Visit South America and you’re bound to come across parades, parties and street performances. Unique festivals are aplenty across the continent and none are more decadent and extravagant than the mighty South American carnival.
Although Brazil might be the first place to spring to mind, Carnival is celebrated in pretty much every country across this huge continent. And, with so much on offer, choosing what festivities to attend can be overwhelming.
To make things a bit easier, we’ve chosen 10 incredible locations to rumba until dawn. Your South American Carnival to-do list includes just two things – bailar y fiesta!
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What is Carnival?
Also known as Carnaval in Portuguese, this annual celebration takes place all over South America throughout January, February and March. Carnival is traditionally a Christian celebration that occurs before Lent.
During the celebrations, people take part in spectacular parades and street parties where indulgence is the name of the game. Meat, alcohol and more is consumed to excess during the celebrations, for many a final blowout before forgoing such luxuries during Lent.
10 Top Places to Celebrate Carnival in South America
1. Salvador de Bahia, Brazil – The World’s Biggest Street Party
Although not as famous as the Rio Carnival, according to the Guinness World Book of Records, Salvador Carnival has the biggest street parade of any party in the world!
It was also here that the electric carnival float was first invented in the 1950s. Two friends shocked the crowd when they used an old Ford Model T to blast music through the streets. In six 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.
Unlike in Rio where the main parades are held in enclosed arenas, Salvador’s parades take place through 26 kilometres of the city’s streets on three separate ‘circuits’:
1) The Campo Grande Circuit: This circuit is the carnival’s oldest and takes place in the city centre, finishing in the main square. It is most popular with working-class locals so the vibe is fun while still being down to earth. If you fancy, you can enjoy the traditional Afro-Brazilian music, dancing and costume by following the parade around the loop! Be warned though, the circuit takes an impressive seven hours to complete.
2) The Barra-Ondina Circuit: This circuit is a more recent creation along the city’s glitzy beachfront. It’s no surprise that this circuit attracts the rich and famous people of Salvador. It’s no less spectacular than neighbouring circuits but certainly has a more modern feel to it. And the added bonus? You get a sea breeze and a stunning view.
3) The Pelourinho Circuit: Primarily, this circuit is all about heritage. It takes place in the city’s incredible colonial district (a World Heritage Site by the way) and the music celebrates brass and drums rather than the electronic beats of the trios electrictos. By comparison, it’s a lot more chilled than the other two circuits. In our opinion, the best way to take it all in is to grab a table at one of the bars en route and watch the parades happen as you sip from your ice-cold caipirinha!
2. Oruro, Bolivia – The Oldest Carnival in the World
Oruro Carnival in Bolivia has been happening for over 2000 years! You can tell too – it proudly displays its indigenous origins for all to see. Although this cultural festival predated the arrival of Christianity in Bolivia, it later evolved to incorporate newer religious celebrations.
The carnival pays homage to the city’s patron saint ‘Virgen del Socavón’ (The Virgin of the Mineshaft). In case you were wondering, Oruro was historically an important mining city in South America.
The Virgin is so important to the locals that an enormous statue of her has been built overlooking the city. It’s even larger than Christ the Redeemer in Rio! What’s more, the Virgin even has an Andean dance held in her honour, the Oruro Diababla (devil dance). This involves performers dressing up in highly colourful devil costumes while parading through the town.
This is just one of the many musical theatre performances that occurs during Oruro Carnival. There are countless others performed by people dressed in traditional costumes. Together, 48 groups of folk dancers parade their way along a four-kilometre pilgrimage route that finishes at the Shrine of the Tunnel.
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.
3. Riobamba, Ecuador – Not for the Faint-Hearted
Carnival in Riobamba is very different from the more ‘typical’ Brazilian festivities that we think of when we hear the word carnival. In Riobamba, the main focus is on getting colourful and most importantly messy!
Much like Songkran in Thailand, water fights are a common tradition in Carnival celebrations across the world. Look out for water guns hiding around corners and buckets being dumped out of windows.
Anything is fair game during the celebrations and this extends to foam sprays, colourful paint powder and flour! There have even been reports of motor oil being thrown around. Of course, it’s all in good spirit! Just don’t make the mistake we did and carry your laptop in your backpack during Carnival!
