Travel / Work by Donna Bowater

Parintins festival, Brazil: Snorting bulls, feathers and tribal theatre

With Priscilla Moraes

With its multi-million pound production, colourful choreography and supple samba dancers, Carnival in Rio de Janeiro has long been the most famous festival in Brazil.

But its nearest rival is hardly known even among Brazilians, despite attracting more than 80,000 visitors every year.

The Parintins Folklore Festival takes place in the remote town of Parintins, on a river island in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, and it is the second biggest party in the country.

While I arrived by plane – less than an hour’s flight from the Amazonian capital of Manaus – thousands of others made the pilgrimage by boat, spending 24 hours sailing through the archipelago to reach the modest town of 100,000.

The influx almost doubled the population of the jungle city, which is so remote it has no reliable mobile coverage or internet.

But despite the primitive infrastructure, no expense was spared for the festival.

If Carnival is about sequins, samba and parading down the avenue, Parintins comprises feathers, stomping bare feet and tribal theatre on a Hollywood scale.

Celebrating its 50th year this year, the festival is the re-enactment of a legend centered on the reincarnation of a bull, or boi in Portuguese.

The story goes that Father Francisco, a farmhand, killed the best bull on the farm to satisfy his pregnant wife’s craving for ox tongue.

Francisco was punished and taken to prison but forgiven when the “pajé”, or shaman, brought the ox back to life with a spiritual ritual.

But the Parintins festival is not only the performance of a mythical folktale, it’s a fiercely contested competition, laden with superstition.

Two teams – one red, one blue – each put on a 2.5-hour show for three nights at the end of June to be crowned the winner.

This year, Garantido (red) opened the festivities at 9pm, with Caprichoso (blue) closing the first night during a tropical downpour in the early hours.

The rivalry is so great it divides the town in two. It must be the only place on the world where Coca Cola advertises in blue as well as red.

I was warned that it was forbidden to enter the arena, or bumbodromo, wearing the opposite side’s colours and so serious was the competition that supporters of one side will not even stand to hear the name of the other, referring to them only as “the other boi”.

And when one side performs, the other side of the stadium remains silent, because the behaviour of the crowd can cost the teams points.

While I had already nailed my colours to the blue mast, it was hard not to tap my feet when the Garantido drums began beating.

The heavy rain only seemed to fortify the Caprichoso faithful as the iconic cunhã poranga – the most beautiful woman of the tribe – beat her breast and stamped the puddles surrounded by troupes of colourful dancers.

Aspects of the legend were interpreted with elaborate allegorical floats from the animals and fauna of the forest to mythical creatures and Indian chiefs.

But the highlight of each performance was the appearance of the boi, which drove the crowds wild into the small hours.

The model black bull of Caprichoso descended into the arena from a crane, and was tethered with coloured ribbons like a maypole in a spectacular collision of indigenous and provincial culture.

So while Carnival takes the spotlight in Rio, the rebirth of the bull renews and preserves a culture that seems to come from the heart of the forest itself.

It is an awe-inspiring festival celebrating many of Brazil’s origins and influences, an implausible eruption of creativity and spirit in the middle of one of nature’s marvels.

To get there from Rio de Janeiro:

Flights to Manaus:

Stay in Manaus: Tropical Hotel

Stay in Parintins: Amazon River Resort Hotel (92) 3533-6330

More information: 

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