Carnival Salvador – Three Ways to Experience the Greatest Party on Earth

Some samba dancers mid-move on the streets of Pelourinho

Samba dancers mid-move on the streets of Pelourinho.

Travel pro tip (food): When in Brazil you must try the fried cheese sticks with oregano found on the beach (Queijo Assado), churrascaria (all you can eat BBQ), Acai fruit bowls and of course, Caipirinhas (alcoholic beverage with lime, sugar and Cachaça).

I’m honestly lost with what to say about Carnival. How do I describe the absolute chaotic mayhem that consumes Salvador in heated frenzy to people who have not seen it for themselves? Yes, it is a weeklong celebration during the period leading up the Catholic holiday of lent, similar to the celebration in New Orleans. But to be there is to be a part of some dystopian futuristic foreign party in a parallel universe, surrounded by attractive aliens, unknown music and decrepit yet functioning buildings. You’re born naked into the street every night. For your own safety you take nothing but your clothes, your shoes (not sandals!) and some cleverly hidden cash for the moto-taxi, beer and street food. Depending on the night you’ll wander, dance, shake and dodge through one of three circuits (Barra a.k.a. Ondina, Campo Grande a.k.a. Osmar and Pelourinho) in one of three ways.

Pipa

The first of those three ways is to hit the streets as ‘pipa’ , a.k.a., popcorn. As pipa you’re part of the roaming crowd following the blocos. Prepare to be lifted off your feet when the music crescendos, to meet locals, to dodge fights and fend off pick-pocketers. The police walk through the crowd in single file lines of 5 to 10 individuals, and their presence is felt everywhere. If you don’t get out of their way fast enough they will quickly and forcefully remind you that compliance is required. They are necessary and appreciated – carnival would not happen without them.  At times I stood there looking around me at the mass of people peacefully smiling, laughing, dancing and buying beer from the street vendors and I felt that the dangers of Carnival were overemphasized, just as most of the perceived dangers of South America had been overemphasized by people before I left the US. Sure, I saw some fights and yes I felt hands in my (empty) pockets. But I also experienced genuine friendliness and helpfulness by loads of locals. Some people just wanted to chat – broken Portuguese on my side mashed with broken English on their side somehow connects to complete sentences. Some people would guide us through the crowd, watching ahead, keeping us safely out of the way of fights all while showing us the best blocos to follow. But truthfully, and many other travelers I met agreed, we felt safer and more welcome than expected. My favorite way to party in Salvador was to be part of the pipa.

Blocos

If you prefer to stay out of the free pipa the second way to participate is to join a bloco. You’ll still be side by side with the pipa, however, as part of a ‘bloco’ you are separated from the pipa by a knotted rope carried by bloco workers. In a way you are more limited than the Pipa, as you don’t really move from bloco to bloco, you are stuck following one “Trio Electrico”, which is a semi truck trailer draped in speakers pumping out 100,000 watts of sound. You’ll pay a lot for this privilege – it costs anywhere from $80 to $500 (USD) for an Abadá to a bloco. The Abadá is your ticket and it’s also a T-shirt. So everyone that’s part of your bloco is very recognizable, they are all wearing the same shirt. The main benefit of the bloco is that for very popular bands it may be impossible to keep up with the bloco from the sidelines as pipa. The amount of people on the streets is overwhelming and sometimes movement grinds to a standstill as the streets bottleneck at certain points. Good luck trying to follow one of the more popular bands from outside the bloco as one million other aggressive Brazilians try to do the same. I didn’t participate in a bloco for a few reasons; I didn’t know any particular artists well enough to justify the high ticket cost, I really enjoyed being out in the pipa and if I was going to buy a ticket I figured I’d spend it on the ultimate experience – the camarotes.

