It's the greatest party on earth. And John Walsh was there to experience the whirling, twirling, thrilling excess of the Rio Carnival
Though it's nearly midnight, it is uncomfortably warm in this wire-mesh holding pen. February is high summer in Rio, and the 38C afternoon has yielded to a 28C boiling night. Mind you, it was always going to be excessively warm inside this 2ft-high headdress, a kind of papal mitre with added pheasant feathers and black plumes. The skirt is no joke, either: built for an even more substantial tribesman's waist than mine, its straw lining scratches at my shins like nasty midget fingernails. Around my neck, a kind of horse-collar in blue, green, pink and orange extends straw tendrils over my shoulders, and is surmounted by a golden mayoral torque, like the Emperor Bokassa's lavatory seat.
I am weighed down with importance, festooned with significance, draped from head to toe in allegorical meaning. From the tiny, gnawing suspicion that I look a complete wally, I am (thank goodness) distracted by the terrible chafing of the horse-collar at the back of my neck...
"Oh, stop complaining," says the lovely blonde by my side. " We'll be on in a few minutes. Have a drink. Have a fag. You're supposed to be enjoying yourself." She's right, of course. Everywhere you look, the other dancers in this holding pen are lighting Marlboros, upending cans of lager, joshing, flirting, applying lip gloss, mucking about in the humid night, even essaying little dance steps in preparation for their big moment.
There are hundreds of us, waiting for the off. The other costumes are amazing - 200 Louis XIV shepherdesses (some resplendently male), lots of ambulant foliage, lots of clownish clockwork figures, lots of mix'n'match Cirque du Soleil-style designs in primary colours, tons of pink and purple headgear. It's all mostly polyester and sequins, but the combined effect is stunning - an explosion in a rainbow factory, directed by Guillermo del Toro. We collectively represent the Mangueira samba school - the most reliably flamboyant, the Manchester United of carnaval schools - and any minute now, we're going to erupt into the Sambodrome and knock the crowds dead with our fancy footwork.
In front of us, the 60-odd drummers are warming up; behind us, the enormous float is receiving the finishing touches: native horsemen are clambering aboard its platoon of prancing carnival horses. It's one of six Mangueira floats that, together, tell a story - this year, the tale of the Portuguese language and its adoption in Brazil. My confrères and I are dressed like Bantu tribesmen to emphasise the influence of African slave languages (like, say, the word "samba", a Bantu coinage from Angola), and to remind people that behind the lyrics of the Mangueira song there's a rich texture of cultural history and semantic change.
Will the crowds care tuppence? Will they just admire the spectacle and the superstructure of the samba babes? There's no time to wonder. For the night sky has been burst open by an explosion of fireworks, signalling that it's our turn, our moment in the epic darkness and the incandescent lights. Cigarettes are extinguished. Headdresses are squeezed over foreheads. Arms are flexed in (inappropriately) Riverdance attitudes. A huge roar comes from the entrance to the Sambodrome at the sight of our drummers as we break into a trot, a willing army of crazed volunteers, herding forward as though into battle...
The Rio Carnival seems to have been a hardy annual on the world's party list for centuries, but its current form is hardly 20 years old. The " carnival" concept dates back, of course, to medieval Catholicism, and the tradition that, on Ash Wednesday, at the start of the 40-day Lenten fast, you "said goodbye to meat" - carne vale - along with other table pleasures such as sugar, pastry and alcohol. Faced with this privation, you spent the previous day in transgressive revelry, as if to stock up enough good times to see you through the Lenten desert. (An associated tradition meant that womenfolk spent the day using up eggs and dairy products to make puddings for Lent, so it was called "fat Tuesday" or Mardi Gras.)
The first Rio revels were posh affairs, modelled on the masked balls of the Paris court, but in the 19th century, Rio began to shed its Eurocentric obsessions and find its own identity, assimilating African culture and native Indian music. Formal European dance tempos were suddenly underpinned by sexy African percussion, all in four-four time - and the samba was born.
Brazilians are obsessive, even fetishistic, about their national dance. Rio academics will writhe and swoon about the brilliance of this samba guitarist or that samba drummer. At the heart of the Rio weekend is a competition to see which of the city's multifarious samba schools best embodies the carnaval spirit through music, dancing, spectacle and indefinable samba-tastic oomph. The competition takes place over three nights in the Sambodrome, a long open-air parade between steep audience terraces, like a football stadium rethought as a half-mile street. Along this Homeric promenade, the top 14 samba schools process, seven on Sunday, seven on Monday, in a slow-motion riot of colour and sound. Each has a small army of drummers, dancers and attitude-strikers around the six carros alegoricos that each school is allowed; they have just one hour and 20 minutes to parade their wares in front of judges who will assess their artistic virtues, their music, dancing, costume, design and Oh-my-God factors.
