December 4 in Salvador marks the official un-official kickoff of the Carnaval season. It is the Festa de Santa Bárbara / Dia de Iensã. While not an official holiday, that doesn’t stop more than ten thousand people from commemorating.

I encourage you to watch the video above. A picture is worth a thousand words, and this video by the Federal University of Bahia is worth much more. This short, 5-minute video is very well done and gives you an excellent idea of what to expect during the religious portion of the festival — even if you don’t speak a word of Portuguese.

The day’s programming

Early morning

The day starts early, at 8am, with a religious service in the main square of the Pelourinho.

In Salvador, Catholicism is synchronized with Umbanda and Candomblé, and there is an effort at these larger festivals to honor that synchronization and be inclusive of the saints of each religion. As such, the ceremony is directed to members of all of those faiths.

Following the service, there is a short procession from the square of the Pelourinho to the main fire department in the nearby neighborhood of Barroquinha to provide an offering for a safe year. After the procession, there is ample food and drink, including traditional Candomblé foods, such as acarajé (food of Iensã), caruru, and more.


By mid-day the religious portion of the festivities are over and the historic center, including the Pelourinho, empties out a bit for a few hours.

Afternoon and evening

Starting mid-afternoon, the artistic programming starts and it’s party mode. The main square of the Pelourinho, as well as all three of its stages, fill with music starting mid-afternoon and the festivities continue well into the night. Samba and samba-reggae are the most popular styles of music, but there is a wide variety of styles represented.

The entire festival is free and open to the public, including the stages. You are welcome to wander in and out as you wish.

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Key festival planning tips

  • Wear red and white. Those are the traditional colors of both Santa Barbara and Iensã and most festival goers dress accordingly.
  • Plan for crowds. The estimated attendance for the religious portion of the event is 10,000 people.
  • Watch your stuff. Wherever there are lots of people drinking, conversing, and having fun, there will be pickpockets. I’m a huge fan of Stashbandz to hold my phone, keys, and money. 

Photo: Secom Salvador

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