Camarotes (Pronounced Kam-a-roach-y)

The third and by far the most luxurious way to experience Carnival is from one of the massive roadside camarotes. Camarotes are (mostly) temporary structures built along the parade route that allow revelers to view the bloco and pipa from above. But they are not only viewing platforms, most of them have clubs with air conditioning, free drinks, food and clean restroom facilities (a serious luxury out there).  Similar to blocos your t-shirt is your ticket and you’ll pay between $200 and $700 USD for one night. From the camarote you can safely watch all of the blocos pass by just outside the structure, and if you go to one of the more popular camarotes, most blocos will stop just outside and perform a set of songs. Since the artists performing in a bloco is located on top of the Trio Electrico semi truck, its as if they are performing on a raised moving stage. This stage just happens to be at the same level as the bloco viewing platform so you get a really good look at the performance.

This is by far the most expensive party I have ever been to but it truly is like nothing else on Earth, and there are tricks to help cut cost which I’ll describe in a below.

Hitting the Black market for your Camarote or Bloco T-shirt

As you can imagine, considering this is South America and these shirts are worth what some people make in a month here, there is a thriving black market for them. When we first arrived at the hostel and started getting to know each other most other travellers agreed that we would simply buy our camarote ticket through the hostel – let them deal with waiting in line and we would pay their mark up for the convenience.  However, after shelling out nearly $250 for a one night party we (typical cheap travellers) decided we’d give the black market a shot if we were going to go to a second camarote. When you think black market you think dark, rainy alley, unmarked door, knock three times, pause, knock again. A metal plate slides open and you ask “I’d like to speak with William”. A large man leads you down a hall to another door, behind which a poker game is underway. On one table, guns, on another, stacks of drugs. You’re nervous because all you want is a t-shirt.

Well don’t be nervous because this black market is different. It’s more like a sunny, open air, color explosion market where you can grab a refreshing ice cold water and hit the ATM if necessary. It’s actually right next to Shopping Barra, one of the largest malls in Salvador, just on the side streets around the mall. We decided to go to the most legit looking dealer – they actually had a car they were dealing out of, they spoke English and they accept credit cards. We made the decision to buy tickets to the same camarote that we had already gone to, as we know what the t-shirt and ticket stub should look like. So we felt confident we wouldn’t be buying a complete knock-off. After a bit of trouble with the ATMs the group of seventeen of us walked out of the market with a backpack full of t-shirts worth $3000 USD, in black market prices. We made it home unscathed and got into the camarote without a second glance from the bouncers.

Considering we got nearly 40% off the original sticker price by giving the black market a shot, I would definitely recommend this option to the adventurous budget traveller. Just go with a group and shop around – look at different shirts, compare quality, and make sure the paper ticket is included.

For more in depth Salvador Carnival info visit  http://www.salvadorcarnivalguide.com. They have show times and pricing charts available.

Update: I’m currently living the island lifestyle in Morro De Sao Paulo, Brazil. It’s a small island 2 hours by boat from Salvador where many Brazilian go to deal with the ressaca (hangover) from carnival. It’s a nice little island with warm water and no surf. On Thursday I’ll be heading back to Panama to see some things I missed, do some surfing and relax. I’ll be back in the states in the beginning of April.

  • Mary Spallino

    Hi Brandon~ interesting reading~ thanks for the update. It looks like Jeremy Field is in Panama right now~according to a FB post. Hope you continue to have a great time!
    Love you Nephew~
    A. Mary

  • uncle will

    Nice job Brandon…keep “truckin, like do-dah band”!

  • Auntie

    Brandon, Gary and I so enjoy reading about your travels and are sorry they are coming to an end in April!! We are going to be in Panama the last two weeks in March. Will you be there then?

    • Brandon

      Yeah most likely I will be. Possibly going to go into Costa Rica for a bit but mostly I’ll be in the Western part of Panama. Whats your plan?

  • Aunt Vi

    Sounds like you are still having way too much fun. Enjoy it my friend, April will be here soon enough…Love and miss you mija.

    • Aunt Vi

      Mijo-sorry

  • dad

    brandon
    i commented on your pictures of you and paul and friends
    i didnt see any pictures of carnival tho dad
    sounds like the party town wish i was young again

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