Get Your Party On: 10 Places to Experience Carnival in South America

Colourful ladies dancing in Rio during carnaval

Updated May 30th, 2018.

Listen up backpackers…

It’s February and instead of focusing on Valentines day, we’ve got a much better way to spend your time than buried deep in a box of chocolates. It’s Carnival and in South America that means only one thing, you’re about to have a dangerous amount of fun. A massive party consuming four days where you’re to- do list only includes two important tasks- baile y fiesta.

The only problem? Where will you go?

With choices spread all over a continent of 400 million people, covering over 17 million square kilometers, saying you are spoilt for choice is an understatement.

So we thought we would make things a tad bit easier, pouring over the limitless options we’ve narrowed things down a bit, choosing ten incredible locations to rumba until dawn.

1) Salvador, Brazil- the World’s Biggest Street Party

27th February-5th March 2014

Why not start with the Carnival that claims to have the biggest street presence of any party in the world in the country that made the word carnival famous.

In the 1950’s it was here that the electric carnival float was first invented, where two friends shocked the crowd when they used an old Ford Model T to blast music through the streets. In 6 decades these trio eléctricos have gone from a humble car to the size of large houses carrying hundreds of dancers through the streets of Salvador.

1624522_10151987717112875_388858249_nIt’s all about being the best float, say hello to the queen-we didn’t know she left England!

Unlike Rio where the main parades are held in enclosed arenas, Salvador’s parades take place on 25 kilometres of the city’s streets on three separate ‘circuits’:

1) The Campo Grande Circuit: this circuit is the carnival’s oldest and takes in the city centre, ending up in the main square. This circuit  is popular with the working class locals so the vibe here is down to earth. So much so that the public can get right in the thick of the celebrations and enjoy the traditional Afro-Brazilian music, dancing and costume by following it around the entire loop…..although the entire thing takes around 7 hours to complete!

2) The Barra-Ondina Circuit: a more recent creation along the city’s glitzy beachfront. It’s no surprise that this circuit attracts the rich, famous and beautiful people of  Salvador, it’s no less spectacular, just has a more modern feel than the other circuits. Added bonus…you get a sea breeze and a stunning view.

3) The Pelourinho Circuit: this circuit is above all about the heritage. It takes place in the city’s incredible colonial district (a World Heritage Site by the way) and the sound coming from here is all about brass and drums rather than any electronic beats of the trios electrictos. It’s a lot more chilled than the other two circuits, so much so in fact that the best way to take it all in is to grab a table at one of the bars along the route and watch the parades happen just metres from your ice cold caipirinha.

2) Oruro, Bolivia- The Oldest Carnival in the World

28th February-3rd March 2014

The carnival in Oruro has been happening for over 2000 years and you can certainly tell. It really is a different kettle of fish to all the other places in South America and proudly celebrates its pre-Christian origins. Warning: this proud celebration involves A LOT of water fights (mainly from children) on the streets before and during the festivities! You will get targeted, especially if you stand out as a tourist.

The carnival pays homage to the city’s patron saint ‘Virgen del Socavón’ (The virgin of the mineshaft- Oruro is historically an important mining town). She is so important that the city has now built an enormous statue of her overlooking the city larger than Christ the Redeemer in Rio! What’s more, she even has her very own dance held in her honour: the Oruro Diababla (devil dance) that involves performers dressing up in highly decorated and colourful devil costumes and parading through the town. This is just one of the many other musical theatre performances with countless others dressed in traditional costume in the four kilometre parade that is basically a pilgrimage that ends up at the shrine in the tunnel.

1624835_10151987717052875_1689212848_nSmall town Carnival fun, a more intimate and local experience. 

3) Barranquilla, Colombia- Music, Dance, Colour…todo!

1st-4th March 2014

It is Colombia’s biggest annual event and the second largest carnival anywhere in South America (after Rio of course). Over one million people come each year and it is deemed so special that it was awarded status by UNESCO as a  ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’. But what is it all about? In one word: dancing. The most incredible array of music is played here from reggae to more traditional Spanish rhythms to get completely swept away in. But to be honest, the parades aren’t too shabby either and claim to be some of the most colourful of all carnivals.

4) Paraty, Brazil- Mud, Glorious Mud.

28th February-4th March 2014

In honesty Carnival can be exhausting, especially in large cities with millions of people. If you want to experience the carnival vibe but still want to chill and read a book on the beach, to cure that hangover, Paraty is the answer. Celebrations here are low-key and parades are mainly at night through the old colonial cobbled streets with a few dancers and strange puppet figures. One bizarre thing about the Paraty Carnival takes place on Saturday: everyone heads to a nearby silty beach and smears their entire body in the mud, which has been used for centuries by indigenous people in Brazil for medicinal purposes. Everybody then parades through the streets creating a strange mud block party in this small coastal town….loco!

