A mud-covered creature stumbles toward the bank of a giant sand pit. Other creatures emerge from the mud, some stumbling as they slowly drag themselves out, muck dribbling from their limbs. All that is visible are their eyes and teeth. It could be primeval man taking his first steps onto land. Instead it is a bunch of Brazilians intent on having one big party.
The fact that festival participants at Bloco da Loma dress up as cavemen and run around shouting “hooga hooga ha ha!” only adds to the Stone Age connotations. They bang drums and chant, bearing large grisly gods made from skulls and matted hair. Filthy shamans burn colored smoke and horses drag altars befitted with wigs and puppets. All the runners are completely black—the color of the mud they rolled around in on Jabaquana beach before running through the streets of colonial Paraty, frightening tourists who look disconcertingly spic–and-span and colorful. Bloco da Lama means “block of mud” and it is part of the 6-day carnival festivals that engulf the country in early February. While Rio de Janeiro, 258km (160 miles) to the east, has the big, brash sambodome, Paraty has the down and dirty mud festival. Streams of young people run through the cobbled streets of this colorful city, some bearing ghoulish puppets and floats. Huge quantities of the local brew cachacha is consumed as well as lots of cool beers in the bars and kiosks that line the town’s beachfront. Paraty is the home of cachaca, a sugarcane alcohol drink popular across the country; 1.3 billion liters of it is consumed every year, much of it during carnival.
The town has a lively arts scene with a bohemian feel. Once the second biggest city in Brazil, it thrived on gold and slave trading. Then the pirates came and the city proved vulnerable to attacks. The gold route moved north and Paraty fell into rapid decline. It was only in the 1950s that this atmospheric beachtown was rediscovered and an effort made to preserve and restore its charming architecture. Now it is a popular tourist destination in the Ilha Grande Bay with great bars and restaurants and a party atmosphere.
Its carnival celebrations are unique and have not been tainted yet by the outright commercialism that takes place elsewhere. Participation is open and free and the festival is still very much a local affair, though it is increasingly attracting foreign visitors. It can be difficult to tell locals from outsiders as they swarm across the streets. Everybody is covered in mud and they all speak the same language, which is “hooga hooga ha ha.” —CO’M
When to Go: Early Feb.
Rio de Janeiro (253km/157 miles).
$$ Pousada Bromelias, Rodovia Rio-Santos (BR-101) Km 558 Graúna, Paraty ( 55/24-3371-2791; www.pousadabromelias.com.br). $$ Pousada do Sandi, Largo do Rosário, 01, Paraty ( 55/11/3081-2098; www.pousadadosandi.com.br).
3 Wacky Climbing Competitions
If you’re eager to shimmy your way to the top of something, but think rock climbing or ice climbing is too serious, strenuous, or stuffy, perhaps you need to go out on a limb (or a log, or a greasy pole, or a tower of buns . . .) and look for a different kind of climb. Below are three climbing competitions that aim to bring out the out-of-the-ordinary climber in you. —CL
Greasy Pole Competition, St. Peter’s Festival, Gloucester, Massachusetts, U.S.A.: Ever since Italians began settling in the Gloucester, Massachusetts area just north of Boston, they’ve been coming together every June to celebrate the patron saint of fisherman, St. Peter. But what started as a day of tribute eventually turned from homage into a multiday celebration, with games, competition, and merriment. One of the most anticipated of the contests is the Greasy Pole competition, in which participants must make their way across a 45-foot (14m) greased telephone pole extended over the Atlantic in the (mostly futile) attempt to capture a red flag posted at the end. Oohs, Aahs, and Ouches! are constant refrains from the onlookers. Upon nabbing the flag, the contestant leaps (or more likely falls) into the water below and swims to the nearby beach, at which time he’s hoisted on shoulders and paraded about town. And for what? Glory! The only reward fitting enough for such a pain-inducing and ridiculous, yet wonderfully spirited celebration.
Cheung Chau Bun Climbing Festival, Cheung Chau, China: Just a short ferry ride (55 min.) from Hong Kong is the charming island of Cheung Chau, home to a small, but thriving fishing village of 25,000 people. Every late April or early May the locals host the world-famous and beloved Bun Climbing Festival at the Pak Tai Temple Playground. The festival features 14m-tall (46-ft.) bamboo towers of buns, which the contest participants clamber up in the hopes of clocking the shortest amount of time. Meanwhile, they’re bagging as many of the edible buns, made by festival revelers, as possible. Competitors are divided into three age groups, 35 and over, 18 to 34, and under 18 (participants much be at least 1m/31⁄3 ft. tall). Islands District Leisure Services Office ( 2852-3220). Leisure and Cultural Services Department (www.lcsd.gov.hk).
Tree Climb at Squamish Days Loggers Sports Festival, British Columbia: Amid a virtual thicket of logger sports—axe throwing, tree falling, and birling, to name a few—filling the hours of the Squamish Days Logger Sports Festival, the Tree Climb may tower above them all. In this event, tree climbers are challenged to a 24m (80-ft.) pole climb and descent. A timed event, the object is to scurry up and back down in as little time as possible, with past winners clocking in at jaw-dropping times of just 30 seconds. Intermediate and novice competitions are offered as well, in which both the heights and regulations (not timing the descent, for instance) are less strenuous. Loggers from around the world congregate in Squamish, 60km (37 miles) north of Vancouver and 65km (40 miles) south of Whistler,
British Columbia, each year to participate in the contests and merriment. www.squamishdays.ca.