BRAZIL - FEBRUARY 19: With bursts of fireworks, high-decibel music and a kaleidoscope of colours, the city’s top 13 samba schools treated a capacity crowd of 72,500 at the newly renovated Temple of Samba to stunning processions of exquisitely decorated floats.
The night parades, which went on into the small hours of the morning, had it all: captivating samba beats, superb percussionists, imaginative choreography, masterful execution and the beguiling sex appeal of gorgeous samba queens wearing colourful feathers and little else.
They marked the high point of the pre-Lent festival, a holiday that provides a rare moment of national communion and over-the-top merry-making in this huge and racially diverse country of 191 million people.
The parades, a major draw for foreign tourists, cemented the Rio Carnival’s reputation as "the greatest show on earth."
Frank White, a 60-year-old flight engineer from Eagle Heights in Australia’s Queensland, could only find one word to describe the extravaganza: "breathtaking".
"Marvellous," said one performer, Brazilian actor Gilberto Torres, after parading atop a silver float as a Celtic warrior.
"The costume was heavy and hot but the emotion (of being in such a show) was such that I didn’t feel anything."
Now the hard work begins for cleaning crews who have to clear mountains of rubbish and for employees who have to dismantle scores of hulking allegorical floats.
Seats at the open-air Sambadrome cost between $US50 ($46.68) and several thousand dollars, depending on whether one sits on packed benches in the open or in air-conditioned VIP boxes stocked with champagne.
Hollywood A-lister Jennifer Lopez was one of several foreign celebrities to lend their star power to the event, appearing late Sunday in skinny red jeans and a sequined top.
As in previous years, Salvador de Bahia led the way on Thursday, with hundreds of thousands of revellers pouring into the streets of Brazil’s third largest city and heart of its rich Afro-Brazilian culture to dance and celebrate.
Rio followed a day later when Milton Junior - better known as King Momo, the Rio Carnival’s chubby symbol of excess - received a giant key to the city and declared the festivities open.
In Rio, more than two million revellers in outlandish costumes flooded the city centre on Saturday to join Cordao da Bola Preta - one of the city’s oldest and most popular street bands - in a mammoth, frenzied samba-driven bash.
On Monday night Sao Clemente, the first of six top samba schools to take centre stage at the Sambadrome, drew inspiration from a selection of popular Broadway musicals such as The Phantom of the Opera and Cabaret.
The school, known for its irreverence, had a float displaying a reclining Statue of Liberty in bikini and sandals holding an ice cream.
Thirteen samba schools are in contention for the title of Carnival champion, to be bestowed on Wednesday based on choreography, music, dancing and creativity.