4. Barranquilla, Colombia – Music, Dance, Colour…todo!
Located along the Colombian Caribbean coast and celebrated by over one million people every year, Barranquilla Carnival is the biggest annual event in Colombia and the second largest carnival anywhere in South America (after Rio of course)!
This celebration is deemed so special that in 2003, it was awarded ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’ status by UNESCO. This recognises the importance of these folklore celebrations to Colombians and more specifically, those living in Barranquilla.
But what is it all about? In one word: dancing. The most incredible array of music is played here, from reggae to traditional Spanish rhythms. The celebrations have been shaped by African, Spanish, Colombian and Indigenous influences, something that is quickly apparent from the spellbinding variety of dances on display.
The parades aren’t too shabby either. The most notable event of the 4-day celebrations is La Batalla de Flores (The Battle of the Flowers), a show spanning six hours which includes performances from fire breathers, live music, folk dances and brightly-coloured floats.
As well as this, there is La Gran Parada (The Grand Parade) on Sunday and an Orchestra Festival on Monday. The parade is a spectacle that shouldn’t be missed. There are dance competitions and even the opportunity to get involved in the revelry on the streets!
The slogan for Barranquilla Carnival is ‘Quien lo vive, es quien lo goza’. This translates in English to ‘Those who live it, are those who enjoy it.’ We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.
5. Paraty, Brazil – Mud, Glorious Mud
In all honesty, Carnival celebrations can be exhausting, especially in large cities with millions of people. If you want to experience the South American carnival vibe but still want opportunities to escape the chaos to read a book on the beach or nurse your hangover, Paraty is the answer.
Celebrations in this small Brazilian town are low-key in comparison to other Carnival celebrations and parades occur mainly at night. They wind through the old colonial cobbled streets featuring strange puppet figures, a definite contrast from the opulence and colour of Rio Carnival.
The most bizarre thing about the Paraty Carnival occurs on Saturday when everyone heads to a nearby beach and smears their bodies in the mud. Also known as ‘Bloco de Lama’ (Mud Carnival) in Portuguese, this celebration is famous for reconnecting man with nature.
Many believe that the Mud Carnival preserves an old ritual whereby the indigenous communities would have smeared mud over their bodies for medicinal purposes. However, others claim that the party began in the 1980s after a group of teens hiking in a mangrove forest plastered themselves with mud to discourage mosquitos, before parading through the streets. No matter what the origins of this bizarre festival are, there is only one word to describe seeing it in real life…loco!
These days, many of the downtown parades have been cancelled, owing to the demand of local shopkeepers who complained that the cleanup operation was too difficult to manage. Still though, a mud carnival has got to be one for the bucket list.
Top Tip! Paraty is only a few hours by bus from Rio so why not head out a day early for a more relaxed end to the Carnival weekend?
6. Cajamarca, Peru- Escape the Tourists
Like in Oruro, Carnival in Cajamarca, Peru is a blend of traditional Andean folklore and Spanish Catholic culture. One of the most popular cities in which to celebrate Carnival across the country, over 60,000 visitors from all over the world take part in the festivities.
A number of events take place during Carnival, mainly close to the Plaza de Armas in the middle of the city. Some of the most popular are ‘Corso de Carnaval’ a parade of beautifully decorated cars and ‘Concurso de Coplas’, a music competition which sees the composer and singer win awards. Cajamarca Carnival is mainly a local affair, with different communities from neighbouring towns travelling to attend.
Like the celebrations in Bolivia and Ecuador, a big part of the festivities involves throwing liquids over tourists and locals. Watching the parades will inevitably include getting drenched in water and paint so take this as your official warning!
The old streets and buildings of Cajamarca are decorated to match the colourful performers who take part in the parade. They wear a range of incredible (yet bizarre) outfits, including a selection of very creepy masks!
7. Montevideo, Uruguay – A Forty Day Carnival
Introducing the longest carnival celebration in the world… Montevideo’s Carnival lasts for a whopping forty days!
Carnival in Montevideo is much more than just a few parades around the city. Everybody (and I mean everybody!) gets involved to make the party as vibrant as possible. It has been estimated that up to 90% of the population takes part in the celebrations – pretty impressive!
