Getting up at 4:30 am wasn’t easy for night owls like us, but we knew that pre-dawn was the time to arrive if we wanted to catch the religious — sacred — part of the festival for Iemanjá. We jumped into the taxi to the Rio Vermelho neighborhood, lightly caffeinated, proud of ourselves for even making it this far.

While it was stupid-early o’clock, Avenida Oceanica, which snakes along the coastline, was already abuzz with revelers. Some stumbled about, beer in hand(?!?) still continuing the party of the night before. Others were freshly made up and ready to pay their respects.

colorful flowers at a market
One of the the countless flower stands lining Avenida Oceanica for the Festa de Iemanjá

We stopped at a friend’s flower stand to grab our offerings — blue and white for Iemanjá, of course, but also some yellow for Oxum. These would go into the ocean later.

Who is Iemanjá – the Candomblé Orixá of the sea

Iemanjá is one of the Orixás, or deities, of the Brazilian Candomblé religion — a west-African derived religion. This religious tradition arrived on the shores of Brazil with the enslaved Africans and survived the slavery era through synchronism with Catholicism and good old-fashioned trickery. Of the estimated 400 Orixás in the pantheon, 15-20 are regularly worshiped in Brazil. Of those 15-20, Iemanjá is considered one of the primary Candomblé Orixás in Salvador for two reasons. 

  1. Salvador is a long-time fishing village, and fishing remains an important industry in the city and region. And Iemanjá, as the goddess of the sea, is responsible for its abundance. Her day first was commemorated in 1923 as a procession to ask for a successful fishing season and is now a major festival.
  2. Iemanjá is considered to be the Orixá that brought Candomblé to Brazil. The enslaved Africans arrived in slave ships on the sea, and she was the one that oversaw their safe passage.
women dressed like a goddess
Woman dressed in homage to Iemanjá

A can’t-miss festival for 80,000

Each year on February 2nd, the Candomblé faithful, not-so-faithful, and people who are just down for a good party converge on Rio Vermelho at the fishing weigh house known as the house of Iemanjá (Casa de Iemanjá).

The festival starts in the pre-dawn hours (or for some people, the night before) when most Candomblé faithful arrive to pay their respects. As we did, many buy flowers and stand in line to put flowers on the official offering that goes out to the ocean mid-afternoon. Others take their flowers and descend directly to the beach and make their offering from there. And yet others pay a private boat a small fee and go out and make their own offering right into the ocean. There is no right or wrong way to do it — just what feels right to you.

man kneeling in the sand, arms oustretched
A Candomblé faithful in the early morning hours of February 2nd

By around mid-day, the flower vendors are replaced by beer vendors, and the samba and samba-reggae bands start to fill the space. The semi-reverent murmur of the morning gives way to beer-fueled boisterousness. The street party continues until close to midnight — after the nationally-known acts like Carlinhos Brown and Mariene de Castro have finished up their shows.

What you need to know

The essentials:

flowers in a basket
An offering ready to go to the sea

Pro tips:

  • Wear light blue and/or white and comfortable shoes
  • Wear sunscreen and/or a hat
  • Bring small bills for buying water/drinks. It will be hot.
  • Guard your valuables — where there are lots of people, there are pickpockets. I swear by Stashbandz to store my stuff.
  • Be prepared for crowds. The event generally hosts 80,000 people.

Photos: @suylimafotografia

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