As the summer days heat up and the New Year’s holiday spirit rolls on, the sounds of the drums at local samba school rehearsals grow ever more frequent: it’s the city gearing up for its Carnival celebrations. And while the bombastic, big-budget side of the Brazilian holiday celebrations were slow coming to São Paulo – the Oscar Niemeyer-designed Sambódromo was only opened in 1991 – and are far from acquiring the hedonistic reputations of coastal party places like Rio and Salvador, the pre-Lenten festivities here are well worth a visit.
Take part in local folksy customs as well as the glitz and glam of the Sambódromo parade, where the escolas de samba (samba schools) process in a shimmy of sequins and feathers down the 530-metre avenue, dancing and singing their official samba in hopes of being crowned champion.
For a taste of the city’s original Carnival, head for the streets where the blocos – marching bands followed by rag-tag but enthusiastic troupes of revellers, and enterprising locals wheeling trolleys of cold beers and waters – start springing up all over the city in the weekends leading up to Carnival. Each year brings new and ever more original blocos to the lineup alongside the more traditional ones, like Bixiga’s Bloco dos Esfarrapados, which first started in 1947.
So if you’re in town and feeling ready to jump feet first into São Paulo’s Carnival, follow our lead to find the best of the samba school rehearsals and street parties kicking off throughout the city.
At the Sambódromo Anhembi – São Paulo’s Carnival stadium – fourteen samba schools (escolas de samba) will compete in the highly anticipated 'Grupo Especial' on 28 February and 1 March, beginning at 10pm, when seven of the schools strut their stuff the first night and the remainder on the second.
Thirty thousand revellers are expected to pack into the stadium each night to watch the 25,000-odd performers present a show that has been in the works since before last year's Carnival. As the escolas perform, judges give scores in categories like song, costumes and organisation, the winners basking in nationwide fame and glory.
|The samba school Vai-Vai in the Sambódromo|
It takes blood, sweat and tears – plus lots of fun, partying and high spirits – to create the amazing spectacle that is Carnival at the Sambódromo. Even better than the main event, for many, are the lively street parties that comprise the samba school rehearsals, which take place all over the city in the weeks and months leading up to Carnival.
They're a chance for the participants to learn the song (samba de enredo) for that year's parade, for the drummers to get in step, for the dancers to crank up the heat, and for the neighbourhood in general to start celebrating.
Top tip: Vai-Vai, easily accessible in Bixiga, close to Avenida 9 de Julho, is an excellent choice for the undecided and curious.
Roving bands or sound systems, followed by boisterous bunches of merrymakers in fancy dress banging drums and pots and pans are the blocos and the precursors to the giant samba schools as we know them, and continue to pull in partiers not attracted to the flash-and-glam of the escolas or the pretension of the upscale Carnival balls held at private clubs and hotels.
In fact, unlike the more officially organised escolas, anyone can turn up to one of the blocos coursing throughout the city even after it’s started and add a bit of their own, personalised Carnival flair.