The Pantanal town of Corumbá, in Mato Grosso do Sul, hosts the largest and most spectacular Carnavals in Central-West Brazil. It has all the glitz and glamour of the famous Rio de Janeiro carnaval ... but with the added bonus that visitors can get close to the action, and even take part.
Carnaval in Corumbá has a long history, dating back at least as far as the late 19th century when soldiers from Rio de Janeiro were posted to guard the frontier in the aftermath of the Paraguayan War. The Carnaval lasts about a week - although there are often pre-Carnaval events which help build enthusiasm and stretch the celebrations over a longer period. It usually takes place in February - but is dependent on the official religious calendar dates and occasionally pushes into early March.
As with carnaval elsewhere in Brazil, the celebrations originated as a religious holiday - being the last opportunity to celebrate and let their hair down before entering the solemn period of lent which precedes Easter. However, somewhere along the line, celebratory parades put on by alternative samba groups (called escolas or "schools") became competitive.
These schools compete based on their music, costumes, and choreographed displays. Each school chooses a theme or allegory for their costumes and floats. These allegories can be anything at all - and don't necessarily relate directly to the region. Recent themes have included: "What moves mankind"; 1492; South Africa; and "On the trail of revelry". The obscurity of some themes mean that you can never be sure what you'll to see until the night of the presentations. The competition means that costumes and floats remain closely guarded secrets.
With 10 groups competing, the samba school presentations need to be split over over two successive nights. Other nights are also set aside for the blocos. These are much less formal than the escolas - and are more like a fancy dress party that anyone can attend and take part. These blocos have their own parades - but also organise pre-Carnaval events (such as the Bloco Sujo) - and are really just excuses to dress up, drink, dance to live music and have fun. In some cases, the "ticket" to the event is sold as an official t-shirt (costing around $100), with this price also including drinks on the night.
The carnaval venue in Corumbá is Avenida Rondon. This is a wide street by the waterfront, overlooking the historic river port (Porto Geral). Temporary scaffolding for balconies and seating are arranged on either side of the street, ensuring that everyone can get a great view of the proceedings. Barriers are set up along the side of the street so that over-enthusiastic revellers don't interrupt or interfere with the parade.
Liaison is needed beforehand with the local event organisers, or with individual samba schools, if you want to get past the barriers and join the parade for photography or filming. Alternatively, some positions in the parade, complete with costumes, are reserved for paying tourists (usually Brazilians from other cities). The income gained from this is used to help subsidise other costumes and the carnaval floats.
Aside from the carnaval parade venue, other locations around the town are used for parties and live music performances. Since Corumbá is a small town, most of these are within a few blocks of one another and easily walkable.
Although the music of carnaval is officially samba, high-energy axé music from Bahia is also very popular - along the Pantanal regional favourite of música sertanaja.
Security Note: Although the Carnaval is generally safe and friendly, tourists visiting are advised not to carry large amounts of cash, passports, or be flashy with big cameras when joining festivities - as the crowd (and distraction) can provide an opportunity for pickpockets. Events on the three main nights are generally orderly and well controlled. Unseasoned visitors might be wise to avoid the "blocos" held in the week preceding the official carnaval, as these are alcohol-fuelled festivities which have a reputation for getting messy.