Looking on were the usual suspects of Rio’s Carnival scene: revelers dressed as folkloric characters, jaguars and ‘bate-bolas’ – exuberant clowns in identical, elaborate outfits who travel in packs. Festivities will last through to Feb 14.
Nowhere to be seen were the troubles recently ailing the tropical city: a dengue outbreak that days ago prompted the decree of public health emergency; a federal decree to combat a rise in violence by militias and drug-traffickers. Indeed, Carnival is a chance for people to temporarily put aside their troubles.
“Carnival is everyone’s passion here,” said Marcio Perrotta, who was carrying on a stick a huge, fake ox’s head, its horns decorated with flowers. “I’m happy to be part of this moment, because in normal life things are very hard for everyone.”
Paes on Thursday issued a decree making the key ceremony an annual official event, obliging his successors to participate. In 2017, former Mayor Marcelo Crivella broke with tradition and did not hand over the key.
Momo, played this year by Caio Cesar Dutra, is charged with “presiding over Carnival festivities, participating in the parades and costume competitions, and promoting the joy of partygoers,” City Hall said in its official gazette on Friday.
Brazil’s tourism minister Celso Sabino, also present at the ceremony, said 49 million people across Brazil will take part in festivities, 6.5% more than last year.
Around 200,000 foreigners are set to pour into the country and many of them - scantily dressed and covered in glitter - will join the street parties that occupy and dominate public spaces across Rio, Sao Paulo and other cities.
On Friday morning, the Carmelitas street party was already underway in Rio's bohemian Santa Teresa neighborhood.
Leonardo Xavier, 20, was kitted out as a blue-chested Smurf. “We needed a quick costume that we could make in the subway. I said – let’s go as Smurfs! Just buy the paint, paint yourself, white shorts, all done!”
For others, the highlight will be the samba schools’ parades in Rio’s Sambadrome, which was designed by modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer and inaugurated 40 years ago this year.
The samba schools spend much of the year preparing gigantic floats and churning out elaborate costumes to enact a parade before millions of spectators - both present and watching live on television. A set of judges dish out scores and decide on the champion of the fierce competition.
Parade themes have become increasingly political in recent years, according to Fatima Lima, a professor in the scenic arts department of the State University of Santa Catarina.
"Since 2016, the plots have dialogued with concrete Brazilian politics, criticizing both the state and society," Lima said, pointing to a recent parade that told the story of Black city councilwoman Marielle Franco's assassination. In 2020, samba school Sao Clemente depicted former president Jair Bolsonaro using satire. This year, a Black family's fight for reparations will be showcased as demands for fuller atonement for slavery and its legacy rise.
Authorities will distribute repellent in the Sambadrome this year, as Brazil faces a surge in dengue cases. Earlier this week, Rio declared a public health emergency. At least four states — Acre, Minas Gerais and Goias, in addition to the Federal District – have done the same.
Dengue is not the only issue: crime tends to increase during Carnival. Rio state’s civil police will deploy an extra 3,300 officers and set up a temporary police station at the Sambadrome.
The city is already under a Guarantee of Law and Order decree, with federal troops deployed at ports and airports to impede the circulation of drugs after a surge in violence by militias and drug-traffickers.
The navy was monitoring arrivals in Rio’s downtown port on Jan. 31, an impact of the decree signed by President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in November that expanded the armed forces’ activities. Tourists stepping off a cruise ship coming from Argentina were greeted by the sounds of samba and the soon-to-be-crowned King Momo — before having their bags scoured.
“We see pre-Carnival as a sensitive period because we end up having a high consumption (of drugs) during this time,” said Federal Police delegate Jackson Rosales, as sniffer dogs inspected tourists’ luggage.
There were also concerns about security during blocos once the sun has gone down. A reveler in Rio was stabbed at dusk in January, when pre-Carnival festivities were already underway. He received treatment at a nearby hospital and was later discharged.
In the days preceding the event, videos of Carnival experts’ top tips to enjoy the festivities flood social media. Oft-repeated recommendations include leaving cellphones behind, avoiding costumes that complicate toilet trips and staying away from exes.
Back in Botafogo, tourism minister Sabino wished everyone a Carnival “full of joy, lots of happiness, but also full of responsibility.”
“Long live Carnival!” he added.