Recife and Olinda: Brazilian Carnival beyond Rio


Giant dolls in the streets of Olinda
Olinda's Carnival/2009. Photo by Raul DS/Flickr

By José Alberto Gonçalves Pereira*

Rio, Salvador, Recife or Olinda? Which town promotes the best carnival in Brazil? It is a very arguable question and I reckon I´m not the right person to answer it. You might distrust my response if I told you that I am traveling this week to the Northeast to enjoy my ninth carnival in Olinda and Recife. These neighboring towns on the coast of the state of Pernambuco are among the best places in Brazil for those interested in popular street culture. Olinda and Recife dispute the trophy of best carnival of Pernambuco – or maybe Brazil. Both cities have common cultural features, especially the lead carnival rhythm, frevo, a high-speed march played by brass bands, that includes umbrella-swinging and steps derived from capoeira.

No one in Brazil is crazy to deny that Rio stages the most beautiful samba carnival in the world. Also, I would be dishonest if I did not pay tribute to the exciting Salvador carnival, which brings together a multitude to its streets to sing and dance animated by trios elétricos (trucks equipped with a powerful sound system and a band on top of it) and blocos afros (Afro-Brazilian cultural groups). Both carnivals deserve your attendance at least once in your terrestrial life.

However, if you are fond of popular culture and street party, you should taste the most diverse, irreverent, creative, and spontaneous Brazilian street carnival in Recife and, even more, in Olinda, where the brass bands go up and down the hills followed by the crowd, without any restriction, completely free.

Olinda is a jewel of colonial architecture that is only 6 kilometers (5 miles) away from the center of Recife, Pernambuco´s capital. It was founded in 1535 – one of the oldest towns in Brazil – to be the Portuguese capital of the hereditary captaincy of Pernambuco. Its historic downtown is a Unesco´s World Heritage site.

The colorful colonial facades and its balconies form a perfect set for the shows of colorful giant puppets made of papier-mâché and people dressed in homemade costumes. The puppets represent local and national personalities and celebrities and characters like “A Fofoqueira de Olinda” (the Olinda´s gossiper) and “O Homem da Meia-Noite” (“The Midnight Man”), who invades the streets on Saturday carnival night, at – you guessed – midnight. Some puppets also pay homage to distinguished locals.

Streets of Olinda during 2009 Carnival.
Streets of Olinda during 2009 Carnival. Photo by Raul DS/Flickr

Anyone can either make his own costume or buy it and join in the carnival, either alone or in a group. There is not a unique theme – you just need to arouse your creativity. The costumes satirize moral, social and political aspects of the Brazilian society.

Favorite subjects are political corruption and the Catholic Church´s sexual morality. Many girls dress in nun costumes, wearing miniskirts, and hold posters showing sexually provocative words. Other people wear prisoner costumes to represent corrupt politicians, whereas some play with technological progress, carrying on their heads a television made with cardboard.

Despite frevo being the soul of the party, both in Olinda and Recife, locals are also proud of a number of other rhythms such as maracatu, ciranda, caboclinhos and coco.

Unlike the fast electric frevo, maracatu is an Afro-Brazilian slow Carnaval procession, a ritual animated by percussion instruments that follows a representation of an African royal couple. The queen holds the calunga, an Afro-Brazilian doll that incarnates the force of the maracatu group´s ancestors.

While maracatu evokes African heritage, tribos de caboclinhos highlight the indigenous culture. It is one of the most original carnival traditions of Recife. Groups of people dressed in native Brazilian costumes parade playing  instruments that imitate sounds familiar to the indigenous daily life, such as the noise made when an arrow is fired and crosses the bow.

Ciranda is a sort of slow dance that came from Portugal. Dancers turn in circles following the rhythm of a minstrel´s song.

Coco is a beach dance of uncertain origin, but most  folklore experts agree that it has indigenous and African influence. It´s danced in a circle, where coco dancers follow the song, with their pace marked by the timbrel. Its contagious rhythm has influenced popular composers, such as Alceu Valença, Brazilian musical icon from Pernambuco, as well as the manguebeat movement, which combines folk traditions like maracatu with rap, rock and electronic music. The most traditionalists don´t like mangue beat groups and argue that they degenerate popular culture. Nevertheless, thanks to Nação Zumbi, a group led initially by legendary Chico Science and his band,  mangue beat´s masterminds,  maracatu has been publicized all over the world. Aged 33, Chico died in February of 1997 in a car crash when he was driving from Olinda to Recife on the eve of the carnival.

To fully enjoy Recife´s and Olinda´s carnival, attend the former in the morning and early afternoon and take part in the latter from late afternoon on. Olinda´s is more irreverent, spontaneous and popular, but it can get too crowded over the afternoon, whereas Recife’s is more organized and allows you to distinguish easily the different carnival rhythms.

*José Alberto Gonçalves Pereira is a freelance environment journalist based in São Paulo, Brazil.

Corrida de Bonecos Gigantes - Prévia Carnaval 2010
Race of Giant Puppets, in Olinda. Photo by Prefeitura de Olinda/Flickr

You might also be interested in these posts:
Gorgeous Rio Carnival
Street Carnival
Orson Welles in Rio’s Carnival


  1. ANY city that seperates foliões off from each other based on whether or not they bought a damned t-shirt doesn’t get my vote. Fuck you, Salvador. Rio’s mayor wants to do this sort of crap, but thankfully the carioca masses are (as always) revolting.

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