Rio throbbed to sambas, pyrotechnics and dazzling parades in an ecstatic climax Tuesday to its famed Carnival celebrations.
With bursts of fireworks, high-decibel music and a kaleidoscope of colors, 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 colorful 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".
"Marvelous," said one performer, Brazilian telenovela 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 trash and for employees who have to dismantle scores of hulking allegorical floats.
Seats at the open-air Sambadrome cost between $50 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.
There had been fears that unrest in Brazil's state police force might disrupt the festivities in Salvador, the capital of the northeast state of Bahia, and Rio, but police strikes in those cities were settled just in time.
The only notable incident was a Rio shootout between police and a drug gang early Monday that left one person dead and four wounded in a slum located two miles (3.2 km) from the Sambadrome.
As in previous years, Salvador de Bahia led the way Thursday, with hundreds of thousands of revelers 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.
Friday and Saturday, Sao Paulo, Brazil's economic capital, staged spectacular parades at its own sambadrome, notably paying tribute to Afro-Brazilian culture and honoring popular former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is recovering from cancer radiation therapy.
A key feature of the Carnival in Brazil is the numerous street parties held in cities, towns and villages, where beer consumption soars.
In Rio, more than two million revelers in outlandish costumes flooded the city center 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 center 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.
Uniao da Ilha do Gobernador, representing Governor's Island in northern Rio, followed with a tribute to London and Rio, which will host the next two Summer Olympics in 2012 and 2016, respectively.
Some of the loudest applause from the crowd went to performers representing Olympic athletes holding Brazilian and Uniao da Ilha do Gobernador flags and wearing uniforms with the inscription Rio 2016.
Thirteen samba schools are in contention for the title of Carnival champion, to be bestowed on Wednesday based on choreography, music, dancing and creativity.
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