PARATY, Brazil — First came the roar of the drums and trumpets bouncing down the stone-lined streets. Then the silhouettes of the paper mache dragon, skeleton and wizard danced above the crowd.
The cries of the beer and soft-drink vendors grew louder, and confetti started flying. Fireworks lit the sky around midnight. It was that time of year again. The first night of Carnaval, the annual five-day party celebrated around the world, had begun in the tiny Brazilian town of Paraty.
While Rio de Janeiro and other big cities claim more famous parties, most people in this country of 184 million celebrate Brazil's annual orgy of music and sequins in small towns such as Paraty. And it's here that the festival's historic, homegrown roots live on.
This year Carnaval runs from Friday, Feb. 1, to Tuesday, Feb. 5. It's timed every year to end 40 days before Easter.
If last year is any indication, tens of thousands of revelers will choose to party in Paraty and similar towns all over Brazil. They'll find a Carnaval celebration without the soaring prices for hotels and parade tickets or the rampant crime in Brazil's bigger cities.
Carnaval in this town of 25,000 residents about 150 miles southwest of Rio is quainter and more folkloric than those in Rio and the northeastern Brazilian cities of Recife and Salvador, all famous for their massive, pricey celebrations.
Last year, more than 50,000 visitors, a near-record number, were celebrating Carnaval. Among them were Americans, Europeans and big-city Brazilians on their yearly jaunt to the Green Coast, the stretch of pristine shoreline surrounding the town.
Paraty prospered during the 17th century as gold from inland Brazil left its ports for Europe. Although the town had benefited from a boom in coffee cultivation during the 19th century, the rest of Brazil forgot about it for decades. That left it untouched by the kind of faceless development that's ruined countless Brazilian towns.
Tourists finally discovered Paraty after a major highway opened nearby in the 1970s.
With a historic center replete with beautifully preserved, whitewashed churches and houses, Paraty retains the feel of the wealthy, colonial town it once was. The prohibition of car traffic in the historic center adds to its charm.
Last year, as the sun set on the first night of Carnaval, big-city nerves relax and submit to the lulling rhythms of small-town Brazilian life.
The samba drums soon started their roar, however, and the 18th century streets filled with revelers. The celebration had begun, and it was more high-school production than Las Vegas spectacle, and, as many in town said, the celebration was more in tune with Brazil's rural roots.
Instead of corporate-sponsored parades and spectator boxes costing thousands of dollars a night, Paraty's Carnaval is a community affair.
The hit of the first night last year was a local arts group called the Marvels of the Hills, which had kicked off Carnaval with its grotesque, giant puppets for three decades.
The Santa Cecilia brass-and-drums band provided the soundtrack, while a giant green dragon rhythmically snapped its jaws, a buxom, 8-foot-tall paper mache lady danced a duet with a skeleton, and children darted among the crowd spraying each other with silly string.
Townspeople gleefully mixed with tourists in the wake of the samba bands. Parents carried sleeping children as they danced. Everyone forgot themselves for a few hours and gave in to the sensory overload that's a Carnaval hallmark, even in small towns such as Paraty.
The next afternoon, the crowds returned, this time on nearby Jabaquara Beach, for what many consider the highlight of Paraty's Carnaval.
Every year for the past two decades, thousands of people have gathered on Carnaval Saturday to cover themselves in thick, gray mud from the warm water off Jabaquara Beach. They dance themselves into a stupor and then march toward town in a column stretching for miles.
A handful of friends started the tradition after spontaneously parading through town covered in the mud, which locals have long claimed has therapeutic powers. Last year, a sound truck led the massive crowd down the beach, blasting what's known as the Mud Block's theme song, a gallop of bongo beats under the chant "Ooga booga ha ha!" repeated at deafening volume by the crowd.
It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but something about the mass messiness of the muddy ritual is hard to resist.
Those with more refined tastes have other options in Paraty.
The town is a center of arts and literature and as cosmopolitan as any place in Brazil. Set between Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, Brazil's two largest cities, Paraty has gathered in one place the best of both cities' restaurants, art galleries and cultural festivals. More than 300 inns cater to visitors.
Paraty's also known worldwide for its annual literary festival, which has drawn Nobel Prize-winning writers such as Toni Morrison and J.M. Coetzee.
Surrounded by warm, emerald green waters and islands dotted with palm trees, many come to Paraty to swim, boat and hike the Gold Road on which tons of gold made its way through rainforests to town for centuries.
The recipe is a good one. Dance and frolic or just tap your toes to samba at night. Splash in the Atlantic's warm waters during the day. All the while, glimpse a Brazil that's about creativity and community rather than poverty and violence.
HOW TO GET THERE
Paraty is best reached by buses that leave every few hours from Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo. From Rio, the fare is about $25, and the trip takes about four hours. From Sao Paulo, the fare is about $20, and the trip takes six hours.
Lodging is abundant in and around town. Many hotels are in converted, centuries-old houses in the historic center, although new inns are setting up in the rest of town. During Carnaval, most hotels will only sell rooms in five-night pages running from Feb. 1-6.
The Estalagem Colonial is a beautifully preserved, two-story house near the main plaza and charges from $860 to $1030 for a five-night package through Carnaval. IN the weeks before and after Carnaval, rooms with private bathrooms cost about $90 a might, and rooms with shared bathrooms cost about $60. Rua da Matriz 9. From the United States, dial (011-55) 24-3371-1626.
The Pousada Arte Colonial is in the thick of the action right off the main plaza. Five-day packages during Carnaval run from $1200 to $1430. In the off-season, rooms cost $80 a night during the week and $100 on the weekends. In peak season, rooms run from $85 to $105. Rua da Matriz 292. (011-55) 24-3371-7347.
One of the nicest places in town is the Pousada do Ouro, set a block from the ocean. Reservations during Carnaval are limited to five-day packages costing $1090 for a basic room to $1710 for a deluxe suite. In the weeks before and after Carnaval, rooms range from $130 to $210 a night. Rua Dr. Pereira 145. (011-55) 24-3371-1378.
The town is full of great restaurants offering everything from sushi to pastas to local cuisine. Two great spots: Kyoto Sushi, at Rua Marechal Deodoro and Rua Joao Luiz do Rosario, and Che Bar, Rua Marechal Deodoro 241, a joint dedicated to Argentine revolutionary Ernesto Guevara with couches in front that offered a great spot to watch samba bands march by.