It's not easy to infiltrate this fantastic phantasmagoria, however; that's where you need Dehouche. This young travel company, started three years ago by Paul Irvine and Henry Madden, fixes up holidays in South America that are characterised by one thing: insider knowledge. Like City insider-dealers, they know stuff that other travel operators don't know: the best hotels and bars in Rio; obscure Brazilian and Argentine hideaways; local lore and customs; where to find a hang-glider at an hour's notice, or an underground cave in Bahia; how to organise a capoeira lesson. Before they opened for business, they spent a year researching beaches, landscapes and villages all over Brazil, and now package that knowledge into, say, a two-week trip that takes in five contrasting destinations, all of them meant to make you gasp.
So, it's no problem for them to buy a London punter a place amid the carnaval dancers, though getting you aboard a float or seeing you crowned carnaval queen might present more of a problem. Via the Dehouche insiders, you get to meet the top samba dancers for an impromptu lesson (it's not difficult to learn the samba - it's a kind of rhythmic tiptoeing, a more sinuous version of Grandmother's Footsteps, although the climactic hip-grinding stuff is jolly un-British). You're whisked by the company's drivers up the beach to the Sugar Loaf mountain and its attendant cable car. You're steered past the bouncers at the swanky OO cocktail bar, and led gently to your taxi when thoroughly trolleyed at 5am. And you're plunged right into the centre of the festival action on the first morning of carnival.
The Cariocas, or Rio-dwellers, don't believe in a gradual build-up to the revels - they're full-on party-goers. When I arrived after the 14-hour flight from Heathrow by way of Sao Paulo, I was whisked into the Cordao do Bola Preta, the opening event; my feeble cries about needing sleep, a shave and a gallon of Listerine went unheeded. Half an hour later, I was in the old downtown area, squeezed into a crush of 300,000 bodies pullulating through the Rio Branco - the Champs-Elys�es of Rio, full of skyscrapers and pavement caf�s - and when I looked at my watch, it was 10.15am.
Pushing through the throng, trying to hang on to camera, money, reporter's notebook and the last shreds of dignity, I was bundled aboard a bus that doubled as a mobile sound-system, complete with go-go performers. Three effervescent young women, in white two-piece dance outfits festooned with black spots (the actual bola preta) danced a gorgeous high-stepping samba accelerata, responding with what seemed insanely encouraging smiles to the beckoning fingers of slavering lotharios in the crowd.
The paraders who weren't ogling the girls were ecstatic to see TV camera crews from Argentina, Lisbon, California, and acted up accordingly, singing with arms aloft, waving, whistling, swigging lager, munching hot dogs, and indulging in that curiously popular but irritating Rio thing of spraying aerosol foam over their neighbours. It was impossible to take in the writhing mass of bodies. Your attention came to rest, again and again, on individual startling sights - like the muscular black guy with the cheetah-skin headdress, and his girlfriend, a Scandinavian dream, from the sides of whose lovely head sprang curling, lethally sharp buffalo horns...
The three buses inched forward along the city's central avenue, as the crowd swelled in the street and the singing got louder. My guide said that he'd sung the same songs when he was 10, that they belonged to his parents' generation. Did that mean that they were traditional Brazilian folk songs, or the Rio equivalent of singing "Hey Jude" and "Hi Ho Silver Lining"? He couldn't say.
By 11.30, we were a little jaded and made a break from the bus through the multitude, like people swimming, to the pavement. The dancing and singing would go on for another two hours. No, sorry, make that four days. You can't keep up this punishing schedule yourself - for all the appeal of the world's biggest carnival, it's still somebody else's party - so you spend a couple of days taking in the sights while waiting for your climactic turn in the Sambodrome.
Copacabana Beach is no longer the automatic attraction it once was. Beach muggers and pedlars on the Avenida Atlantico have made its reputation drop sharply, although cocktails by the pool at the glamorous Copacabana Palace are still a must-do. Ipanema beach and neighbouring Leblon are the plages de choix in Rio, though they tend to be packed, with several thousand male poseurs in abbreviated Speedos.
I was glad to get away from the whole overpopulated seven-mile strand and discover Sao Conrado, an upscale district on the city's southern perimeter, where you can swim beside the lovely Pepino beach and, if you're feeling intrepid, fling yourself in a hang-glider off the granite eminence of the 1,500ft Pedra Bonita. This is not as crazy as it sounds. You'll be riding shotgun to an experienced anglophone flier, tucked safely into a kind of pouch, and you'll do a lot of exhilarated screaming as you spiral down to the beach in a graceful descent. It costs about £50 and it helps if you weigh less than 23 stone.
The cable-car ride up Sugar Loaf still costs 36 reals (£9), but for a more thrilling experience, I can recommend a helicopter ride that takes you from Sugar Loaf right across Botafogo Bay to the Corcovado mountain and, at the summit, its presiding deity, the Cristo Redentor statue. No matter how many times you glimpse this 120ft figure, with its outstretched arms protecting the city of Rio from harm, it never fails to lift the heart. Approaching it, swooping in low against the mountainside and stealing up towards those calm, gigantic features, you can hear your heart thudding in your chest, as if God himself were about to appear out of the clouds and go "Boo!".
