A two-story high lion led an army of spinning women in gold-and-red hoop skirts Saturday night to open the carnival parade in a Rio stadium, a fierce competition between second-division samba groups seeking a promotion.
The samba group Estacio de Sa was the first to go in the Sambadrome, sending down the golden lion on an enormous float surrounded by some 80 dancing men and women in skin-tight lion costumes. The whirling women followed, topped by headdresses fashioned from crystals and feathers.
"I've been all over the world. I've done carnival in the Caribbean and there's nothing like Brazil," Edgardo Levita, a 23-year-old Argentine decked-out in a pirate costume.
Saturday's parade is a warm-up for the "Special Group," which includes the city's top 12 samba schools all mounting 80-minute long parades Sunday and Monday nights in an effort to impress a panel of judges and be declared the year's champion.
But there's much at stake in Saturday's event. The group that receives the highest score gets promoted to compete in the top division next year.
"We work all year for this one day," said Fabio Ricardo, carnival designer for the second-division samba group Academicos da Rocinha. "It's not a game, it's a competition, like a marathon or like the Olympics."
Higher profile, more money
Jumping from the second division to the first can be a financial windfall for a Samba group. The city provides second-tiered groups about $171,000 for the parade, while in the first-division they get $1.71 million, said Pedro Aridio, Rocinha's carnival director.
It's also hard to attract money for a parade that isn't going to appear on TV.
Rocinha rose to the first division in 2005 only to see their hopes of staying in the elite group dashed by the pouring rain, which washed away the feathers and sequins and made the ground slippery for dancing.
"In carnival you never know what will happen until you hit the avenue," said Aridio, who believe the group has at least a fighting chance with this year's theme paying homage to the poor immigrants from Brazil's northeast, who make up most of the population of Rocinha, the city's biggest slum.
Downtown Rio packed with revelers
Meanwhile, revelers crowded downtown Rio de Janeiro to partake in the free-for-all celebrations around the Cordao de Bola Preta, the city's most traditional carnival band, which expects to attract over half a million people this year.
In the northeastern city of Recife, crowds topping the million mark turned out for the traditional Galo de Madrugada, or Midnight Rooster, celebrations that long ago were rescheduled for midday in order to reduce violence.
In the coastal city of Salvador, revelers got an early start clogging the major avenues to fall in behind bands playing Axe music from atop huge sound trucks and Blocos Afros, featuring hundreds of exotically costume drummers.
And all across the nation, partiers and tourists nursed their hangovers on the beach.
"Wow, I can't remember most of it, but it was good," said Richard Cohen, a South African tourist as he sat on Copacabana beach, scraping away red nail polish painted on the night before at a carnival ball.