Bizarre Carnival Celebrations You Haven’t Heard Of

It’s that time of year again, when thousands of dancers prepare to don feathers, beads, and sequins and parade down the streets to mark Carnival. And while big Carnival (or Mardi Gras, as it’s also known) celebrations such as the one in Rio de Janiero get plenty of press, there are lots of other festivals that are just as colorful and creative … and perhaps a little weird.

Wanna see men dressed up as frightening goats, watch devils prance through the streets, or have hundreds of mysteriously masked men throw fruit at you? Read on to learn about some of the world’s most interesting and bizarre Carnival celebrations – where you won’t find a sequined bikini to speak of.

The Carnival of Binche, Belgium

The Carnival of Binche, which takes place in a small town in Belgium, dates back to the 14th century. The festival is one of the oldest street carnivals in Europe and has been recognized by UNESCO for its cultural significance.

The main figures in Binche’s Carnival are known the Gilles (see photo above). These are a group of up to 1000 men who wear costumes featuring the colors of the Belgium flag, which are covered in mysterious crests, bells and tassels. The outfits are also stuffed with straw giving the men a linebacker-esque appearance. On their feet, the Gilles wear clunky wooden clogs, and on their faces, they sport peculiar wax masks, which boast curled moustaches and bulging green glasses. These masks get switched out later in the day for giant feathery hats made up of more than 350 ostrich feathers.

If you plan to be in the audience for the Carnival of Binche, watch out, because the Gilles carry baskets full of blood oranges that they throw at onlookers as they dance down the streets.

No one is entirely sure about the origins of the Gilles, but it’s believed the concept dates back to pagan times, when the Gilles would dance and stomp their wooden shoes to chase away winter. The masks are supposed to represent the equality of all people … but there’s no word on what’s behind the orange throwing!

Busójárás, Hungary

Busójárás is a Carnival celebration held in Mohacs, Hungary, 124 miles south of the country’s capital. Like most Carnivals, this six-day festival features parades and dancing, but unlike its counterparts, the Busójárás includes folk music and men dressed as shaggy, horned animals. Known as Busos, the mask-and-fur costumes resemble large, devilish goats – locals wear them as they carry a coffin through the streets.

The origins behind the masked revelry is mixed – some say the Busos are scaring away winter (hence the coffin), but others claim they were intended to frighten away the Turks, who occupied Hungary during the 16th century.

Carnival of Oruro, Bolivia

This 2000-year-old festival takes place in a Bolivian mining town and has also been recognized by UNESCO. The festival is a mix of indigenous and Catholic rituals that include pilgrimages, dances and story telling.

Since Oruro was once an important mining town, locals made sure to honor the Virgin of the Mineshaft in their Carnival celebrations, kicking off the festivities with a religious ceremony.

The other main element of this Carnival is the Diablada – or dance of the devils – where hundreds of locals dress as demons and prance in the streets. Together with some costumed angels, they tell the story of good conquering evil, as well as the seven deadly sins.

Other characters you’ll see in this Carnival are dancers dressed as Incas, and performers representing the black slaves who were forced to work in the silver mines by Spanish conquerors.

[Photo Credits: Flickr users PIXELPLUS Photography, olaszmelo, and CassandraW1]

Video of the Day: Tilt-shift Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro

Carnaval (or, as we like to write it, Carnival) was last week, but we’re just not done celebrating here at Gadling HQ. This video is from Carnaval 2011 in Rio de Janeiro, but we can’t stop watching it. Of course, we love tilt-shift and this video uses the technique perfectly. Though, we’d like some explanation about why it opens with someone getting rescued from the ocean by a helicopter. Well, Carnaval is crazy like that.

Rio Carnival 2012: The hottest drag queen costumes

At Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, it was common to come across fully made-up men who had traded their Havaianas for high heels. Though some were experienced cross dressers and drag queens, others saw the holiday as an opportunity to get in touch with their more feminine sides. Costumes ranged from the elaborate (Sambadrome-style feathers, stilettos, fake lashes) to the scrappy (tiny skirt, hastily smeared lipstick).

Regardless of the intensity of their get-ups, you had to give it up to the cross dressers of Rio Carnival. I certainly couldn’t do a bloco in heels that high. The photo gallery below showcases ten of the hottest drag queen costumes that I encountered.


Check out Gadling’s full range of Rio Carnival 2012 coverage here.

Rio Carnival 2012: Backstage at the Sambadrome parades

“Follow the feathers” was my strategy for finding the Sambadrome stadium in Brazil this past Sunday, the first evening of Rio Carnival‘s famed samba parades. The metro exit was packed with crowds moving in all different directions, so I had little choice but to follow the handful of people wearing large, extravagant costumes in front of me. They were obviously going where I needed to go.

The strategy worked out, because my costumed friends didn’t just lead me to the parade venue — they headed straight for the backstage staging area where hundreds of dancers and participants were being outfitted for the main event. As the costumed gentry walked through the security gates, I concealed myself in their feathers and followed along. Backstage access, secured.


The highlight of Rio de Janeiro‘s Carnival festivities, the Sambadrome parades are all-night marathon spectacles of samba school processions that take place over the Sunday and Monday of Carnival. The parades start at 8 p.m. and last until well past dawn, with about seven schools putting on elaborate shows of about an hour each.

