A performer at the Sambadrome last month / AP

Expectant mothers are right to stay away but the risk to other travellers remains proportionately low

I can still taste the caipirinhas. It’s a week since I returned from the world’s biggest party, a five-day marathon of music, dance and potent cocktails on the streets and beaches of Rio de Janeiro. Its annual carnival was everything I expected it to be – a raucous a city-wide celebration of life, love and samba with lashings of feathers, glitter and sequins. But scaremongers would have you believe that this year’s event was uncharacteristically subdued, overshadowed by the threat of the Aedes aegypti mosquito and the Zika virus. 

Zika may be causing panic across Latin America but you wouldn’t have known it in Copacabana, where 30,000 bronzed beauties paraded down Avenida Atlantica at 10am on a Saturday morning. Hips were shaking, horns were blaring and there wasn’t a whiff of Deet in the air.  

In fact, the only passing reference to the crisis I noticed was a fellow reveller dressed as a mosquito, a move encouraged by charities to raise awareness. I, meanwhile, opted for a purple sparkly skirt. Well, when in Rio ...

Events were decidedly more serious in the weeks prior to carnival. Heavily criticised for its sluggish, lacklustre reaction, the government of Brazil, which could lose up to £5bn in tourism revenue, swooped into action. “We won the war against yellow fever and we’re going to win the war against Zika,” declared President Dilma Rousseff. And the open-air, 90,000 capacity Sambadrome, where the city’s big samba schools battle it out to be crowned the carnival victor, was swiftly fumigated. Even the military was drafted in, with 200,000 troops deployed to do battle with Zika by handing out  leaflets on the “crisis”, complete with its own hashtag (#ZikaZero).

Brazil declares war on Zika virus

With the virus being blamed for a spike in microcephaly in unborn babies, the World Health Organization has advised pregnant women against travel to the region. Expectant mothers are right to stay away but the risk to other travellers remains proportionately low. 

That doesn’t stop people worrying, though. My friend and carnival companion, Rebecca, called me days before our departure in a state of mild panic. Was it safe for her to go? However, once we were on the ground, in the hills of arty Santa Teresa and on the shores of Ipanema, where the samba played loudly and the caipirinhas flowed freely, Zika was not even a distant concern. 

Carnival has ended for another year but just like the cachaca-fuelled hangovers, a big question lingers. Is the party over for the world’s most fun-loving nation? Over sundowners on Copacabana Beach, I talked to British expatriate journalist Beth McLoughlin. Dressed as Wonder Woman and clutching a caipirinha, she spoke candidly. “Zika could not have come at a worse time. Olympic ticket sales are slow and the country is in the middle of a recession, but carnival proves that no matter the chaos, Brazilians know how to throw a party.”

Indeed, and as another big occasion looms, cariocas will welcome the sporting elite to the “Marvellous City” in just a few months’ time.