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David and I are walking, joining the crowd of people, families and youths, crossing over the Ponte Mauricio de Nassau, one of the four bridges that connects Recife Antigo, Old Recife, an island, to the city. The crowd swells and falls, people stop for photographs in the dusk of the city. We pass under the arch as the music swells around us and I realize we are no longer walking, but dancing.
The people around us move in a dance too. We all take small steps, shortened to keep with the beat of the music. Our hips start to sway, our hands come up and, even holding hands with a partner, they are held aloft in celebration of the music.
We catch up to our first bloco. Welcome to Carnaval!
Carnaval do Brazil is a celebration that occurs between Ash Wednesday and the Friday before it. In Brazil, Carnaval is huge: Rio’s celebration drew more than 5 million people and Recife’s Galo da Madrugada is in the Guinness Book fo World Record for the largest Carnaval parade in the world at 2.5 million people.
While the Mardi Gras we know in the US (mostly in New Orleans) is based in French roots, the Brazilian Carnaval is drawn from its Portuguese heritage. Most businesses are shut down for Monday and Tuesday, which are public holidays, and the streets are like ghost towns until the afternoon.
Each Carnaval also has camarotes, private parties that you pay to enter. However, most of the party is out in the streets, open to the public.
Recife Antigo is the original settlement of Recife, which has been the capital of the state of Pernambuco since 1630. Now, Recife Antigo contains several cultural museums, many historic administrative buildings, and the Port of Recife, complete with a cruise ship dock.
David and I are not big partiers, and Carnaval peaks late at night and doesn’t wind down until after sunrise – we could hear the music of Recife Antigo’s Carnaval from our boat in Cabanga Iate Clube when we woke up. Nevertheless, we wanted to experience the culture of the music and costumes and the street food that Carnaval is famous for.
Instead of one big parade, Marco Zero Square was set up with a grand stage where official performances took place.
Throughout the city streets, minor parades, called blocos, make their way up and down the streets of Recife Antigo. While the streets of the island are closed to cars, nothing is barricaded off for pedestrians. When a bloco came up, we could choose to stand aside and watch, or join in behind the dancers. Sometimes the blocos would pause for a moment, the musicians on one side of the street and the dancers on the other, putting on a show for the viewers.
The music and dancing in Recife Antigo have local styles, the frevo and the maracatu.
The frevo was started by the Brazilian army, and in 2012 it was added to the UNESCO list of intangible world heritage list. All over the Recife Antigo Carnaval are small umbrellas with panels of red, green, blue and yellow. These are the umbrellas of frevo, which were originally used by the dancers as weapons back when the frevo was more violent.
When passing a bloco with a king and queen dressed in the Baroque style of the Portuguese court, we were probably looking at maracatu. The band bands heavy wooden drums and the dancers carry gourd shakers (possibly called xequerê) with beaded netting over them that rattles with the dancers’ movement. We also spotted the calunga a doll on a stick, usually dressed to resemble a female noble.
Finally, one of the last blocos we saw was the giant dolls – the Bonecos Gigantes of Olinda. These giant dolls are made of papier-mâché and are carried by an individual dancer. The dolls are all famous people, most we recognized and some we didn’t. They are paraded through the streets, twirling and dancing while towering above the crowd.
Brazilian Street Food
After observing the dancing and walking around, trying to see as many blocos as possible, David and I had worked up an appetite. There were designated areas for food stalls, so we popped in and bought two traditional street dishes: macaxeira com charque and tapioca.
Macaxeira com charque is served in a bowl. The base is cooked cassava (steamed I think), and scooped on top is a mixture of sun-dried beef and vegetables.
Brazilian tapioca is not the same as tapioca pudding that we would first think of. Instead, tapioca is almost like a pancake: tapioca (cassava) flour goes dry onto a hot griddle with a circular ring. The flour cooks and solidifies into a “pancake” which is then filled. You can choose from savory fillings like beef and chicken to sweet ones, like chocolate or Nutella. Or, try a Romeu e Julieta – cheese and guava paste.
Of course, I topped all this off with a caipirinha, Brazil’s famous drink made with lime, sugar, and cachaça.
Safety at Carnaval
David and I had been cautioned to take the bare minimum with us to Carnaval. We each had an ID, cash, and our phones stuffed into our pockets.
A friend of ours did get robbed – twice – during Carnaval. Once he was pickpocketed, and the second time was when he was with some lady friends on the beach and some thugs came up and told him to give them everything else. He returned to the yacht club in the wee hours of the morning in a cop car.
Despite the concerns for safety, we took an Uber from Recife Antigo and got home around 10, feeling that we’d gotten to experience a unique look at one of the country’s most historical and important celebrations.