That picture is Salvador, Bahia, Brazil's rapidly up and coming holiday destination, to which an estimated 1 million Brazilian and foreign tourists will flock this year to have their fill of sun, sand and sea.
Now fill the picture with heaving, dancing, gyrating bodies, feel your heart shake to the beat of pulsating African rhythms, squint into the blazing sun to see the swirling hips of dancers on the roofs of converted trucks and the balconies of nearby hotels. Feel the sheer joy in the air. Colour your picture in with your brightest colouring pencils, rip it round the edges, and scribble over it with fluorescent marker. That's Salvador during carnival, the city's yearly culmination of what is rapidly becoming one of the best music and dance scenes in South America. Write it on your list of things to do before you die, or - if you're the spontaneous sort - just book the flight and get out there before the fun kicks off in February each year.
Salvador's carnival is officially a street carnival
A Carnaval de Rua, and as different from Rio de Janeiro's version as the Tramp is from Lady. Rio during carnival becomes a centre of ostentation and flamboyance, with tourists paying sky-high prices to parade for an hour in one of 14 chosen samba-schools before retiring to the sidelines to ogle at scantily clad supermodels, legs, breasts and feathers akimbo in their hugely elaborate costumes.
Salvador, in contrast, whose state of Bahia accounts for a large part of Brazil's 34 per cent mixed-race and 11 per cent Afro-Brasilian population, takes the week off en masse for an orgy of celebration of street-level democracy and multi-cultural diversity. "It's the only moment you get black, white, blue, yellow, tall, short, fat, thin, rich, poor, all dancing together, laughing together, crying together" claims Carlos Jhama, one of the city's top dance teachers whose classes become packed in the run-up to February. Blocos of dancing, drumming, singing Africans, Indians, mestizos, women, transvestites, children, and any sort of combination of these parade through the historic streets and coastline of the city during the five days and nights of the festival, offering something for everyone, or rather, offering almost everything for everyone.
Cultural diversity also means musical diversity
Bahia is the birthplace not only of thousands of mixed-race people each year, but of mixed-race music. If samba is the national music and dance of Brazil (there is even a national day in its honour), then Salvador is the place where you'll find the essence of samba captured and transformed. Samba-reggae, afro-samba, afro-samba-reggae, samba-urbano rub rhythmic shoulders with the African derived afoxé (following the pioneering group Ilê Aiyê, and the black pride movement Filhos de Gandhy) and more modern afro-pop axé (E o Tchan, Ivete Sangalo), and with the drumming of the native Indian group Apaches do Tororó in grass skirts and full body paint.
In the midst of the competing rhythms you can hear the clapping and chanting of capoeira, Bahia's trendy combination of martial arts and gymnastics, and of candomblé, the African-derived religion popular in the state, and you can recognise the distinctive movements of these cultural forms transformed into stylised dance patterns. Most people wear earplugs, and any doctor would shudder at the thought of his children standing within 15 metres of the huge speakers, but they're a sight you have to see, and a sound you have to hear, even if you can't hear much for a few days afterwards."
So if anyone and everyone can take part, how do you do it? Easy. Firstly, if you like the idea of democratic multiculturalism but also like the idea of safety and comfort, you can opt for a space in a camarote. These are large rooms on the first or second floor of buildings along the carnival routes, variously offering anything from hot-dogs to sushi, massage and beauty parlours, cyber cafés, live transmission of the carnival, and of course clean toilets, first aid and dance space. A ticket costs between £30 and £75 for a day if bought in advance, with prices varying according to facilities and location.
Get a space in a bloco
Blocos are the meat of the carnival sandwich. They generally consist of around 3000 members dressed in identical abadás, or official short sleeved vests, protected by a cordon of security guards. The core of the bloco is the trio eléctrico, a large flat-bed truck from which modern sound systems pump out the tunes of musicians and singers on the roof. A support truck follows, with refreshments, toilets and first aid. The trio eléctrico crawls along at 2km an hour, stopping frequently, and it takes between seven and eight hours to complete the traditional 6km city circuit, or five hours for the alternative 4km coastal circuit. The very first trio eléctrico, created by the musicians Dodô and Osmar in 1951, broke down en route but no-one noticed - the heaving mass of dancers was pushing it forward.
Different blocos play very different music and have different guest singers each day, so choose carefully. If you're into tribal African black-pride music, try Ilê Aiyê, Ara Ketu, Filhos de Gandhy (see picture below) or the native Indian Apachés do Tororó. If you prefer something more afro-pop or samba-reggae, go for Timbalada, Olodum or Cortejo Afro. Afro-samba style Terra Samba and the alternative bloco Chiclete com Banana are also popular choices. Big name guest singers to look out for in this year's carnival are Daniela Mercury (guest singer for the group Crocodilo), Margareth Menezes (Os Mascarados and Tê Tê Tê), Ivete Sangalo (Coruja and Cerveja & Cia) and Carlinhos Brown (Camarote Andante). An advance space in a bloco, including your abadá, costs between £30 and £200 for a day.
The other option is simply to get down there and shake your stuff in the crowds. It's a carnaval de rua after all. However, street dancers are known as the foliões pipoca (popcorn dancers) for a reason - think about what goes on in a hot popcorn pan and you'll understand. If you do choose this option make sure you don't take bags or cameras, or wear any jewellery, and be warned that without the security of the bloco you are vulnerable to the occasional brawls and fights that break out in the crowds. Your best bet is to go for a combination of all three options. Unlike Rio, you can join Salvador's different blocos and camarotes for different days, and try out both the city centre and the coastal circuits. Or you can take a day or two off, and head to one of the many beaches and islands in the area for some rest and repair.
Come to Salvador in December or January
This is when the pre-carnival season really gets going, and the city's celebrations of New Year's Eve, the Lavagem de Bom Fim festival and countless others will be valuable preparation for those unaccustomed to spending hours dancing amongst heaving crowds. It's also when Salvador's bands get regular rehearsals going, generally open to the public either free or for a small price. Dance classes of any sort, including of course samba and Afro-Brazilian, become packed. The sun burns brighter, the beaches fill with umbrellas and the bars buy in truck-loads of Brazilian beer to satisfy the thirsty revellers. For many, the run-up to carnival is better than the event itself.
Carnival in Salvador
Yes, it's carnal, yes, it's carnage - no, you can't miss it.
Salvador's carnival (`carnaval' in Portuguese) kicks off around the middle of February each year and runs for one week. Most parades start from 10am each day and the revelling lasts until the early hours of the morning.
The traditional parade follows the 6km `Osmar' circuit through the narrow streets of the city centre, ending at the Hotel de Bahia in Campo Grande. The newer `Dodô' route follows the 4km coastal road from the Farol da Barra beach to Ondina. The `Batatinha' circuit is a new addition to the carnival, parading through the cobbled streets of the historic centre of Pelourinho. There are also many `alternative' carnival-related festivities in the outlying districts.
The official carnival website , in English, Spanish, and Portuguese, has full listings of when and where blocos will parade. The mostly-bilingual website Central do Carnaval offers various packages and options for taking part, including credit card booking of spaces in blocos and camarotes, and can help with finding accommodation in the city. UK-based agencies such as Journey Latin America can also provide packages and help with obtaining advance tickets.
· Hotels in Salvador [HotelChatter]