Under a shower of confetti and pulsing samba rhythms, Brazil's legendary King Momo received the keys to Rio on Friday, kicking off Carnival celebrations including glittering parades and sizzling dancing.
The next five days will see many in this racially diverse country of 191 million people dive headlong into the pre-Lent bacchanalian festival that is its most popular holiday -- and one of the world's biggest street parties.
As in previous years, Salvador de Bahia, Brazil's third largest city and the heart of the rich Afro-Brazilian culture, led the way, with hundreds of thousands of revelers pouring into the streets late Thursday to dance and celebrate.
The theme for this year's festival in Salvador is "The Carnival Country," the title of a 1931 novel by Jorge Amado, in homage to the late Bahian author as the city marks the 100th anniversary of his birth.
But the global spotlight was on Rio on Friday as the "Marvelous City" began its Carnival extravaganza, world-famous for its sumptuous parades of elaborately decorated fantasy floats and near-naked dancers.
Milton Junior, the man portraying King Momo, Carnival's chubby symbol of excess, stepped out of a stretch limousine to receive a giant gold key from Rio's mayor and, with scantily clad princesses at his side, broke into a frenetic samba to launch "the greatest show on earth."
Much of the five-day mega-event is being broadcast live around the world.
Carnival in Rio generates 250,000 jobs and revenues of $640 million for hotels, bars and restaurants, according to state estimates.
City officials expect more than than five million people, including 850,000 tourists, to attend.
There had been fears that unrest in Brazil's state police force might disrupt the Carnival festivities in Salvador and Rio, but police strikes in those cities were settled just in time.
Security forces were deployed en masse in addition to city police, with thousands fanning out across Rio, the military police said.
More than 650 military police on Friday ringed the famed Sambadrome, the so called "Temple of Samba" which is scene of the climactic and eagerly-awaited parades which follow the joyous street parties.
Thirteen competing samba schools will march hundreds of lavishly costumed singers, dancers and musicians down a specially designed parade route leading to the Sambadrome.
Originally designed 30 years ago by famed Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, the facility reopened last Sunday after a nine-month makeover.
It now boasts an expanded 72,500-seat capacity, with access ramps for the handicapped and elevators.
Rio's top samba schools will vie for the title of Carnival champion, a dazzling contest watched with the same fervor as football matches in this soccer-mad nation.
Each school spends between $2 million and $5 million to organize its parade. Some are believed to be funded by gambling syndicates.
Security-conscious authorities are deploying 50,000 police officers to patrol the streets along with a small, remote-controlled blimp fitted with a camera to keep watch over street parties.
Rio state officials are also distributing more than three million free condoms to revelers.
And with millions set to hit the streets of Rio, Brazilian Health Minister Alexandre Padilla on Thursday warned that the city faced a major dengue epidemic.
The official Agencia Brasil said since the start of the year, 3,499 dengue cases have been recorded in Rio, compared with 2,322 last year, but none were fatal.
Source: AFP Global Edition