If Rio de Janeiro’s Carnaval is the greatest party in the world, then Boi Bumbá (beat the bull) is a close second. Every June, thousands of Brazilians flock to the small Amazonian river town of Parintins, Amazonas—halfway between Santarém and Manaus—to celebrate Brazil’s second-largest annual festival.
Boi Bumbá pits the city’s two samba schools—the Garantido and the Caprichoso—against each other over three nights of dazzling theatrical competition. Both schools reenact a local legend about the resurrection of a favorite ox that was slaughtered to satisfy the cravings of a ranch hand’s pregnant wife.
Although the origins of the Boi Bumbá story are widely disputed, the legend is said to have been introduced to the region by a family of rubber traders who migrated from northeastern Brazil in 1913. Since its inauguration in 1965, the festival—which is best accessed by boat—has evolved into a fusion of Indigenous, African and contemporary Brazilian popular cultures. The competition is played out at the bull-shaped, open-air arena called the Bumbódromo, before an audience that regularly tops 35,000 spectators, participants and a panel of judges. Each team stages a different, three-hour-long interpretation of the legend each night, donning flamboyant costumes, parading giant puppets, launching fireworks, and choreographing dances to booming rhythm sections.
But there are no impartial observers at this celebration. Fans split in support of the two teams—each led by an ox—and play an integral part in the show by dancing, singing and waving handkerchiefs and candles when their team is performing. On the third night, the judges choose a winner based on 22 categories, including best music, audience support and best floats. But it’s on the fourth day that the fun really starts, with the winning team leading a street parade and a city-wide party.
This year, Garantido will defend its crown at the festival’s 50th anniversary, scheduled for June 26 to 29.