When January arrives in Salvador, every day is a pre-funk for Carnaval. We roll right out of one of the biggest New Year’s Festivals in the world and just keep partying.

One of those signature days is Lavagem do Bomfim. This festival falls on either the second or third Thursday of the month, depending upon the year.

What is Lavagem do Bomfim

The phrase “lavagem do Bomfim” literally translates to “the washing of Bomfim.” Bomfim is the common name for Igreja Nosso Senhor do Bomfim, the most famous church in Salvador. “Washing” is the washing of the front steps of the Bomfim basilica.

How exactly this religious ritual turned into a day-long street party seems to be up for debate. But here, in the early part of the 21st century, it is a moving street party.

This 8 kilometer, loosely-organized parade leaves from the lower city by the Elevador Lacerda at 8am. The procession goes 8km along the lower city (cidade baixa) to arrive at Bomfim by noon for the Catholic/Candomblé synchronized service in the park in front of the church.

The procession

While I typically think of religious processions as solemn events, this is about as far from that as you can get.

Yes, the religious faithful make their way to the church. But just because you are religious doesn’t mean you aren’t going to enjoy yourself along the way.

The 8km route is flanked on both sides by vendors selling beer, soda, water, snacks, and more. The procession participants, two million strong, contain running groups, bands (primarily samba and samba-reggae), the super-popular afoxé Filhos de Gandhy, various church groups, and a number of beautifully dressed baianas carrying their offerings the 8km. 

In short, it really is a snapshot of Salvador. And, it’s marvelous.

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The service

The service is, as you would expect, in Portuguese. However, it’s still something to be experienced, even if you can’t understand a word of what’s being said. The overall message is always about hope and freedom and peace — something we all need a bit more of these days. And you can just feel that positive energy in the crowd.

The service tends to start pretty much right at noon, and is broadcast live to over 90 countries.

How to take part

There are few of different ways you can tackle Lavagem. 

  1. Get up early and walk the route. While the main procession starts leaving around 8am, a couple of million people attend, so leaving takes a while. If you want to get to Bomfim for the service, be sure you’re amongst those that are leaving around 8:00-8:30am.
  2. Walk part of the route. While 8km isn’t that far, the sun is hot and the whole thing can be a bit overwhelming. Lots and lots of people and lots and lots of music. So, bailing part way out is an option. I don’t recommend this unless you are with locals, as the parade route doesn’t have a lot of options where you’re going to find a car and it’s not a great area to be wandering around.
  3. Show up just to observe. This is my husband’s favorite way to “do Lavagem.” He likes to go early, arrive near the start of the procession, watch for an hour, and then head back home.

What you need to know

The essentials:

  • Date: January 16 in 2020 (the 2021 festival likely will not happen)
  • Start time: 8am
  • Church service time: 12 noon
  • Start location: base of Elevador Lacerda in the lower city (it’s probably easiest to get to the Pelourinho/Praca da Sé and go down the elevator. It should be free that day.)

Pro tips:

  • Wear white and your walking 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 2 million participants

If you go, tag #salvadorlove on your photos on Instagram. I’d love to see them!

Photo: Paula Fróes/GOVBA

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