, barely sleeping for a
There are colourful processions too. In Recife carnival officially opens with the huge Cock of the Dawn parade (Galo da Madrugada) which is said by locals to be the largest street gathering in the world. And in Olinda myriad partiers weave and dance in the tiny streets around thronging trains of giant mamelcuo puppets and roving frevo orchestras.
Unlike in Rio and Salvador, all the activities are free, so
it's easy to decide what to do along the way, taking time out for tiredness or
going the whole week in one long adrenaline rush.
The Festas Juninas in Campina Grande and Caruaru (June)
Carnaval is essentially an urban, black Brazilian celebration. The Festas Juninas, which take place throughout Brazil during June, are rural. While carnival pounds to samba, the Juninas pulsate to the triangle and accordion of another infectious dance - forró. And rather than wearing feathers and sequins, Juninas revellers dress up as peasants - in tartan shirts and reed hats; and they eat canjica (porridge) and drink quentão, a Brazilian version of mulled wine. And they do it in enormous numbers.
During the most important weekend of the festivals – the eve of St John’s Day on 23rd of June – over one million people descend on the little back land towns of Campina Grande in Paraíba state and Caruaru in neighbouring Pernambuco. Both are entirely taken over by forró bands, cowboys, stalls selling country produce, and the percussive crack of fireworks and bangers. Foreign visitors are still a rare curiosity, and they are inevitably whisked off by curious Brazilians and expected to dance all night.
Bumba Meu Boi in São Luís, Maranhão (June- July)
The Amazon, Africa and Europe meet in São Luís. This stunning
colonial city was founded by the French, conquered by the Portuguese and
colonised by their descendants – born of hundreds of thousands of indigenous
Brazilian and African slaves who worked the sugar plantations.
This city’s culture is utterly unique, and it bursts into brilliant life in June and July, during the Bumba Meu Boi festivals - some of the best Brazilian festivals in the year. For the entire month, São Luís throngs with Brazilian partiers. Dancers swirl through the streets to the rhythms of Cacuriá and Tambour de Crioula - frenetic, spicy rhythms unique not just to Brazil, but to Maranhão state itself.
Thousands more gather in the city squares to watch the Bumba Meu Boi pageant itself. On a vast stage, performers in feather headdresses and tiny flowery bikinis, jostle with old men wearing horse costumes, clowns in gruesome masks and grass dresses. Together they re-enact the story of Mãe Catarina and Pai Francisco – peasants who, with the help of an African-Brazilian witch doctor, a shaman and a Catholic priest, resurrected a bull stolen from their landowner master, and then slaughtered and eaten.
The Best Brazilian Festivals was written by Alex Robinson, author of the Brazil Handbook; the Bahia & Salvador, São Paulo, Recife & Northeast Brazil and Rio de Janeiro Focus Guides; and London & the Southeast with Kids.
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