Salvador, Brazil: Carnaval and Capoeira

By Isadora Dunne

The Filhos de Gandhi, a Carnaval group in Salvador, Brazil, dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi - photos by Isadora Dunne
The Filhos de Gandhi, a Carnaval group in Salvador, Brazil, dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi – photos by Isadora Dunne

Arriving in Brazil on the last day of Carnaval is like getting to a bar right before last call; it’s overwhelming, crowded, and everywhere you look people are going crazy.

Even during the morning hours, the streets are crammed with people in their Carnaval costumes, socializing and preparing for the festivities to come. The energy is infectious, and Carnaval in Salvador is known to be the biggest street party in the world — I couldn’t wait to join in the fun.

Elevator up!

I began my experience with a ride up Salvador’s public elevator, a truly unique aspect of Salvador. The city is divided into two sections: the old upper city, called Pelourinho, with steep cobblestone streets and ancient cathedrals, and the lower city, which is newer and right on the waterfront.

When the Portuguese first settled the area as the first colonial capital of Brazil, they built their city on top of the hill for defensive purposes, so as the city expanded, four large concrete elevators were constructed to provide public transportation between the two levels of the city.

The elevators were first installed in 1873, and were the first in all of Brazil. They run all day and late into the night, with a charge of.05 Reals each way, the equivalent of about two cents American, and the service is free during Carnaval. It’s a fun and quick ride of about two minutes, and the view from the top overlooking the harbor is great.

A camarote brimming with revelers
A camarote brimming with revelers

In Salvador the week-long Carnaval celebration culminates on Fat Tuesday with an all-night parade of Brazilian musical acts through the streets of Pelourinho on huge, two-story floats. Each float is run by a different Carnaval social group, identifiable by the matching Carnaval costumes that they wear.

As the parade winds through Salvador, the members of each group travel with their float, dancing and partying either on it or around it, and many floats have bathrooms, beds to rest on, and open bars provided for their supporters.

The trick to being part of one of these Carnaval groups is that you have to pay for the costume, and depending on the popularity of the group, it can get pretty expensive, sometimes upwards of the equivalent of $400.

This is an example of the social inequality you find in Salvador; extreme wealth and extreme poverty living side by side.

Throughout the entirety of the parade, there are rope-holders, who maintain a rope barrier in place on both sides of the floats to keep the street revelers, who don’t have to pay anything, away from the group members, who clearly have money to spend on their status.

A square in Pelourinho
A square in Pelourinho

The most popular Carnaval group during my experience was the Filhos de Gandhi, or children of Gandhi, which was created just after Gandhi died in memory of him and in support of peace. There were thousands of them in the city that day, wearing white and blue costumes, with turbans on their heads, long robes, stacked bead necklaces, and sandals on their feet.

More Caipirinhas, Por Favor

Being a frugal traveler, I opted out of paying to join any specific group, and decided to join the two million people that were flooding the streets. There are grandstands called Camarotes lining the streets that provide a more secure and controlled environment from which to enjoy the parade (for a fee, of course), but for my first Carnaval in Brazil, it had to be the streets.

I had been warned exhaustively of the dangers of pick pocketing, robbery, and sexual harassment during Carnaval in Salvador (though it’s not quite as dangerous as Rio), so I made sure to stick with a large group for the night. I had on a money belt tucked safely under my shirt, and my friends and I made it through the night with no trouble whatsoever.

A quiet moment just outside the city
A quiet moment just outside the city

The streets were jam-packed with millions of partiers, but almost all of the locals that I interacted with were friendly and just having fun themselves.

We found a spot on the sidewalk right in front of the rope line, and danced till the wee hours of the morning as floats went by playing pounding dance music for the masses.

We drank copious amounts of caipirinhas, Brazil’s national cocktail, made from cachaça (similar to rum), sugar, and lime. They were cool and refreshing, and worked perfectly to combat the humidity.

One local couple we met helped our group get rid of some lurking men, and the woman was so sweet; she taught us some Brazilian dance moves and took pictures with us.

It got intensely packed at certain points, but we all held on to each other so we wouldn’t get swept away by the passing crowd, who were moving with the floats.

The author tries her best defensive move.
The author tries her best defensive move.

Brazilian men are pretty forward about complimenting women, especially during Carnaval when kissing strangers is part of the tradition. It is something that is to be expected, but I was able to fend off all advances; for the most part, you only get kissed if you want to. There is a strong police presence at Carnaval, and as long you are vigilant and smart, the joy of the experience far outweighs the dangers.

Mestre Bamba

I love getting to know a city by its native art forms and for a dancer like me, a trip to Salvador would not have been complete without a Capoeira class. Capoeira is a part of the Afro-Brazilian tradition that is so strong in Salvador, because it was at one time the South American center for slave trade.

It is the city with the highest percentage of African Brazilians in all of Brazil at over 80%, making Salvador the center of Afro-Brazilian culture.

Happy and sweaty after a lesson with Mestre Bamba
Happy and sweaty after a lesson with Mestre Bamba

Capoeira is a form of martial art, but it is also a lot like dancing. It was created by African slaves in Salvador as a way to maintain their defensive abilities and strength, though the slave owners forbade actual fights.

There were Capoeira demonstrations throughout the squares of the old city, but I really wanted to take a genuine class rather than just watching from the sidelines. So early on the morning of my last in Salvador I walked through Pelourinho with a few friends to find ourselves a beginner’s class.

We found a small school called the Associação de Capoeira, which was on the top floor of a storefront building, and consisted of an open studio and a tiny reception office. We paid the 15 reals (about 6 USD) and got an amazing hour-long intro class.

Our instructor’s Capoeira nickname was Mestre Bamba, and he was amazing. He spoke very little English but was a great teacher; he was able to communicate brilliantly and didn’t let us half-ass it — we were working hard the entire time.

Açai is a cross between Italian ice and yogurt.
Açai is a cross between Italian ice and yogurt.

I thought I’d be fine because of my ballet training, but the class was intense! We did lots of squatting and kicking, cartwheels and tumbles.

The way Capoeira works is that one learns a repertoire of both defensive and offensive moves, and then during demonstrations and in-class exercises, you match up against another, enter the ring, and free-style fight using the moves you both know.

My friends and I got to experience this first hand at the end of the class; the last exercise of class paired each of us against an advanced Brazilian Capoeira student, and we took turns entering the ring and free-style fighting.

All us newbie Americans were really nervous, but it was so fun. The Brazilians were as nice as can be, and helped us out by going for a duck first, so we could kick, and then they would reciprocate.

It was such a great local experience, something that is so unique to Salvador. It made for a beautiful last day in Salvador, which became calm, charming, and laid-back after the Carnaval party-goers left. I was ridiculously sore for weeks, no wonder Mestre Bamba is in such good shape!

The Perfect Ending

After the class ended my exhausted friends and I went to a very cool hostel/internet café that was located in the upper city, right by the elevators.

We were there for açai, a delicious Brazilian dish that is very healthy, and especially good to refuel after a work-out. It’s a cross between Italian ice and yogurt, with a consistency that’s hard to describe. It’s made from crushed açai berries, which are native to Brazil and are very high in antioxidants. The açai dish is deep purple and very cold — icy and so refreshing.

It’s usually served with sliced fruit; we got a bowl with banana and a bowl with mango. It also comes with granola, which I like to sprinkle in at the end, when all the ice is melted and the fruit is gone. Yum!

Isadora Dunne is a former intern with GoNOMAD who now lives and works in the Boston area.

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