The vibrant colours of carnival are amongst the most iconic images of Brazil. Pictures abound of extravagantly costumed samba dancers working their way through the streets of Rio, and visiting the city for carnival is becoming an increasingly popular stop on the well-worn trail for adventurous travellers.
But with popularity comes commercialism and as the crowds descend on Copacabana Beach, those in the know are heading to lesser-known corners of Brazil to get back to basics and experience just what carnival is really all about.
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Carnival takes place every year in late February or early March, its exact date defined by the lunar calendar. It traditionally marks the beginning of Lent, one final opportunity for celebration and indulgence before fasting and abstinence set in. It is celebrated all over the world, but few countries produce a spectacle to match Brazilian proportions.
So where is the hottest spot to enjoy the sizzling spectacle of Brazilian carnival? For two full weeks of revelry against the backdrop of some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, head to João Pessoa and Jacumã on the northeast coast. João Pessoa is the capital of Paraiba state, located right on the coast roughly midway between the better-known cities of Recife and Natal. More “city” than Natal and more “holiday” than Recife, it offers the perfect balance for travellers in search of a taste of the real Brazil without the crime that sometimes comes with it.
Summer in the northeast runs from October to April, during which time visitors can expect little rainfall and reliably steady daytime temperatures of around 30 degrees, ensuring perfect conditions for carnival. And João Pessoa certainly makes the most of them. The city, with its population of around 500,000, is home to the biggest pre-carnival celebration in the country. For a full ten days leading up to carnival proper, the city is given over to music, dancing and celebration, with street parties, parades and live music concerts stretching from the white-sand beach at the bottom of Epitácio Pessoa to the colourful colonial streets of the city centre.
Highlights include Muriçoquinhas, one of the largest children’s carnival celebrations in the world, perfect for getting the little ones in training for later years; Muriçocas, the huge all-night beach celebration attended by hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the North East; and the Virgins of Tambaú, the night of fun and revelry when the city’s entire male population parties in the streets in their finest ladies’ wear.
And when the fun stops in João Pessoa, carnival proper begins elsewhere. This is the time to head to Jacumã, some thirty minutes south down the coast road and the closest town to the famous Coquerinho and Tabatinga beaches. For four days and four nights this sleepy fishing village comes alive with the largest street party for miles around, a burst of music and colour, friendly faces and turquoise blue waters. And when the party ends, what better way to recoup your energies than sipping a caipirinha right there on the powder-white sands.