So, we planned to be in Salvador, Brazil for Carnaval this year after spending hours trawling through posts and articles online as to where the best place to experience it was. It’s meant to be the world’s biggest street party and the best place to go if you want to be a part of the Carnaval itself.
What none of those articles said was how dangerous Salvador is supposed to be!! And of course we only find this out after we planned and booked our flights and accommodation! Basically everyone we met on our travels who knew Brazil told us about how we were going to get mugged and stuff… Even the owner of our hotel in Rio seemed very concerned we were going by ourselves and gave us loads of warnings about the place!
Needless to say we were in a bit of a tizzy after that, panicking about going to Salvador, wishing we were staying in Rio etc. We weren’t in the best of states on our flight out there!
We landed after a two hour flight and honestly were quite pleasantly surprised. We spoke to a guy at the tourist info point who spoke in perfect English, whipped out a couple of maps for us and showed us how to get the bus to our hostel. The bus journey in retrospect wasn’t such a good idea. We had to wait a LONG time for the right bus to turn up, it was over crowded and took a very long time to get to the city centre. It was cheap though, only 2.80 reais!
Our hostel was located in Pelourinho which is the historic city centre. The bus doesn’t go all the way to the centre, just the outskirts so we got a cab from where the bus stopped to the hostel. Unfortunately a lot of the roads were closed in preparation for Carnaval so the cab literally took us down two roads before we had to get out. The taxi driver was very helpful in directing us and the hostel was only a short walk away though it felt longer- wheelie bags on cobblestone is never fun! We stayed at Hostel Pousada Pais Tropical, a garishly decorated but very well located backpackers dream overlooking Largo do Pelourinho. I honestly didn’t really look at the different areas of Salvador before picking this area so we were very lucky we picked this place as it probably had the most character and interest.
Carnaval in Salvador is celebrated along three main routes- Barra-Ondina, Campo Grande and Pelourinho. The Barra and Campo Grande routes are where the trios electricos (slow moving trucks kitted out with crazy sound systems, lights and a band) are. Around each truck is a roped off area (maintained by rope holding stewards) called a bloco– different from what a bloco is in Rio. You can participate in a bloco by buying an abada– a special t-shirt for that particular bloco and day- which gives you access to that roped off area, toilets and drinks stall. If you don’t get a shirt you are called a pipoca, or popcorn, and usually stand on the side of the road or you can follow in between two blocos. Along these two routes you’ll see temporary structures purpose built to watch the parades. These are VIP party areas called camarotes. Again you need a t-shirt ticket to get in and they can be expensive! It can be anywhere from a few hundred to thousands of reais to get in. Food and drink are usually included though and you get more space to watch the trucks go past as well as your own DJ and dance floor. The old town area, Pelourinho, is home to a more traditional Carnaval. The parades are less formal here and mostly consist of drum groups, brass bands and dancers with a strong African influence just wandering the cobbled streets…
The partying in Salvador starts early (woohoo!). From the Wednesday and Thursday there are already performing groups in Pelourinho, music blaring from the camarotes in Barra. We arrived on a Tuesday and even then there was constant music and dancing as people were getting ready, practising and such.
So we spent most of our time around the hostel in the Pelourinho area. Partly because we’re lazy and partly because we felt the safest there. Parades and partying start quite late so we spent the day sleeping and stayed up all night which was for the best really because it was HOT there! Not as hot as Rio, at least, but definitely enough to make you think twice about going out in the midday sun. A lot of the music groups went past the hostel itself so we often just sat on the balcony looking out. There was also a stage in the square (more like a triangle) that had more old school reggae type live music all night long too.
We did make an effort to go to the other routes as well which are both different. The Campo Grande tends to be more locals and is where to go to see the more well known blocos like Filhos de Gandhy etc. (more on them later). We also bought an abada for the Barra route to allow us into a bloco. It was pretty expensive- got it through a friend’s hotel so I’m sure someone’s getting a cut somewhere…- at $250 reais each for this particular one which featured some singer called Jammil? Anyway apparently he’s meant to be pretty good- not that we cared/ knew. We just picked the cheapest one… To be honest it probably wasn’t worth it. We expect there to be more space and to feel safer with the extra security guards (which is what other blogs/ advice says) but it was much worse. It got really claustrophobic and there’s less space to run from any unwanted attention!
My favourite area was Pelourinho- the traditional drum groups and dancers were awesome!- and probably more what I expected at carnival there. Plus it seemed to have more tourists here and families so less Brazilian men trying to maul you as you walk past like they did in Barra…
Oh yeah? Did I mention that? Carnaval time in Brazil apparently gives the guys there free reign to make out with anyone there (ideally single people since we saw a few fights break out over some mishaps…). It’s something that I wasn’t quite up for so I ended up ducking and diving to avoid a lot of grabby hands. I think it was a bit of a shock for some of the men- they were not used to rejection… Luckily we made friends with people from the hostel to go out with when we went to the trios electricos routes. We had some Israeli guys just out of the army with us so we were pretty well protected!
Apart from that, we had a great time in Barra! Good music, dancing, crazy cheap drinks- we danced in the rain through the streets and until the sun rose. It was pretty awesome.
So the Gandhys! To start off we saw an old guy getting a towel turban sewn on to his head by the side of the road. It was a bit odd. Then we saw more and more people getting it done. Stalls popped up selling towels, beads and jewels but the Saturday and Sunday the streets were full of men in turbans and white robes with tons of blue beads. These were the people in the Filhos de Gandhy (Sons of Gandhy) bloco. The costume was their abada. This bloco is the biggest in Salvador at 10,000 men strong. The people in it are supposed be all peace and love like Gandhi who it was named after, wearing the same costume and spraying a lavender scent everywhere. To be honest, they don’t. They drink and act crazy just like the rest of them! They give their beads to women and you’re supposed to kiss them for luck… Anyone sensing a ploy here? That being said, they were highly entertaining just watching them strut around and getting their turbans sewn…
There was also a group of cross dressing musketeers/ pirates armed with water guns! Another highly entertaining bloco on the Campo grande route, though perhaps on the scary side. It’s a wee bit intimidating when thousands of gay pirates start charging past you… Plus since we were with a group from the hostel we really stood out of the crowd! So we were all targeted by their water guns as they came past, particularly the tall blond Dutch guy with us. There was nowhere for him to hide!
I wish we could’ve hidden though, especially when one Brazilian woman suddenly squatted by the side of the road near us and just started peeing. Through her shorts. It was traumatising to see…
On the whole, it was an amazing experience. The people, the culture, seeing the kids (and adults) all dressed up, everyone was having such a good time, we loved it! So you don’t get the Sambádrome parade that you do in Rio de Janeiro. Who cares? Here you get to be IN the parade!!
I’d definitely recommend it!