It’s probably the most remote festival in the world, Brazil’s second-largest annual celebration, and the biggest party you’ve never heard of… and you’re invited! Actually, everyone is welcome to join the party at Boi Bumbá, provided they can get themselves to Parintins. As the city is located in the middle of the world’s largest rainforest, more than 400 kilometres upstream from Amazonas’ state capital Manaus, that means an 8-hour flight from Rio de Janeiro or a 24-hour boat trip.
Those that make the arduous journey, however, are rewarded with a three-day ’round the clock extravaganza. Part Brazilian carnival, part Christmas panto, part drama festival and part opera spectacular, the Boi Bumbá festival is a fully immersive experience. Given the challenges posed by its remote location and the fact that, during the festival, the entire island city eats, sleeps and breathes Boi Bumbá, visitors should be well prepared for what awaits them.
At the heart of the festival lies a show (somewhat) similar to the famous Rio carnival parades. There’s a lot going on during the nightly performances, and the sheer scale of the staging can be overwhelming, so knowing the background gives visitors a framework within which to appreciate the details without getting lost in the spectacle. There are conflicting stories about the origins of the celebration, but suffice to say that the festival emerged over a century ago, merging indigenous and European, Shaman and Christian traditions.
Alex Benacon from AmazonasTur, the official Amazonas tourism site, suggests in particular that visitors read about the plot of the group performance, so the show becomes more easily understandable. The entire festival is centred around the story of an ox (the titular Boi) who is killed and reawakened from the dead. His story is played out in front of an enthusiastic audience of 35,000 (equal to one-third of the city’s population) in the local Bumbódromo, an open-air stadium purpose-built for the annual festival.
Choose Your Team
The most important aspect of the festival is audience participation: there are no bystanders, and it’s impossible to remain neutral. Each night, two different teams put on a performance based on the story of the mythical Boi, led by a master of ceremonies who describes the action and invites supporters to join in. The audience is split in half, with backers of the different teams relegated to opposing sides of the stadium. As Alex Benacon explains: “Garantido fans wear red, Caprichoso fans blue. You can’t mix, so you can not be wearing for example blue on the side of Garantido and vice versa.”
So how do I decide which team to support? This question even has our expert stumped: “It is very hard to answer…. It depends on what your eyes will see or what your heart will like.” If that sounds overly melodramatic, you haven’t seen the fervour with which everyone in Parintins supports their chosen side, putting even the most enthusiastic sports fans to shame. Dressing head to toe in your team’s colours is standard, but sporting a tattoo, painting your house, or even asking to be buried in a red or blue coffin aren’t out of the ordinary, either. Choosing a colour is so important, even the most famous red-packaged beverage in the world is sold in a blue can to avoid offending half of the festival’s attendants.
After a total of six performances, spread out over three days, a winner is chosen based on a laundry list of criteria, such as rhythm, dramatisation, choreography, dancing and the acting performances of individual characters, but also the support of the crowd. Even more reason to cheer as enthusiastically as you can for your chosen team!
Benacon and AmazonasTur recommend buying tickets in advance and getting to the stadium early for good seats. “Don’t leave it until the last minute,” he says. “You will not find tickets, or it will get very expensive with street scalpers.”
After the show, the party spills out of the stadium and takes over the entire city. According to Benacon, “The performance normally ends at 1:30 AM, so if you wish to keep going the rest of the night, you can go to a lot of bars on Avenida Amazonas (Amazonas Avenue) and Praça dos Bois (Ox Square).”
During the three-day festival, there is little sleep to be had, with the rhythm of Boi Bumbá reverberating far beyond the Bumbódromo. If you need a little break from the sights and sounds of the celebration, Benacon recommends a motorboat ride around the island or to Ze Acu beach. You can also visit the Villa Amazonia community, a base of Japanese immigration in northern Brazil, by speedboat.
Whatever you do, relish the fact that, even though you’re thousands of miles from New York, Rio or Tokyo… you are at the heart of the biggest party most people have never even heard of.
Article by Fiona Brutscher
Hmm, which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Do you build travel plans around cultural festivals or do you look for cultural highlights once you've decided on your next trip?