Many businesses shut up shop for the full month enabling them time to enjoy the festivities. During Montevideo Carnival, people set up temporary street theatres and comedy solo street shows take place all around the city. And all that is before you even get to the main parades!
These parades or comparasas often involve different neighbourhoods competing with each other. There are Samba school competitions, much like in Rio, as well as theatrical performances of poetry and singing. Keep an eye out for the famous South American dance Candombe which is performed on the streets of Montevideo.
Even though this takes place in Uruguay’s capital city, Montevideo Carnival is still rarely visited by international tourists and especially not by those outside South America. What does this mean for those that do make the journey? You won’t have to pay through the roof to go to one hell of a party!
8. El Callao, Venezuela – Caribbean Calling
Venezuela is known for being one of the least safest countries in South America. As such, few travellers visit. This means that what we know of the country is largely a result of hearsay and internet articles. Let us be clear though, the Venezuelans sure know how to party! (See video below.)
The Carnival of El Callao has its roots in the emancipation of the French-speaking islands of the Caribbean. This explains why the celebrations are not such a big deal in Venezuela’s capital. A jarred history of slavery has led to a thriving Creole culture, creating some of the most colourful celebrations anywhere on the continent.
The festivities run from January to March and celebrate the heritage and diversity of the Callaoenese. In fact, it is so important for Venezuela’s cultural identity that UNESCO has granted it ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’ status. The distinctly Caribbean atmosphere means drums dominate music celebrations and the showy costumes are out of this world.
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!
9. Gualeguaychú, Argentina – The Carnival of the Country
Surprisingly, Argentina’s main Carnival celebrations do not take place in the capital of Buenos Aires but a city some 143 miles away, Gualeguaychú. It has been given the nickname ‘Carnival of the Country’ as it boasts the largest float parade in the whole of Argentina.
The parades run every Saturday from the end of January to the start of March. As in Montevideo, some comparasas compete with each other during the parades to win prizes. While this is worth it for the pride of being awarded best in the city, the winners also get 30% of the ticket sales!
Even though the city’s celebrations are similar to the Afro-influenced Brazilian carnivals, the Spanish Catholic influence is apparent to see. The main musical performance is the Murga, a romantic music genre with religious connections. Although its origins are from the feudal period, it has evolved into a unique musical style still celebrated in parts of Latin America today. Picture a small choir and drummers that dress in jester-like costumes, performing for up to 45 minutes!
Also read: Must-experience festivals in Argentina.
10. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil- The Mother of Them All
Well, what can we say? The roaring carnival celebrations of Rio put the city on the map! Ask anybody across the world what things they associate with Rio de Janeiro and they are likely to say Christ the Redeemer and Carnival. This city is the poster child for Carnival, not only in Brazil but across the whole world.
Although opinions about where to find the best Carnival celebrations in South America vary, Rio is the winner by miles when it comes to sheer size. It is officially the single largest Carnival celebration in the world. More than two million people flock to the streets every day during the celebrations and over 200 samba schools partake in the festivities.
The main event of Rio Carnival involves a parade along the Sambadrome (a purpose-built parade runway) where the Samba schools compete to be named Carnival champions. Each school chooses a different theme for their float and then gets creative! In previous years, schools have showcased a giant replica of Queen Elizabeth I’s head and there was even a man in a spacesuit with a jetpack that thundered down the Sambadrome. Tickets can be hard to get and expensive but trust me, if you can get one, do it. You will never forget this epic spectacle.
If you can’t get a ticket, don’t fret too much. Although the Samba competitions are arguably the main event, there are hundreds of street parties (blocos, or block parties) that spring up just about anywhere in the city. And the best bit? They are 24/7! That’s right, around the clock partying!
To get the party started, head to one of the city’s beaches or Cinelândia Square. The latter is usually the largest of all the blocos and is a great place to find out where all the action is from the other farristas (party animals). We promise that this is an event you’ll never forget!
Written by: Harry Van Schaick and Sheree Hooker
Have you attended any Carnival celebrations in South America? Tell us about your experience in the comments!