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Carnaval is Salvador's biggest party. Over a million and a half people (locals and tourists) join in to celebrate. In contrast to Rio's more spectator-oriented celebration, the focus in Salvador is on participation. There are no samba schools with outlandish costumes and big floats -- in fact, there is hardly any samba at all. The beat of choice is axé or Afro axé, the unique Bahian rhythm that combines African percussion with Caribbean reggae and Brazilian energy. The action is out on the streets with the blocos.

In Rio, blocos are groups of locals who gather up a few instruments for an impromptu parade. In Salvador, blocos started out years ago as flatbed trucks with bands and sound systems, leading people on an extended dance through the streets. The concept's still the same, but as the number of participants has grown, Salvador blocos have evolved into more highly organized affairs. All now follow set routes. Many have corporate sponsorship. Some even belong to production companies. Unavoidably, it also comes with a price tag.

The revelers that follow a bloco must buy a T-shirt (abadá) to identify themselves. In return they get to sing and dance behind the music truck in a large cordoned-off area, staffed by security guards who keep troublemakers out. Following the revelers is the support car with a first-aid attendant, bar, and washrooms (to which only abadá wearers have access). If you follow the entire route you can expect to be on your feet for at least 6 hours. Most blocos parade 3 days in a row, and your abadá gives you the right to come all 3 days, if you've got the stamina. It is also possible to purchase an abadá for just 1 day.

Carnaval officially begins at 8pm on the Thursday evening before Ash Wednesday, when the mayor of Salvador hands the keys of the city over to King Momo, who will rule for the next 5 days.

Some Carnaval Do's and Don'ts

Do not bring any valuables with you; bring a photocopy of your passport or driver's license instead of the real thing. Buy a disposable camera that tucks into your pocket. Only bring as much money as you think you'll need and spread it out; put some in your pocket and a few bills in your shoe. Do not underestimate the heat, and drink sufficient water or coconut milk. Don't dress up: For blocos just wear your abadá, shorts, and running shoes; otherwise shorts and a tank top will do just fine.

Carnaval Central

The most convenient Central do Carnaval location is in the heart of Pelourinho, Rua Gregorio de Matos 13 (corner of the Rua Laranjeiras; tel. 071/3321-9365). Other locations can be found at the Shopping Iguatemi and Shopping Barra. Book early as some of the popular blocos sell out by August!

Blocos

Blocos all follow one of three set parade routes and start at designated times. Most blocos will take 4 to 6 hours to complete the course. The routes are Osmar, Dodô, and Batatinha. (Osmar and Dodô are named after the two musicians who first came up with the trio eletrico idea of mounting the band on a flatbed truck in the '50s.) The 7km-long (4 1/4-mile) Osmar route starts at Rua Araujo Pinha in Campo Grande, goes up Avenida Sete de Setembro as far as Praça Castro Alves, and returns to Campo Grande via Avenida Carlos Gomes. The Dodô route was designed in the '80s to accommodate the increased number of blocos. It follows the coastal road from Ponto da Barra to Ondina Beach. Batatinha is the preferred route for the percussion-heavy Afro axé blocos as well as the colorful drag queen blocos. Sticking close to the historic center, Batatinha runs from Praça da Sé to the Praça Municipal, then to Praça Castro Alves, and finishes up in Campo Grande. The blocos parade from Friday to Tuesday, some on 3 days, others on 4. Order and start times vary, so pick up an updated calendar just before Carnaval at one of the tourist offices.

The best resource for all Carnaval programming is the state tourism agency Bahiatursa (www.bahiatursa.ba.gov.br); they have information about all the parades and events taking place around town. In addition to the regular tourist information offices they have booths with English-speaking staff along the three parade routes. Another great resource on sale at newsstands is the Guia do Ocio, a monthly arts-and-entertainment magazine that publishes an amazingly detailed Carnaval edition for R$5.

See the list below to help you decide which blocos to follow. To purchase an abadá, contact the bloco directly or else call the Central do Carnaval (tel. 071/3372-6000; www.centraldocarnaval.com.br); they represent at least a dozen of the most popular blocos. The prices for the abadás range from R$300 to R$900 for 2 or 3 days. The Central can also sell you an abadá for a day if you don't want to commit to the entire 3 days or want to try different blocos.

Ara Ketu -- Though it's getting more and more known across Brazil, Ara Ketu's roots remain in Salvador where the group works with community organizations and runs music and theater workshops for disadvantaged children and teens.

Blocos Axé -- Many of the blocos axé originated in the poorer and overwhelmingly black neighborhoods on the outskirts of Salvador. With the recent revival of black culture and pride, these blocos have become more and more popular and are now part of the mainstream events. The most popular ones are Ilê Aiyê, Olodum, Filhos de Ghandi, Ara Ketu, and Filhas de Oxum.

