Brazilians cast off cares as carnival hits top gear

Dancers on stilts, bare-chested cowboys, Carmelite nuns in miniskirts and plenty of bare flesh flooded Rio`s streets Saturday as revelers cranked up the volume at Brazil`s intoxicating Carnival festival.

AFP| Updated: Feb 15, 2015, 03:55 AM IST

Rio de Janeiro: Dancers on stilts, bare-chested cowboys, Carmelite nuns in miniskirts and plenty of bare flesh flooded Rio`s streets Saturday as revelers cranked up the volume at Brazil`s intoxicating Carnival festival.

Crowds of residents and tourists drank and partied during the joyous carnival, considered the greatest show on Earth by many who live in the "Marvelous City."

Despite sweltering heat, millions of people joined multiple street parades in Rio, an annual celebration for almost a century.

The first record of carnival celebrations dates back to 1723 -- but the first samba school was not formed until 1928.

Recent years have seen the popularity of street groups or `blocos` mushroom and now there are around 400. Some draw just a few hundred people but others attract millions.

Having partied into the night after King Momo, the symbolic head of Carnival, declared the five-day frenzy open Friday, residents were back on the streets from dawn, eschewing more than the briefest of sleeps.Many were decked out in the distinctive black-and-white polka dot outfits inspired by Rio`s oldest street party group, Cordao da Bola Preta.

Others sought to outdo themselves in garish garb, with cross-dressing and superhero costumes typical favorites -- although many wore barely any clothing at all.

"We are cariocas (Rio natives), party animals," yelled out Willian de Assis, a 30-year-old barechested and wearing a pink cowboy hat, tiny shorts and boots.

"We`re not gay -- but carnival time is about giving free rein to your fantasies," he explained.

The baking heat proved a boon for street kiosk operators offering cold drinks, who did a roaring trade. 

The decibel count soared across the afternoon, the air filled with the distinctive orchestral samba blend of drums, shakers, bells, brass instruments and countless guitars.

Brazilians have endured plenty of setbacks since last year`s carnival with the economy tanking, the flagship oil firm Petrobras mired in a huge corruption scandal and their football team dealt a World Cup humiliation by Germany.

But Carnival is a chance to ignore all that. 

"Life is short. For five days we forget our worries," said Leonard Ramalho, 38, clad in a huge red headdress.

Other cities were also enjoying their own festivities, notably Sao Paulo and the northern city of Recife, where some two million people were expected to join in the revelry.

The Recife parade, which attracted a street party world record 2.5 million people two years ago, occurs every carnival Saturday in the Sao Jose district of the city.

In Sao Paulo, revelers swapped their usual business attire to let their hair down as a wave of people joined the party fray overnight.

With Sao Paulo hit by months of the worst drought in decades, several samba schools made references to rain as part of their routine.Rio authorities hope up to five million people, including around one million tourists, will enjoy the action through Tuesday and spend up to $500 million as part of festivities. 

The Rio tourist office put Saturday`s attendance at 1.3 million, below initial expectations of two million, while police gave no official crowd estimate.

"The heat maybe kept a few at home -- saving their energy for after the sun goes down maybe," said 17-year-old Liz Sandry, dressed in gold with black polka dots. 

Others said festivities were muted as parts of the city were under construction ahead of the 2016 Olympics. 

"The prefecture has moved us out of our usual start area because of pre-Olympic works going on in the Centro district and we are much more spread out, making the atmosphere less intense," said Carlos Soares, a 50-year-old dressed as a clown.

One woman, who gave her name only as Bianca, was dressed as a pirate. 

"Just an ironic touch. The real pirates are in Planalto," she told AFP, referring to the seat of government in Brasilia.