Brazil’s Carnival finally reborn in its full, glittery, raucous form as pandemic ebbs

Masked pre-Carnival reveler in Rio de Janeiro
A masked reveler participates in a pre-Carnival street party in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday.
(Bruna Prado / Associated Press)

Brazil’s Carnival is back.

Glittery and outrageous costumes are once again being prepared. Samba songs will ring out till dawn at Rio de Janeiro’s sold-out parade ground. Hundreds of raucous, peripatetic parties will flood the streets. And working-class communities will be buoyed, emotionally and economically, by the renewed revelry.

The COVID-19 pandemic last year prompted Rio to delay Carnival by two months and watered down some of the fun, which was enjoyed mostly by locals.

Though Brazil has reported nearly 300,000 cases and 2,400 COVID deaths in the last month, the numbers are much improved from a year ago. So, this year, Brazil’s federal government expects 46 million people to join the festivities that began Friday and will run through Wednesday. That includes visitors to cities that make Carnival a world-famous bash, especially Rio but also Salvador, Recife and metropolitan Sao Paulo, which has recently emerged as a hot spot.


These cities have already begun letting loose with street parties.

“We’ve waited for so long. We deserve this catharsis,” Thiago Varella, a 38-year-old engineer wearing a Hawaiian shirt drenched by the rain, said at a bash in Sao Paulo on Feb. 10.

Most tourists are eager to go to the street parties, known as blocos. Rio has permitted more than 600 of them, and there are more unsanctioned blocos. The biggest blocos lure millions to the streets, including one that plays Beatles songs with a Carnival rhythm for a crowd of hundreds of thousands. Such major blocos were called off last year.

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“We want to see the partying, the colors, the people and ourselves enjoying Carnival,” Chilean tourist Sofia Umaña, 28, said near Copacabana beach.

The premier spectacle is at the Sambadrome. Top samba schools, based in Rio’s more working-class neighborhoods, spend millions on hourlong parades with elaborate floats and costumes, said Jorge Perlingeiro, president of Rio’s league of samba schools.

“What’s good and beautiful costs a lot. Carnival materials are expensive,” Perlingeiro said in his office beside the samba schools’ warehouses. “It’s such an important party. ... It’s a party of culture, happiness, entertainment, leisure and, primarily, its commercial and social side.”

He added that this year’s Carnival will smash records at the Sambadrome, where some 100,000 staffers and spectators are expected each day in the sold-out venue, plus 18,000 paraders. While President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is not expected to be among them, his wife, Rosangela da Silva, has said she will be at the parade.


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The first lady’s attendance signals a shift from the administration of former President Jair Bolsonaro, who kept his distance from the marquee cultural event.

Nearly 700,000 Brazilians have died in the pandemic, the world’s second-highest national total, after the U.S., and many blamed Bolsonaro’s response, weakening his bid for reelection, which he lost to Lula. Many at this year’s street parties are celebrating not just the return of Carnival but also Bolsonaro’s defeat.

That was the case Feb. 11 at the Heaven on Earth street party in Rio’s bohemian Santa Teresa neighborhood. Musicians pounded their drums as some revelers climbed fences to watch the scene from above the pulsing throng.

Anilson Costa, a stilt-walker, already had a prime view from his elevated perch. Covered in flowers and brightly colored pompoms, he poured a watering can labeled “LOVE” over people dancing below.

“Seeing this crowd today is a dream, it’s very magical,” said Costa. “This is the post-pandemic Carnival, the Carnival of democracy, the Carnival of rebirth.”

This year shares some of the spirit of the 1919 edition, which took place right after the Spanish flu pandemic killed tens of thousands of Brazilians, but was no longer a significant threat. World War I had just ended, too, and people were eager to unburden themselves, said David Butter, the author of a book about that year’s celebration. “There were so many people in Rio’s city center for Carnival that the whole region ran out of water within hours,” Butter said.

Carnival’s cancellation in 2021 and its lower-key version last year pummeled an industry that is a nearly yearlong source of jobs for carpenters, welders, sculptors, electricians, dancers, choreographers and everyone else involved in bringing parades to the public. As such, Carnival’s full-fledged return is a shot in the arm for local economies.

“Yesterday, I went to sleep at 3 in the morning. Today, I’ll leave earlier, because I’ve lost my voice,” said seamstress Luciene Moreira, 60, as she sewed a yellow costume in samba school Salgueiro’s warehouse. “You have to sleep later one day, earlier the next — otherwise, the body can’t handle it. But it is very enjoyable!”

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Rio expects about $1 billion in revenue at its bars, hotels and restaurants, said Ronnie Costa, the president of the city’s tourism agency. Rio’s hotels are at 85% capacity, according to Brazil’s hotel association, which expects last-minute deals to bring that figure near its maximum.

Small businesses are benefiting, too.

“Carnival is beautiful. People are buying. Thank God, all my employees are paid up to date,” said Jorge Francisco, who sells sequined and sparkled Carnival accouterments at his shop in downtown Rio. “For me, this is an immense joy, everyone smiling and wanting. That’s how Carnival is.”