Rio’s samba schools spend all year preparing for the parades, constructing huge floats, designing extravagant costumes, and of course, choreographing and practicing complex samba numbers. Each samba school chooses a theme and a story, usually related to some aspect of Brazilian culture. This year, for the first time, booklets were distributed to all guests that laid out each act of the parade, highlighted special celebrities, and listed the lyrics to each samba school’s signature marchinhas, or Carnival songs.

The work pays off. Thousands of people, Brazilians and tourists alike, pay up to $1500 for a chance to view the parades, and the results are followed as closely as the American Super Bowl. Schools are judged by ten categories, including theme, samba song, percussion band, harmony, flow and spirit, floats and props, costumes, vanguard group, flag carrying couple, and overall impression. This year, Unidas de Tijuca took the top prize, with a theme centered around folk singer Luiz Gonzaga and the culture of Brazil’s northeast region.

And the parades themselves? Breathtaking. The floats were massive, with mechanized figures and fountains. The costumes were gorgeous, and with the binoculars I borrowed from my neighbor, I could see the intricacies of the sequins and beading. The dancing was tremendous, and the 3,000 to 5,000 paraders exuded an energy that infected the entire stadium. Everyone was on their feet.

What words and photos can’t describe, hopefully this video can. Or, you could just start planning for next year.

Check out Gadling’s full range of Rio Carnival 2012 coverage here.

The ultimate guide to Carnival in Rio: planning, packing and logistics

Attending Carnival in Rio de Janeiro tops many a bucket list, and for good reason. Not only is Rio Carnaval one of the world’s sexiest festivals, it’s also an important cultural event for the people of Brazil. Last year, more than 4.9 million people participated in the week-long festival of parades, parties, and carousing in the streets, and the number is expected to increase yet again this year.

In short, Carnival in Rio is an event of epic proportions, and trip preparation can be as much of an adventure as the festival itself. The hotels are overpriced, the tickets are sold out, and it’s tough to tell the real advice from the travel agents trying to sell you on a package. This guide, compiled from my research and paired with tips from Brazilian friends, will hopefully provide a starting point for planning your own Carnival adventure. If you think anything’s missing, please share your knowledge in the comments!

The Basics

Carnival is an annual festival that kicks off 46 days before Easter, in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday and the start of Christian Lent. In Rio, the main events take place across the city over five days, from Friday to Fat Tuesday, and include both organized and spontaneous parades, balls, concerts, performances, and general revelry. The 2012 festival will run from February 17 to 21; see this list for future dates.

Getting There

Rio de Janeiro’s Galeão International Airport is Brazil’s largest international airport, with non-stop flights from many cities, including New York, Los Angeles, and Miami. A round-trip ticket from a major U.S. city will usually cost you in the neighborhood of $1000.

Americans traveling to Brazil will need to obtain a tourist visa from the Brazilian embassy or one of its regional consulates. The process can take up to several weeks to complete, so start early! The fee is $140, payable only by U.S. Postal Service Money Order, and you’ll need a copy of your travel itinerary. Additional requirements vary by consulate, so double-check with yours to see what else you’ll need.


Locating affordable Carnival accommodations becomes more impossible the closer you get to the main event. Most hotels, hostels, and guesthouses inflate their rates by up to four or five times, and even then they book out quickly.

For hotels, expect to pay around $200 for a budget guesthouse, $500 for a mid-range hotel, and upwards of $1000 for a luxury property. A recent search for hostel dorm beds turned up average rates of $100 per night, and most places implement a minimum stay of up to a week.

Friends in Brazil recommended that I check out apartment sublet sites like Airbnb and for the best deals. While some savvy hosts offer “Carnival Packages” with minimum stays, for many, it’s business as usual. Plus, since most hosts are cariocas (Rio de Janeiro residents), you may be able to get the inside scoop on experiencing Carnival like a local.


February is the height of summer in the Southern Hemisphere, so pack for high temperatures and lots of sunshine. On the streets, it’s perfectly acceptable for men to go shirtless and women to wear bikini tops. If you’re planning to attend a fancy ball, like the famed Magic Ball at the Copacabana Palace Hotel, you’ll need an elaborate costume or black tie attire. And if you’re feeling adventurous, throw some wacky stuff — feather boas, cowboy hats, oversized sunglasses — into your suitcase as well! You won’t need an excuse to don them.

Getting in the Spirit

One of my favorite parts of trip preparation is immersing myself in the destination’s culture. Music-wise, I’ve been enjoying the Brazilian samba mixes on 8tracks, especially songs like Ai Se Eu Te Pego by Michel Teló, Samba da Benção by Bebel Gilberto, and the original version of The Lambada (J-Lo‘s got nothing on Kaoma).

On the reading list is Carnival Under Fire, a portrait of Carnival-atmosphere Rio from Ruy Castro, one of Brazil’s best-known essayists. Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus), a 1959 Marcel Camus film set during Carnival, also came highly recommended. And let’s not forget the apps! To practice your Portuguese, try downloading a free Portuguese language learning iPhone app from MindSnacks and the powerful Portuguese Brazilian Traveler Pro translator from Odyssey. There’s even a Carnival bloccos app to track the best street parties.

In part 2 of this guide, I’ll dive a little deeper into Carnival itself: the blocos, the balls, and the highlight of the whole festival: the samba school parades in the Sambódromo!

Check out the second installment of The ultimate guide to Carnival in Rio: parties and parades. And stay tuned for on-the-ground coverage of Rio Carnival 2012 starting on February 17th!

[Flickr images via [2], Laszlo Ilyes]