To say my first carnaval experience in Salvador was overwhelming and bewildering would be an understatement.
First, there were new and unfamiliar terms — bloco, camarote, pipoca, circuit, fantasia, adabá — that I had to understand in order to navigate the behemoth event. Second, in the two months since I had last been to Salvador, the logistics of the entire city had changed to support the influx of three-quarters of a million people that would be visiting for the the biggest carnaval in the world. I remember walking with a girlfriend saying, “what happened to my city?”
My hope with this multi-part guide is to help demystify Salvador carnaval so you can have a memorable, magical, and safe carnaval in Salvador.
Three Primary Carnaval Circuits
While there are dozens of official carnaval circuits and praças in Salvador, there are three primary circuits (routes) closest to the city center that people really think of as Salvador carnival:
- Campo Grande — The oldest Carnaval circuit in Salvador. This is where you will find the afro blocos (groups) and samba groups. This is where you will find many of the locals.
- Barra-Ondina — This is the high-end circuit that is filled with household names and has been known to attract stars like U2’s Bono to its viewing stands.
- Pelourinho — The most casual, eclectic, and family-friendly of the three circuits, filled with smaller, talented bands and afoxés. This is where I play with Movimento Percussivo as a part of Kizumba.
Three Ways to Soak in Carnaval
There are three basic ways you can take in carnaval — as a part of a group, in the viewing stands, or on the streets.
- As a part of a group — you’ll actually walk with the band or artist the length of the circuit. This is called being in a “bloco” and you’ll need to wear “fantasia” or “adabá”. (Click here for a refresher on these terms)
- In a viewing stand — You get to stay put and watch as the Carnaval circuit goes by. There are over 30 different viewing stand (camarote) options at a variety of price points with lots of different benefits.
- On the streets — Salvador is truly the people’s carnaval, so it’s always free to watch on the streets. When you are on the streets you’ll be called part of the “pipoca”.
Click here to find out why watching the streets means you are part of the pipoca and more about each of the different types of viewing options.
The Carnaval Calendar
You probably know that the carnaval dates are tied to Easter and the Lenten calendar. Carnaval in Salvador starts the Thursday before Ash Wednesday and goes through the official holiday, Carnaval Day, on Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday).
Upcoming carnaval dates:
- 2020: Thursday, February 19 – Tuesday, February 25 (see my ultimate guide)
- 2021: Thursday, February 10 – Tuesday, February 16
- 2022: Thursday, February 24 – Tuesday, March 1
- 2023: Thursday, February 15 – Tuesday, February 21
- 2024: : Thursday, February 7 – Tuesday, February 13
If your wallet (and liver) can’t do six days, you can cut your party time in half and still have an epic experience. The “big days” in Salvador are Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
In general, the pattern in Salvador is as follows:
- Thursday: Warm-up day with one or two big names
- Friday: The big night in Campo Grande — this is when all of the afro blocos and samba bands come out.
- Saturday – Monday: Lots of great talent everywhere — and you’ll find the super-big names on Barra-Ondina on Saturday and Sunday
- Tuesday: The past couple of years this has been a big day in Campo Grande. The big names from Bahia do “blocos without cords” — allowing the local residents that can’t afford to buy a shirt the ability to walk with their favorite trio
For the project manager in me, the fact that the city doesn’t release the final bloco schedule until the week before carnival starts drives me nuts. We usually have guests, and I’m trying to make sure we craft an awesome experience for them, and it flat-out stresses me out. Plus, our guests want to know as well, and repeatedly hearing, “yeah, I don’t know yet” doesn’t instill a lot of confidence in your guests.
The somewhat reassuring side is that I have learned that most blocos keep the same days year over year. So if you know who you definitely want to see, you can start with previous year’s schedule and go from there.
Final Words of Advice
My biggest bit of advice is to just go with the flow. Keep your wits about you, don’t drink too much, and know that this is Bahia — so both time and plans are fluid at best. Come with a smile on your face and know that you are going to see some of the best music in the world in a beautiful city with gracious hosts. Just enjoy.
Have an Unforgettable Carnaval
Let us craft a memorable and safe carnaval experience for you. Whether you just need someone to buy a couple of tickets (fantasia/abadá) or complete carnival planning, our Salvador concierge service is here for you.