Back on terra firma, you find yourself strolling through the leafy Leblon district, where you select a bar, pull up a chair and hope that your caipirinha-fuelled discussions won't be interrupted too often by the noisy blocos (local street dances, often accompanied by vans and buses issuing deafening samba). When you're suitably starving, make for a good churrascaria, a carnivore's heaven where there's no menu but a huge salad is laid out with everything from seafood to sushi (Brazilians are the biggest consumers of sushi outside Japan). An army of insistent waiters come at you waving swords on which choice slices of fillet steak, roast lamb, braised pork, jerk chicken and the like are impaled. They'll slice bits off for you until you're stuffed - and they'll keep on coming while the drinks coaster beside you displays a green flash ("More please!") rather than a red one ("Godammit, I can't eat another thing!").
If you're looking for a less caveman-like cuisine, with a more fancy international flavour, try the coolly laid-back Gero restaurant in Ipanema - it's Italian food in high style. My baby squid was crammed with flavour, the tagliata di manzo a melting treat (if a touch cloying), and the tiramisu beyond compare. Gero is owned by the Fasano family, whose bar/hotel in Sao Paulo is achingly trendy and whose new Rio hotel (the Fasano) opens in June. Stylishly co-designed by Philippe Starck, it features a fabulous panoramic view of Ipanema beach from the top-floor pool.
All this high-flying and lotus-eating is just a preparation, however. One is here for the Rio Carnival, and the night is approaching when a chap has to prove himself in the Sambodrome, surrounded by professional dancers who know their stuff and can spot an imposter. In preparation, I forswore alcohol, booked a massage, ate little (you cannot samba for 80 minutes on a stomach full of seared meat and lime-based cocktails), and tried to achieve a Zen-like equilibrium. At 10pm, we set off with our hosts and hit a huge traffic jam, from which we could observe a hundred apparitions wandering down the Avenida Presidente Vargas, their faces blackened and star-spangled, their billowing cloaks and spiky headdresses turning them into mythological priestesses.
Beside the Sambodrome itself, we learnt that the changing facilities were overstretched, and we'd have to do it, so to speak, in the road. But any prudishness about removing one's shorts soon seems ludicrous when you're surrounded by so much flesh anointed with sparkly body paint and bisected by cheese-wire thongs.
An hour later, I was in the holding pen, one of several hundred extras in this fantastic spectacular. Just after midnight, the rockets went up to announce our entry. We shuffled forward. The drummers hit their stride and we began to run to keep up. Then the whole front end of the six-float Mangueira samba school turned gradually into the Sambodrome's entrance and a wild screaming, as of a million gulls, broke out from the crowd. The drumming hit an irresistible, tribal urgency and we started to dance.
Inside five minutes, I'd forgotten most of the steps (how can you shimmy and shuffle and sliiiide that right foot forward when you're about to be crushed to death by the huge carro alegorico coming up behind you, pushed by a few dozen sweating zealots?
It was an experience to tell to your grandchildren: half a mile and 80 minutes of crazy free-form dancing, twirling, diving and weaving under the hot floodlights; the beaming faces of the samba fans in the bleachers; the looks of fathomless condescension from the fat cats entertaining their business associates in the expensive boxes; the ukulele orchestra dressed in lime green; the impromptu choir encouraging greater efforts in the singing of "Minha patria e minha lingua, Mangueira o meu grande amor"; and the exhaustion, the raging thirst, the sore knees, and the guillotine-like chafing of costume on sunburnt neck until you feel you can stand it no more.
And then the revelation of the stars overhead, which means the end of the floodlights and the huge green arch that is the end of the Sambodrome, where your pals Artur and Leonardo are waiting with huge draughts of Skol lager, and your fellow-Terpsichoreans will embrace each other (and you) for having put on such a good show for the glory of the Mangueira school. You smile politely and promise that, if you ever do this again, this fabulous, mad, glittery, thousand-strong, allegorical procession, you will try not to take it so damned seriously...
The writer travelled with Dehouche ( www.dehouche.com), which offers bespoke one-week packages in Rio from £875 per person. This includes seven nights' serviced penthouse accommodation and breakfast (international flights not included). Guests can also take part in the carnival parade and visit the main events for £200 per person, and have samba lessons from about £40 per person.
Fasano Hotel e Restaurante, Avenida Vieira Souto 80 ( www.fasano.com.br). Doubles from $371 (£206), including breakfast; opens summer 2007.
La Suite, 501 Rua Jackson Figueiredo. Doubles from €300 (£214), including breakfast.
Copacabana Palace, Avenida Atlantica 1702 ( www.copacabanapalace.com.br). Doubles from $515 (£286), room only.
The next Rio Carnival takes place from 2-5 February 2008 ( www.ipanema.com/carnival).
Rio de Janeiro Tourism ( www.rioconventionbureau.com.br)
Latin American Travel Association ( www.lata.org)