Billed as the biggest street party on the planet (it’s listed in Guinness Book of World Records as such), Salvador ’s Carnaval lures an estimated two million local and international revelers to the streets of the Centro , Barra , and Ondina, for madness, mayhem, and plenty of dancing.
The merrymaking gets underway timidly (although in Salvador, “timid” is very relative) on Thursday night when keys to the city are handed over to the Rei Momo (Carnaval King). It then continues (to the yearly dismay of the Catholic Church) until noon on Ash Wednesday, when the leader of the Timbalada bloco, Carlinhos Brown, leads a procession of trio elétricos full of celebrities such as Daniela Mercury and Ivete Sangalo along Avenida Oceânica.
Speaking of trio elétricos, these massive stages on wheels outfitted with mega speakers (as well as dressing rooms, lounges, bars, and restrooms) are what propel Carnaval’s major musical artists and their guests around the 25 kilometers (16 miles) of closed-off thoroughfares. Each trio belongs to a bloco, a type of closed club, which is literally cordoned off from the masses on the sidewalks.
For a fee (ranging from R$300 to R$1,500, payable at Central do Carnaval stands), you can join a bloco belonging to Gilberto Gil, Daniela Mercury, Ara Ketu, or Timbalada. Aside from a festive costume (known as an abadá), you get unlimited beverages, use of the toilet, and protection, courtesy of the cordeiros, who are very poorly paid to man the ropes separating blocos from the rest of the populace, known as the pipoca (“popcorn”).
Although being part of a bloco allows you to be right in the center of things, to experience Carnaval in all its diversity, leave your valuables at home and take to the streets. This will give you a chance to wander around more freely and fully experience the variety of offerings, from African (such as Olodum, and Ilê Aiyê), indigenous, and even transvestite blocos and afoxés (such as the 50-year-old Filhos de Gandhy group, whose all-male members dress in long white robes and turbans) to hiphop and reggae groups and DJ-led raves (Britain’s Fatboy Slim is a favorite presence).
Carnaval unfolds in three areas, known as “circuits.” While the Dôdo Circuito in Barra  and Ondina tends to attract the big names associated with axé music (Bahia ’s signature style of throbbing commercial pop), the Osmar Circuito between Campo Grande  and Praça Castro Alves features the more traditional and less commercial blocos. The Circuito Batatinha in the Pelourinho , with its small samba groups and marching bands, is perfect for children and families.
Whether you indulge for one night or all six, as an unadulterated sensory hedonistic experience Salvador ’s Carnaval is beyond comparison. If you can’t take the heat (not to mention blaring music and chaotic crowds), it’s probably best to do like 50 percent of the population and get out of the city. But if you’re in the mood to dance, sing, pular (jump up and down), and paquerar (flirt), from dusk till dawn and back again, you’ll be absolutely thrilled.
Note: Considering the possible mayhem when you throw a couple of million drunken people together in 35-degree heat, Carnaval is more or less peaceful thanks to heavy police presence. That said, it’s best to use caution. For certain, don’t party alone. Pickpockets abound, so be smart and carry photocopied documents and just enough money for snacks, beers, and a cab ride.