IMAGINE A HUGE, ROWDY, DECADENT PARTY THAT LAST AL-most a whole week. That's Carnival in a nutshell.

A tradition in Roman Catholic countries for many centuries, Carnival is a frenzied festival of merrymaking that takes place each year immediately before Lent (in 1991, Feb. 9-15 is Carnival time). Several European and most Central and South American nations celebrate Carnival, but by far the biggest and best-known is the annual bash in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

"The Carnival in Rio is one of the greatest parties I've ever been to in my life," says Mary Ruksznis, co-owner of Precision Travel in Columbia. "The party atmosphere is continuous, 24 hours. The lack of sleep is incredible, but you're on adrenalin."

"It's one of the most exciting things in the world to do," adds Voit Gilmore, president of the American Society of Travel Agents and also his own North Carolina-based agency. "Carnival is just really a major event. People are having the best time of their lives. In these poor countries, this is the one time the people can be uninhibited."

The highlights of Rio's Carnival include parades, lavish balls and lots and lots of music. Samba clubs spend months practicing in order to win a place in the competition for the year's best group; the 14 top clubs, some of which have as many as 3,000 musicians, dancers and marchers participating, vie for the "World Cup" of samba in a spectacular pageant at the downtown Sambodromo stadium.

Getting into the Carnival spirit definitely means leaving your inhibitions behind, says Ms. Ruksznis. "If someone is offended by nudity, they should never even set foot on the plane," she cautions. "I've never seen so many bare bottoms and bare busts in my life."

Of course, all this frantic activity means that tourists who go to Rio during Carnival time should not anticipate top-notch service. Many shops and restaurants close entirely, and hotel guests should not be surprised if their beds go unmade during Carnival week. After all, the chambermaids are probably out partying.

"When you sit at a cafe for coffee, you may get waited on," says Ms. Ruksznis. "Or if a samba band goes by and the waiter likes it, he'll join the group behind them. It happened to me more than once."

Tourists should also expect to pay dearly for the experience of visiting Rio during Carnival. Hotels, restaurants and airlines charge premium prices, and because tickets to balls and the samba competition sell out so far in advance, the only way to get them on short notice is by paying a scalper hundreds of dollars.

"It's sort of like going to Forest Hills for the tennis tournament," says Mr. Gilmore. "You don't just start asking somebody for tickets the day before."

To avoid these pitfalls, a package tour may be the most sensible choice for Carnival first-timers. Several tour operators offer Carnival trips. American Express Vacations' 1991 package features round-trip air, hotel accommodations for seven nights, tickets to the samba finals and a couple of sightseeing trips. New Jersey-based Go-Go Tours' package includes the services of a local host to help travelers get the most out of the Carnival delirium.

Cheryl Spraybury, assistant manager of travel product marketing for American Express Vacations, suggests that anybody planning to attend Carnival in Rio next year should make their arrangements immediately. American Express' Carnival trip is "very, very popular," she says. "The hotels sell out very early, so they want the guests' names a lot farther in advance than any other time period."

Other tips for Carnival-bound travelers: Tourists who choose to make their own arrangements should be sure to select a downtown hotel, close to the hub of festival activity, as reliable taxi service can be hard to come by during Carnival. February is the hottest month in South America, so pack loose, light, comfortable clothing. And be sure to bring a mask or costume for the balls.

Of course, there's plenty of fun to be had at other Carnivals, too. "Although Rio is sort of a summation of it all, sometimes the size of it and the frenzy of it is such that a Carnival in a smaller city can be just as exciting," says Mr. Gilmore. "One can become more involved with it and participate with it even more than they can in the milling tens of millions in Rio."

In Brazil, Salvador -- which is in the state of Bahia -- has a street-based Carnival, best known for its "sound trucks" which roam the roads, blasting celebrants with ear-splitting music. The city of Recife, in the northeastern part of the country, is famous for the frevo, a wild dance "that makes a samba look like you're standing still," says Mr. Gilmore.

Elsewhere in South America, each town in Peru has its own simple, rustic Carnival celebration. French Guiana's festival is a joyous event, highlighted by the appearance of masked men and women called touloulous; the excitement runs high until Ash Wednesday, when the King of Carnival is burned in effigy. And Ecuador has an unusual Carnival custom -- celebrants congregate on rooftops to toss balloons and buckets full of water down on unsuspecting people in the streets below.

Mexico's biggest Carnival is held in Mazatlan. This might be the ideal Carnival for anyone wanting to bring the kids along. Los Juegos is a special amusement park with rides and games; in addition, a Junior King and Queen of Carnival are crowned each year at the Carnaval Infantil, which features a musical show starring Mexican child stars and other young performers.

Closer to home, America's own Carnival frenzy takes place every year in New Orleans, La. "Fat Tuesday" itself is rather early next year, falling on Feb. 12, so it's bound to be a chilly Mardi Gras. Still, the festival spirit will no doubt be running high whatever the weather.

Not to be missed are the many Mardi Gras parades, each organized by Carnival groups called krewes. Costumed revelers toss trinkets to the crowd from elaborate floats; try to catch doubloons stamped with the krewe's insignia, colorful plastic beads and plastic caps.

Tickets to the grand Carnival balls can be hard to come by, as most are by invitation only. Often, the only way to get one is by knowing the right people. Still, the vast majority of Mardi Gras activities, from the parades to the costume contests and music, can be enjoyed by everybody.

As with the Carnival in Rio, hotels and airlines sell out very far in advance, so time is of the essence for anyone planning to attend in 1991.


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