Salvador carnaval is a marathon, not a sprint. While the official carnaval days are Thursday through Tuesday, it extends several days in either direction with additional official activities. And, if I was to be honest, the carnaval season actually starts on December 4th with the festival of Santa Barbara / Iensã.
Yeah, they like a good party here.
So, to emerge on the other side with the kind of happy-tired that only comes from an epic adventure, you have to pick up some survival strategies.
18 Tips to Survive Salvador Carnaval
- Don’t drink too much — If you ignore everything else on this list, do not ignore this one. When 750,000 people descend on a city with high levels of economic disparity, pickpocketing is going to happen. As you know, drinking lowers your defenses, and every time I hear a story about a tourist being robbed, there is invariably alcohol involved. Plus, hangovers suck.
- Don’t go out alone — Carnaval is more fun with friends, and it’s also safer with friends. Violent crime statistics are virtually non-existent for Salvador carnaval due to the massively increased security. But, if you are jostled and get hurt, or get pick-pocketed, or lose your keys it’s nice to be with a friendly face.
- Don’t take valuables — Take just enough money to eat, drink, and take a taxi. Leave your expensive jewelry and high-end camera behind. And, if you can, leave your phone at home. If you can’t bear the idea of leaving your phone behind, you can bring a second, inexpensive unlocked phone that you won’t cry about if it gets stolen. Or, you can keep reading to the next tip where you’ll learn what the locals do.
- Carefully guard your phone — I know, in one breath I’m telling you to leave your phone at home. In the next I’m telling you where to hide it when you go out. But, it’s because I know you, and you are going to ignore my well-intentioned advice. You have three options. Option 1: Stick your phone partway down the front of your shorts and cover it with your shirt. This is the most popular option with men (and many women as well). Option 2: Put it in your bra. I know, this requires you to be wearing a bra, but this is a very popular option with women. Option 3: Use a slim travel money belt / fanny pack around your waist and cover it with your shirt. You’ll notice that carrying your phone in a purse/bag or in your pocket did not make the list. Just don’t.
- Wear comfortable, closed-toe shoes — Sandals or Havaianas are tempting because it’s hot and they look nice with shorts, but they aren’t the smart choice. People will step on your feet and they will get covered in dirt and beer. Instead, bring and wear your favorite dark-ish colored tennis shoes.
- Go with the flow — Things will change, lines will be long, nothing will run on schedule, people will yell at you. You’ll be hungry, you’ll be tired, you’ll be sweaty. You will likely ignore my first piece of advice and at some point be hungover. All of this will happen and you (mostly) can’t control it. What you can control is how you respond to it.
- Time is a fluid concept — Even outside of carnaval, nothing runs on time in Salvador. And, when you start dealing with hundreds of thousands people, the tardiness just gets amplified. My new favorite story is from a recent percussion lesson where my professor said to visiting students, “classes are usually an hour, but when it’s a good class we just keep going until it isn’t.”
- Schedule gets released late — Final programming for the three main circuits isn’t released until about a week prior to the start of carnaval. You can find some of it by going to the Facebook pages of individual bands and artists, but the complete programming is released super-late. I look at it as an opportunity to go with the flow.
- Stay hydrated — This is a hard one when beer costs less, and is easier to find, than water. But, do your best to regularly drink a bottle of water. I know the beer here is super-weak, but it does not count as water and it will give you a hangover. (The tap water is safe for things like brushing your teeth, but you don’t want to drink it in large quantities.)
- Remember to eat — This is my other mom tip — you have to eat. You’ll want to eat well before you head out for the afternoon/evening. If you are heading to the Campo Grande or Barra-Ondina circuits, be aware that there are very limited opportunities to find food.
- Use a sleep mask — Honestly, I not a fan of sleep masks. But when you are out until 4am and will be sleeping until at least noon, you’ll be glad you have it.
- You’ll be out late — The trio elétricos don’t get started until between 3pm and 5pm in the afternoon, and the last trio arrives at the end of the circuit somewhere around 4am. No matter what the schedule says, this is the reality.
- Spread out your money — I’m a bit paranoid these days, but I frequently put my money and valuables in multiple locations (bra, money wallet, shorts, etc). That way, if I am pick-pocketed I won’t lose everything. It also means I can pull out $10 reais for a couple of beers without pulling out a wad of bills and attracting unwanted attention.
- Bus schedules are disrupted — Bus service for Barra, Ondina, Campo Grande, and the Pelourinho stops a few days before carnaval and starts again a few days after. You’ll need to rely on car taxis and moto taxis if you want to get to and from any of the main circuits. Which leads me to my next tip…
- Clarify taxi prices upfront — Drivers are not afraid to try to take advantage of an unsuspecting visitor. Last carnaval, I got into a taxi to the Pelourinho to play a show and right before we left I asked how much the ride would be. The driver responded, “$50 reais.” That same ride is normally $20-25 reais, so I knew there was no way it was $50 — even with traffic. I told him that was too much and started getting out of the taxi. He called me back and offered to run the meter instead and I got there for $35. This isn’t to say “always use the meter,” but instead a reminder to clarify the price up front to avoid a nasty surprise later.
- Housing is expensive — Salvador is not an expensive city to visit or live in, but the rental prices for carnaval are jaw-droppingly high. For just the seven to ten days around carnaval, rentals are three to four times the normal monthly rental rate for the same property. So, a $1,000 USD monthly apartment becomes $3,000 – $4,000 just for carnaval. Rentals are less expensive the further away you are from the city center, but then you have to figure out transportation.
- Businesses are closed and boarded up — I was honestly shocked my first time here for carnaval. I knew businesses near the carnaval routes closed, but I hadn’t expected every location with glass at street level would be boarded over. From apartment buildings to storefronts, the plywood goes up. Neighborhoods end up looking a bit like a war zones, but it helps keep both the buildings and revelers safe from broken glass during the festivities.
- Get cash early and often — Be sure to get cash during the day and go with friends. The ATMs do tend to run out of cash and thieves are always on the lookout for un-suspecting tourists to help relieve them of some of that cash. Not sure what banks you can use in Salvador? Click here — I’ve got a post for that, too.
Don’t let the long list deter you — most of it is big-city common sense. Combine that with a little bit of planning and a lot of “go with the flow” and you are set to have an epic, memorable adventure.
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