South America Backpacker Top Tip: Paraty is only a few hours on the bus from Rio so why not head out a day early for a more chilled end to the Carnival weekend?

5) Riobamba, Ecuador- Not for the Faint Hearted!

1st-4th March 2014

Carnival here is very different from the ‘typical’ Brazilian festivities with the main focus placed on getting colourful and most importantly messy! You will get soaked with water in Bolivia leading up to the festivities, and during the parades in Venezuela’s Caribbean coast but here it is on another level. Be expected to be covered with any liquid or substance. Favourites are foam spray and colourful powder and flour but there have even been reports of motor oil being thrown. Of course it’s all in good spirit!

IMG_0838No one is exempt from the fun, even mascots get blasted with foam. 

6) Cajamarca, Peru- Escape the Tourists!

1st-3rd March 2014

Like in Oruro, Cajamarca’s carnival is a blend of traditional Andean folklore and catholic Spanish Culture. Like carnivals in Bolivia and Ecuador, a big part of the festivities involve throwing liquids over tourists and locals, watching the parades will inevitably include getting drenched in water and paint. Cajamarca is a small town but the old streets and buildings are decorated with incredible colour to match the performers who parade in the most incredible (and bizarre) outfits with unnervingly creepy masks!

7) Montevideo, Uruguay- A Forty Day Carnival!

January-March 2014

The longest carnival celebration in the world- it’s forty days! Montevideo’s Carnival is really more than just a few parades around the city. Everybody gets involved to make the party as vibrant as possible. Many businesses shut up shop for a long holiday to enjoy the celebrations, people set up temporary street theatres and comedy solo street shows take place all around the city, plus there are also the main parades of the carnival.

These parades or comparasas often involve different neighbourhoods of the city competing with each other in music and dance like the Samba schools do in Rio de Janeiro. Even though it’s in the country’s capital city, Montevideo’s carnival is still rarely visited by international tourists, especially those outside South America. What does this mean? You won’t have to pay through the roof to go to one hell of a party!

8) Gualeguaychú, Argentina- ‘The Carnival of the Country’

Weekends from January- 1st March 2014

The main float parade of this awe-inspiring carnival is called the ‘carnival of the country’ as it’s the largest in the whole of Argentina. The parades run on every Saturday from the end of January to the start of March and like in Montevideo, there are comparasas that compete with each other during the parades to win a prize of 30% of the ticket sales and of course the pride of being the best in the city!

Even though the city’s celebrations are similar to the Afro-influenced Brazilian carnivals, the main musical theatre performed is the catholic-influence Murga, a small chorus and drummers that dress in jester-like costumes for up to 45 minutes!

1781578_10151987717027875_1570242174_nA fiesta that goes full blast for four whole days. 

9) El Callao, Venezuela- Caribbean Calling

28th February- 4th March 2014

It’s well known that the Venezuelan economy isn’t exactly thriving at the moment but that is no excuse to call off one of the most distinct and vibrant carnivals in South America. Carnaval is not really a big deal in the country’s big cities today but this means that the epicentre of the festival has shifted towards the coast in places like El Callao (it’s way more interesting than Caracas anyway!)

A jarred history of slavery means a mix of Spanish and Creole culture creates some of the most colourful celebrations anywhere on the continent. The distinctly Caribbean atmosphere means drums dominate music celebrations and costumes are out of this world. One word of warning: a big part of the celebrations involves water fights that border on full-scale warfare. Be prepared to be soaked by anything from water bombs to high powered water guns with the power of an AK-47!

10) Rio de Janeiro, Brazil- The Mother of Them All

28th February-4th March 2014

Well, what can we say? This city has been made famous thanks to it’s roaring carnival celebrations. Some say Salvador and Oruro are better but Rio owns this top ten for one thing: it’s sheer size. It is officially the single largest carnival celebration in the world. More than 2 million people on the streets and over 200 samba schools are involved in this megaevent. The ‘main’ part of the carnival involves a parade along the Sambadrome (a long parade runway with huge stands on either side) where the Samba schools compete with each other for to be named the champion of the Carnival. Each school chooses a different theme for their float, previous schools have showcased anything from a giant head of Queen Elizabeth I to a man in a space suit and jetpack that thunders down the entire Sambadrome. Tickets can be hard to get and expensive but trust me, if you can. Just do it. You will never forget it.

But if you don’t get a ticket, don’t fret; the biggest parties are the hundreds of street parties (blocos, or block parties) that spring up just about anywhere and go on for 24 hours a day. For a place to start head to one of the beaches or Cinelândia Square which is usually the largest and can be a great place to find out from other farristas where all the action is. We promise it’s an event you’ll never forget.

Written by: Harry Van Schaick

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