Camaleão -- Founded in 1978 by a group of university students, Camaleão parades Sunday through Tuesday along the Osmar route. Chiclete com Banana is the lead attraction, one of the most popular Bahian bands. This bloco was a recent winner of the best bloco and best band award. It also takes first prize for most expensive bloco. The 2010 abadás for all 3 days topped out at R$2,500 and still sold out!

Cerveja e Cia -- Given that Ivete Sangalo's producer owns this bloco, it only makes sense that Sangalo -- Bahia's musical sensation -- is the star attraction. The bloco parades Thursday through Saturday along the Dodô beach route.

Filhos de Ghandi -- Popular during Carnaval for its symbolic message of peace, this bloco is instantly recognizable for the white Ghandi costumes worn by its 10,000 all-male followers. The bloco parades Sunday through Tuesday (along the Osmar route Sun and Mon and along the Dodô on Tues). To purchase an abadá (the Ghandi uniform) contact tel. 071/3321-7073.

Ilê Aiyê -- One of the most traditional Afro blocos, Ilê lets only blacks parade, but everyone is welcome to watch and cheer. Its music is a wonderful blend of reggae and percussion; the drums are phenomenal. The group parades on Saturday, Sunday, and Tuesday along the Osmar route. For abadás contact tel. 071/3388-4969.

Olodum -- Internationally known, Olodum's popularity draws huge crowds. The music is fun, some reggae, a little bit of samba, and lots of drums. Olodum always provides a great show. The group parades on 4 days, Friday and Sunday through Tuesday. Abadás can be purchased at the store in Pelourinho, Rua das Laranjeiras 30, or contact tel. 071/3321-5010.

Papa -- One of the older blocos, Papa was founded in 1979, and has for the past few years been led by the wildly popular local group Babado Novo. The bloco attracts mostly young people, who come to see immensely popular lead singer Claudia Leite.

Commitment Shy? -- Instead of committing to one specific bloco and following along for hours, you can also get a seat in the stands that line the parade route and watch all the blocos go by. Tickets for box seats (camarote) or tables are expensive. The Central de Carnaval sells tickets to box seats at three different venues; prices range from R$150 to R$390 per person per day. The ticket often includes drinks, food, and entertainment. To reserve a seat in one of the much less pricey bleachers that line the parade route, contact Salvador city hall at tel. 071/3450-2711 or the Central do Carnaval at tel. 071/3372-6000. Bleacher seats go for about R$80 to R$130 per day but don't include any of the fancy trappings. Some hotels, like the Monte Pascoal in Barra, set up their own bleachers for guests.

Rehearsals

Though less organized and structured than the samba school rehearsals in Rio, a small number of blocos do meet regularly in the months leading up to Carnaval. For some this is also an important money generator, and admission can cost as much as R$60. If you won't be in Salvador during Carnaval, these rehearsals are highly recommended.

The most popular rehearsals are run by Olodum. On Tuesday nights the group meets at the Praça Teresa Batista s/n, Pelourinho (tel. 071/3321-3208). Tickets are R$20. Unfortunately the ticket does not allow in-and-out privileges, and Olodum's rehearsal coincides with Terça da Benção, one of the most fun nights in Pelourinho when there are bands and events galore. It's a bit of a tossup over which is more fun. On Sundays Olodum holds a free rehearsal starting at 6pm at the Largo do Pelô. Several of Salvador's big names such as Ara Ketu, Ivete Sangalo, and Vixe Mainha hold regular rehearsals in the months leading up to Carnaval. If you are in Salvador between October and Carnaval, check with the tourist office for details.

Some great planning resources for Carnaval are available online. Though in Portuguese only, they certainly give you an idea of what things look like: the official city site, www.carnaval.salvador.ba.gov.br, has pictures, important phone numbers, programming details and maps; www.centraldocarnaval.com.br has abadás for sale and provides detailed scheduling and program information. For more information, contact the Central do Carnaval at tel. 071/3372-6000.

The End of Carnaval: It Ain't Over 'til It's Over

In most cities, Carnaval comes to a quiet end as partygoers run out of steam in the early hours of Ash Wednesday and finally flop into bed. In Salvador, the party goes out with a bang. Although this event is an informal one, it takes place every year at the Praça Castro Alves. At the meeting of the trios (encontro dos trio eletricos), a few of the blocos that have finished their parades meet to compete for the last bit of energy the crowd has to offer. Usually the party keeps going until the sun comes up. In recent years, Caetano Veloso and Carlinhos Brown were among the prominent musicians who came out for the grand finale and packed the square with tens of thousands of people.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.