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Recife’s all dolled up for Carnival

by Bernard O'Shea

When “Carnival” and “Brazil” are mentioned, you’ll probably think of Rio de Janeiro, but maybe you should be thinking of Recife.


Carnival is coming to a climax in those countries that celebrate it, while those that don’t look on enviously and rather wish they did. Like the Chinese or Luna New Year, the timing of Carnival – and Lent and Easter- depends on the phases of the moon, and this year they are a little later than usual. But never mind the astronomy, let’s focus on the parties.

The four biggest carnivals in the world, according to Wikipedia, take place in Rio de Janeiro and Recife in Brazil, Venice in Italy and Barranquilla in Colombia. Recently I had the pleasure of visiting Recife, one of the biggest cities on Brazil’s north-east coast, for the second time, and it’s a place I would quite happily go back to.

Samba or maracatu or frevo?

While Rio’s Carnival (‘Carnaval’ in Portugese) features samba and the marvellous floats and performances of the samba schools, in Recife and Olinda, a UNESCO World Heritage site just 11 kilometres to the north, it’s all about Maracatu (click here for an explanation) and Frevo, a dance performed often with colourful mini umbrellas.

In Recife, Carnival starts with a huge street procession led by the Galo de Madrugada (a giant rooster). A bonus is that in Olinda, Carnival tends to start a week before and end a couple of days after the official dates – musicians and performers from all over the state of Pernambuco converge on the place to jam together and have a good time. Another feature of Carnival here is the bonecos gigantes – giant dolls made of papier mâché on wire frames that someone with strong shoulders has to wear in the streets.

This video will give you a feel for the city and its Carnival  as well as Olinda and the beach resorts along the coast.

If you can’t get to Recife for Carnival, you can at least get up close and personal with the dolls in Casa dos Bonecos Gigantes, or house of dolls (details here). Here are some that caught our eye.

The giant figures of Carnival on display.

The giant figures of Carnival on display.

Other things to do in Recife

There is so much to see – Recife straddles three islands and three rivers as well as the mainland, its attractions are far and wide, and you have to cross a lot of bridges to get to them (which is why it is sometimes called the Venice of Brazil). Any visit to the area should include a day trip to Porto de Galinhas, one of the best beaches in Brazil, 60 kilometres south.

1. Go to the beach
The main beach is pleasant and goes for miles.

The main beach is pleasant and goes for miles.

Boa Viagem (Good Journey) is Recife’s main beach and the waterfront has the vibe to match Rio de Janeiro’s main esplanades. There is one thing you have to be aware of, though. Sharks roam these waters, so stick to the shallows behind the rocky reef not far offshore.  Recife is the Portuguese word for reef.

2. Do a boat trip
Recife is often called the Venice of Brazil because of its many waterways.

Recife is often compared to Venice because of its waterways.

Recife was originally a small port serving Olinda, and much of it was swamp, but when the Dutch occupied it in 1630 they drained it and called it New Amsterdam. Pictured below is the Torre de Cristal, or Crystal Tower, in the Park of Sculptures by Recife’s best known artist, Francisco Brennand. The park is situated on the harbour breakwater.

3. Visit the historic quarters
The resplendent harbourside.

The resplendent harbourside.

On the city’s three islands, there are clusters of historic buildings that are worth visiting both by day and more so at night, when there are restaurants and bars involved. Above is a photo of the buildings around the city’s Zero Mark.

 4. Go to Olinda for the day
Recife viewed from the historic town of Olinda.

Historic Olinda makes a marvellous contrast to the big, bustling modern city of Recife.

Or, even better, stay overnight. We will do a separate item post on Olinda in the near future. Here’s something to give you an idea of the great views it has of Recife. TTW

Bernard O’Shea travelled to Recife at his own expense. Photos © Bernard O’Shea and supplied.

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