Why Salvador is the new Rio Carnival
If you’ve ever taken the time to write a bucket list – even if it’s just in your head – it’s pretty likely that Rio Carnival will be on there somewhere. There’s something about the idea of being part of the world’s biggest street party that gets people’s imaginations fired up.
When my boyfriend and I were in Rio in 2010, we made a bold decision to spend carnival in Salvador in the north of Brazil, rather than in Rio. There was a great buzz about Rio, but after talking to some friendly locals (Brazilians love a good chat), they suggested that if we were after a younger, more energetic vibe, then Salvador was the place to be. So off we went.
Carnival arrived in Salvador with a crash. It was unbearably hot. Mobile caipriñha stalls lined the streets making potent cocktails for a bargain price. Clouds of barbecue smoke blocked our view, leaving us to trip over cool boxes of the beer sellers who sat along the roadside. It was an assault on all the senses. In a very good way.
As part of the Bahia region, Salvador has a noticeably African feel. The people are dark-skinned, their music is rhythmic and slightly menacing. It’s a world apart from Rio. Bahia pop music is an infectious mix of powerful, fast vocals over samba beats with leather-clad ladies being teen icons. Over two million people flood into the streets and dance behind enormous electronic trucks clutching icy cans of Nova Schin beer. I’ve never seen so many people happily crammed together jumping about – known as being pipoca meaning ‘popcorn’.
I’d met a lovely English couple in Rio who decided to stay there for carnival while I went north. When we met up a few weeks later, we compared carnival tales. They told me that when it came to finding somewhere to stay, Rio de Janeiro’s best local apartments were booked up way in advance, so they bunked down in a hostel in Ipanema. When I asked them about the electro trucks and street dancing they looked at me like I was an idiot. In Rio you buy tickets for the grandstand outside of the city and sit for hours while colourful processions of dancers troupe past. They were a bit embarrassed to admit that they actually got a bit bored. No such thing in Salvador.
They were out drinking in Rio when they met a guy called Nico who owned one of the flats in the hot spots of Rio de Janeiro. Seeing as they were paying over the odds for a crappy hostel, maybe they wanted to stay with him for a week? He totally made carnival for them by showing them the secrets of the city.
Despite my envy at them having a private guide, I wouldn’t have swapped carnival in Salvador for anything. There’s much more to the Brazilian carnival than the guidebooks would have you believe.