Trail Of The Unexpected: Carnival in Salvador

Making merry in the capital of Afro-Brazilian culture

I'm wearing a bright yellow vest, shorts and a single flip-flop. As I flail my pasty, naked arms in the air and wiggle my hips in a vague approximation of some South American dance move, I'm still trying to seek out the second Havaiana with my toes. On a balcony about 50 yards away, moving rather more competently to the bass-heavy beat that fills the humid evening air, is a pretty Brazilian girl who appears to be giving me the eye. Or maybe she's looking at the chap pogo-ing next to me. Or one of the other million-or-so blokes on the streets of Salvador de Bahia tonight.

While Rio and Sao Paolo's citizens spend the last week before Lent partying in highly organised and expensive events – and paying for the privilege – the inhabitants of Brazil's third city are tearing it up at the world's biggest street bash. If you think you've been to a carnival because you've been to Notting Hill, try joining a crowd of two million dancing to Norman Cook (aka Fatboy Slim) here in Salvador. Sweaty, sexy and not a little strenuous, carnival is a well-oiled machine masquerading as total chaos.

Salvador, situated on a stunning stretch of coastline about 1,000 miles northeast of Rio, is Brazil's original colonial capital. At its core is around the vibrant 17th- and 18th-century architecture of the old town (also known as Pelourinho). Four out of five of the city's population have African ancestry, making it the hub of Afro-Brazilian culture. In addition, Salvador is home to capoeira, the Brazilian martial art; to acaraje, the bean and shrimp fritters that make for delicious street food; and to a particularly devilish strain of caipirinha cocktails.

The city is the favoured carnival destination for Brazil's youth. A week's worth of long days and late nights in their company might have been overwhelming without an energetic guide who knew the territory; the inexhaustible Claudio of Malungo Tours proved to be just the fellow. Local, lovable and guaranteed to be the last man standing at any party, Claudio appears to know everyone in Salvador. He and his English wife Chris offer a full carnival service, consisting of a room for the week in the centre of Salvador, food at any hour of the day or night, and their help preparing for the myriad festivities – including any necessary costumes.

The parades that make up most of the carnival action comprise many floats, or blocos. They follow three different routes through the city centre. For a small fee, anyone can join a float for a day.

One of the most popular is the all-male Filhos de Gandhy ("Sons of Gandhi") bloco, to which Claudio led his male guests in full Gandhi get-up, beads and all. The bloco was founded by Salvador longshoremen, in Gandhi's honour, after the Indian leader's assassination in 1949. It aims to commemorate his message of peace, though many of its adherents seem more concerned with another tradition: throwing their beads over the head of a female reveller in the crowd obliges the lady to offer them a kiss.

The Male Debale bloco, which involved another colourful costume change the following night, is a big, Afro-Brazilian group that consistently wins the carnival's dancing award. A semi-coordinated Brit wasn't likely to help their cause in sustaining their supremacy, but they were as welcoming as everyone else had been, letting me take part in the simpler dances, then demonstrating some capoiera moves that took the breath away.

If heaving, hedonistic crowds aren't your thing, the carnival experience is still one worth having. While tourists descend in droves on Brazil's major cities for the festival, there are smaller towns with their own versions of the pre-Lent blowout; indeed, many residents of Salvador, Sao Paolo and Rio retreat to lesser-known centres such as Ouro Preto or Diamantina, beautiful former mining communities a few hundred miles south-west of Salvador.

Conversely, those for whom carnival is not crazy enough can move on down the coast at the end of the week to the island of Tinhare. This tropical gem boasts just a handful of roads, four stunning beaches and, in the village of Morro de Sao Paolo, the nightclubs where many of Salvador's hard-party-goers enjoy their "pos-Carnaval".

Dancing wouldn't be a draw without some superb musical acts, and Salvador's carnival regularly attracts a host of Brazil's biggest stars. In 2008, that meant performances from the likes of Gilberto Gil, Seu Jorge and Ivete Sangalo. And among the international acts is the aforementioned Fatboy Slim, who, since playing a free gig to 360,000 people on Flamenco beach in Rio in 2004, has become a carnival regular. Tonight he rolls along the beachfront on a bright yellow bus (to match his bloco members' outfits), retro-fitted with a giant sound system and a pair of record decks out front, above the cab, from where he and his fellow DJ David Guetta can soak up the adoration of the crowd.

If that Brazilian girl really was giving me the eye, it did her no good; the crowd has moved on, and with it her chance of bagging a tan-less Englishman. Tomorrow at noon the festivities will end abruptly and the city will go straight back to work, but right now, I've located the flip-flop for my second left foot, and there's still some serious dancing to do.

Getting there

Tam (020-8897 0005; tam.com.br) flies from Heathrow to Salvador via Sao Paulo. Tap Portugal (0845 601 0932; flytap.com) flies from Heathrow via Lisbon

Getting involved

This year's Salvador carnival begins on Thursday 19 February and ends at midday on Wednesday 25 February. For more information about Malungo Tours, email Claudio at malungotour@hotmail.com

More information

Salvador de Bahia Tourist Office: 00 55 71 3176 4200; salvadordabahia.ba.gov.br

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