It’s feather time, folks

Carnival is a fine art in Gualeguaychú.

Bonnie Tucker / FST
Every Saturday night for more than two months this summer – from January 2 to March 6 this year, to be exact – the members of three comparsa dance groups of social clubs in the Argentine city of Gualeguaychú will put aside their everyday garb and identities and show the flesh to a samba beat in what many say is the sexiest carnival south of Rio.

Gualeguaychú is a small farming city very near Buenos Aires (226 km) and as many as 35,000 spectators can fit into its corsódromo parade stadium, but you can’t get a hotel room for fewer than four nights and there are several other matters to be taken into account when planning a carnival visit (see Tips).
Considered one of the liveliest and most colorful pre-Lenten celebrations in the world, the carnival show put on by this city in the northeastern province of Entre Ríos excels for the creative design of its floats and costumes, its choreographies, and the skimpiness of the attire of many of the dancers, which could serve as inspirations for many a variety theater. Costumes may range from a few strings of pearls to a 250-kilo installation that must be moved about on concealed wheels. The pretty girls of the comparsas who dance samba look taller than they are to TV viewers because cameramen are given to shooting their backsides from the ground up; actually, the women in Gualeguaychú are not the vamps they are made out to be; most are local girls who work hard to keep spectators enthralled on both sides of the narrow runway without missing a beat. However, a few show biz stars also ask to be included every year.

Other cities in the province have carnivals as well, and so does Corrientes to the north, but it seems that none can compare to the show put on by this town of nearly 90,000 people whose cultural obsession outside the carnival months is the next Gualeguaychú Carnival. Comparsa people are always working on the next show. Dreaming up a new theme, composing the music and planning the choreography around it, designing and sewing new costumes, and rehearsals occupy every month of the year but April. That’s when club members talk about falling into the “April depression” of having “nothing to do.”

The Gualeguaychú Carnival calls itself “The Country’s (Argentina’s) Carnival” because it achieved fame 20 years after the one celebrated in the city of Corrientes, which boasts the “National Carnival Capital” title. Like the carnival in Corrientes, its origins go back to the 19th century, and it has Uruguayan and Brazilian influences that show up in choices of themes, music and costumes, but the final result bears an unmistakable local stamp. In the 1930s and 40s, bands of street musicians reminiscent of the Uruguayan murgas were the main feature of carnival activities. In 1959 townspeople began to organize yearly students’ parades that called for ever more sophisticated construction systems – an apprenticeship that contributed to the city’s present superiority in this field. In 1978 it was decided that future carnival organization and financing be turned over to the town’s social clubs. The clubs formed a Carnival Commission, which the following year invited famous comparsas from Corrientes and Brazil to perform with the local dance groups. This inspired a great improvement in performances on the local scene and the Gualeguaychú Carnival soon shot to fame nationwide. The city’s unique corsódromo (a permanent parade ground consisting of a narrow street between grandstands) was built in 1997 because the show had got too big for the city’s narrow, tree-lined streets. The catwalk is 500 meters long and 10 meters wide, so spectators get a close-up look at the dancers and floats.

Gualeguaychú has five comparsas representing as many clubs; every year three strut their stuff before the public and a panel of out-of-town judges. Only the 2010 winner will compete again in 2011. The ones that come second and third this year will relinquish their places on the catwalk to the two that lost in 2009, who will thus become competitors in 2011.
There are several reasons for this. It costs a club a lot of money to field a comparsa of as many as 300 dancers clad in sumptuous, imaginative costumes, as well as four mind-boggling floats of different sizes. Ticket sales will support only three competitors (it used to be four), and the clubs need to at least cover their costs – especially if rain ruins one or more parade nights. (The length of their Carnival season helps them reduce that economic risk.) Also, five and even four comparsas would make the show too long, as it takes each group more than an hour to do its thing before the grandstands. Even now, with just three comparsas, the show lasts four and a half hours.

This year, the comparsas on the runway are O’Bahia, with a theme that proposes a tribal approach to carnival; Ará Yeví, which laments human egoism that damages the environment; and Papelitos (last year’s winner), which explores the ways that the media divert attention from important issues.

