On a street in Rio's Ipanema beach neighborhood, Juju Maravilha, dressed in a sultry gold and green sequined gown topped off by a headdress of yellow feathers, takes less than five seconds to ponder a question.
"The soul of Carnival? Why it is here, darling," he coos, pointing at a crowd of thousands gathered for one of Rio de Janeiro's more than 200 informal street marches that give life to the yearly bacchanal of music, flesh, dance and drink. The showcase event of Rio's Carnival is undoubtedly the two-night parade put on by traditional samba schools - an ornate spectacle with thousands of drummers, dancers and meticulously designed floats costing up to $2.5 million each.
But locals and tourists in the know say the true golden center of Carnival lies in the parties - known as "bandas," which play the same traditional songs each year, and "blocos," which mix up the music each time. With tickets to the samba school parade running upward of $1,000, these free parties keep Brazil's No 1 tourist attraction accessible to all.
"The origins of Carnival are in the streets," said Paulo Montenegro, a 48-year-old lawyer taking part in Friday's "Hit On Me, I'm Willing" bloco. "That is why blocos are so important - it is free, democratic, and passes on the traditions of Carnival." Although the first street bashes to take place during Carnival proper kicked off Friday, the parties have been in full swing for three weeks already.
In the Banda de Ipanema samba troupe's first march, about 30,000 people shuffled behind musicians and cross-dressing dancers done up as Carmen Miranda, the Brazilian singer who helped export samba to the world in the 1940s.
"It's a great cultural manifestation. You see children, older women, men, girls, gays, straights - it's a beautiful democracy of the streets," said Juju Maravilha, or "Marvelous Juju," before turning on his heels and posing for a photo with a family. Rio's blocos are a tradition going back about 100 years and exist in every part of the city of 6 million. Unlike luxurious Carnival parties attended by the elite and hosted in posh hotels, they're open to anyone who shows up with a smile and feet ready to dance. "It's the most beautiful part of Carnival".