Are you planning on heading to Brazil for a carnival experience, but aren’t sure whether to go to Rio or Salvador? It’s easy to be torn between the two carnivals, which take place annually on the same dates, with this year’s carnivals taking place on February 9-14, 2018. Each carnival has its own distinct flavor, with some people being diehard Rio carnival fans, and others swearing that the Salvador Bahia carnival is unbeatable. We’ve compared Rio versus Salvador to help you choose where you’re going to party:
The Rio Carnival is the biggest carnival in the world. It features jaw-dropping parades, giant floats and world-class samba music. The official parades take place in the Sambodromo, which is the city’s main arena that’s used during the carnival. The city’s samba schools congregate on the arena and compete to be crowned the ‘best samba school’. The preparation that goes into the parades is outstanding, with many samba schools beginning to plan routines and create costumes as early as March, just one month after the previous carnival finishes. It’s an incredible explosion of color, costumes and music that’s televised around the world.
Meanwhile, things in Salvador are very different. Salvador has the largest African-Brazilian population in the country and the main music of the Bahian carnival is axé, which is a fusion of African and Brazilian contemporary music. Because of this, there are no samba parades, and the carnival is solely based on street parties — which are known to be even wilder and more spectacular than the street parties in Rio.
The street parties, known as blocos, take place in both cities. Normally a bloco consists of a van, or several vans, driving on a pre-designed route. The vans pump out music and a large crowd follows, walking, dancing and partying along the way.
In Rio, there are over 500 blocos that take place across the city and these parties are where the locals head to celebrate the carnival. The parties happen all over the city during the carnival week, and the whole city stops as friends and families celebrate. The blocos can draw anything from a few thousand people to hundreds of thousands of partygoers. In Rio the street parties are free. Check out our guide to Blocos to prepare yourself.
Meanwhile, in Salvador, things operate a little differently. The vans, called trio electrico, are large, 18-wheelers with amplifiers and large stages. They are more like musical cars that carry top musicians and singers along the routes. The street parties are ticketed affairs, and cost between $45- $275 USD. The parties are considered to be more secure, as the area that surrounds the van’s route are cordoned off, and only accessible to those who have paid. There are hundreds of blocos taking place throughout the city.
The Dodo bloco is our top pick, as its route runs parallel to the coast, meaning you get miles of stunning coastal views as you are walking. Salvador is known for its intense, wild parties that you’ll never forget — anything goes!
If you’re big on ticking things off your travel list, then the Rio carnival is the one for you. As it’s the biggest carnival in the world, there’s unparalleled excitement surrounding the event. The city is completely saturated with tourists, however, so your experience of Brazil as a country might not seem as ‘real’.
While the Bahia Salvador carnival isn’t as big as the Rio carnival, it wins a lot of points for its more local atmosphere. The Bahia carnival is less on the tourist trail — making it a real gem. It gives you a chance to see a carnival experience more through the eyes of a local.
The prices in both cities surge during the carnival period, however Salvador remains a cheaper option in terms of accommodations. Most international flights arrive in Rio however, and flying from Rio to Salvador can be extremely expensive in the lead up to the carnival.
Brazil has a great bus system and long distance bus rides are on comfy, air-conditioned buses. The trip between Salvador and Rio takes up to 24 hours by bus. If you’re planning to get to the Bahia carnival this way, be sure to book your ticket with plenty of time ahead to ensure you get a seat.
Prices in Rio almost triple during the carnival period and many hotels and hostels sell out. Book your accommodation with plenty of time in advance.
Food and Drink
Some of the top dishes in Rio include:
- Pastel de queijo, which is a deep-fried pastry stuffed with anything from meat to cheese
- Cassava chips (otherwise known as yuca) that have been fried
- Bacalhau, which is salted cod bites that are deep fried and have a perfectly fluffy center
The food in Salvador has a distinct flavor thanks to its African influences. Top things to eat include:
- Acarajé and Abará, which is the Bahian equivalent of a burger, featuring a dumpling patty made from mashed black-eyed peas, and stuffed with a peanut and shrimp paste
- Queijo Coalho, which is a stick of cheese that has been cooked on coals
- Milho, which is corn on cob slathered with butter
At both the carnivals, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll end up drinking a few too many caipirinhas. The caipirinha is the country’s national cocktail. It’s a blend of cachaça (Brazil’s national liquor that’s made from fermented sugar cane), fresh lime juice, sugar and crushed ice. Here are the top seven Brazilian cocktails that you have to try.
Sadly, crime is almost always an issue when planning a trip to Brazil. Although there’s a large police presence, you still have to be alert and keep your wits about you at both carnivals. Pickpocketing and petty crime are rife, so take only the bare minimum out with you. If you can, avoid bringing a bag, and take just a small pouch that you wear around your neck, with essentials such as some money, a credit card, and your phone. Don’t walk off down deserted streets and always stick with the crowd. Some people feel the Rio carnival is the safest of the two because there’s a larger tourist presence. Whichever carnival suits you, be sure to think about safety first.