Tickets and Seating
General admission to the corsódromo is 60 pesos; seating costs extra. Cement bleacher seats cost an additional 20 pesos. Seats at runway-side tables go for 40 to 10 pesos, depending on the row. A table with four chairs in the VIP sector halfway down the runway costs from 470 to 350 pesos, according to location.
Those who want go it alone can acquire the tickets through Ticketek, or at the stadium.
The show usually starts at 10pm. At 8pm the Carnival Board decides whether or not the show will go on: If it is no, the ticket office will refund what you paid for general admission. If it begins to rain during the event, there will be no refund.
In the corsódromo you can buy fast food, and beer as well; the breweries are advertisers. And the growing desire (or need) for profits also encourages use inside the corsódromo of those bothersome spray aerosols that can ruin your camera; you can’t come with your own because they are sold inside the stadium.

Go for the front row whatever the sector your choose, because there are always slobs in that location who get up when the first comparsa comes down the catwalk and remain standing during the entire parade, forcing those behind them to balance atop chairs or tables.
If you want to sit in the bleachers, ask for a numbered seat in Sector 7 or 8. If you are traveling alone, without a travel agent to attend to your interests, go early and occupy your seat in case you have to dislodge some sly character intent on achieving a seating upgrade without paying for it.
Choose a front row table, and preferably in the VIP sector; the price tends to discourage the most disagreeable drunks and the people with foam aerosols. As tables have four chairs, go with some friends.
Tables (especially in the VIP sector) are hard to get, and it is better to leave that job to a travel agent.
In fact, if you just want to go for a day and not have to drive back at 4am, a travel agency that offers bus or van transfers is definitely the best option.
In addition, an agency that offers a full day carnival tour (such as Tierra Termal in Buenos Aires, 4372-6402) can offer additional experiences during the long hours before the parade. The excursion leaves Buenos Aires at 8am, early enough to allow for a backstage visit to one of the comparsa headquarters, an afternoon spent at a hot spring resort, and a stroll and dinner on the Riverside drive before the show. It costs 220 pesos including transport and admission to the hot spring resort and general admission to the corsódromo, with meals apart.

Access and hotels
Thanks to Gualeguaychú’s nearness to Buenos Aires, you can drive there on Saturday afternoon and return in the wee hours of Sunday morning, if you don’t mind being tired at the wheel.
The trip from Buenos Aires to Gualeguaychú in a scheduled express bus takes three and a half hours. If you have not booked a room in a hotel for that night, returning from the stadium to the bus terminal at 3am and waiting for the first bus out might not be a pleasant experience.
If you booked a room in Gualeguaychú for the four required nights, you will have to find something to do all the extra days if you don’t go in for water sports or soaking in a thermal pool at hot spring resort.

In Gualeguaychú there are 29 hotels of all types, six inns, three apartment complexes, 38 cabin and bungalow courts, three hostels, 14 campgrounds, a hot spring resort with accommodation, and several family homes that lodge tourists. There are also a few tourist ranches and country inns in the surroundings.
In Concepción del Uruguay (70 km from Gualeguaychú) and Colón (100 km) the minimum stay is two nights.

If you want to stay for more than a day
Gualeguaychú is a nice little laid-back river city where everybody seems to enjoy fishing, water sports and the beach in summer. It is located on the Gualeguaychú River, a tributary of the Uruguay River, which marks the border between Argentina and Uruguay 8 km from the city center.

Visitors can enjoy a river cruise, go windsurfing at the Ñandubaysal beach resort, fish for pejerrey, or ride horses in the Unzué Park, among other activities. For more information, consult

PHOTO CREDITS: A Gualeguaychú carnival dancer, . A float from a past carnival parade, Bonnie Tucker. Different types of costumes, Papelitos dance group. A dancer connects with spectators, Bonnie Tucker. Dancers in their float world, Papelitos dance group. Guaychu hot springs resort, Sailboarding on the Uruguay River,