If you don't feel like partying, avoid Brazil for the next few weeks. Preparations across the country for Carnaval - four rollicking days starting February 23 - have already begun.
The pre-Lent fete is celebrated all across South America, and Venezuela, Uruguay and Argentina come close to matching Brazil's zeal. But Latin America's largest country looms largest in the hearts and minds of Carnavalers.
Carnaval arrived in Brazil with the Portuguese. Celebrants took to the streets, throwing mud and water, often triggering violent riots. The wealthy held lavish balls. Feeling left out, the poor people of Rio formed cordes, male-only groups who paraded in the streets and danced to African rhythms. Eventually, the last barrier to real fun disappeared when women were permitted to join.
Head to the coast for pre-Carnaval exploration. First stop, Olinda, a splendid little city clinging to the eastern tip of South America. This World Heritage site was the continent's first capital city and has one of Brazil's best collections of colonial-era buildings, many now museums and galleries.
In these streets, tightly packed blocos, or blocks of bands, costumed revellers and partiers numbering in the tens of thousands will dance, drink, shout, fall down, laugh and break a bone or two. Red and green sheets of plastic strung from housetop to housetop mark the parade's route through the streets.
The next top place to get into the Carnaval swing of things is Salvador, another historical coastal city about 14 hours south of Olinda by bus. Salvador is the capital of Bahia, Brazil's music centre. Bahians love their fetes; Carnaval aside, on 52 Sundays and Tuesdays a year, the city goes into party overdrive.
Popular noshes in Salvador include salgados, a teardrop-shaped African snack of a deep-fried batter stuffed with shredded chicken, beef or cheese. Their slightly sweet aroma permeates the air. The other ubiquitous munchies are skewered meats cooked over charcoal. Choices include beef, chicken (the best of the appetizers), chicken hearts (hardly awful offal) and pork, plus squares of cheese.
Third on the Carnaval hit list is Rio de Janeiro. Our northern winter is summertime down south, and at the jaw-dropping Copacabana and Ipanema beaches the young and aroused strut their muscles and dental-floss bikinis.
Nothing looks rusty on this beach, and everything smells of suntan oil and expensive perfume. Numberless cellphones ring in disharmony.
Musicians busk at lunch and dinner in central Rio's tree-lined boulevards and squares. The Municipal Theatre, Museu Nacional de Belas Artes and the public library form a triangle of Old World architecture. A walkabout uncovers bakeries, wine shops (prices are low, and Brazilian plonks are practically giveaways), music shops, cathedrals and bookstores.
Even without Carnaval, Rio is endlessly charming, but the festival magnifies its attractions. Workers put up temporary grandstands and sound stages along the main arteries. Seasonal street-corner entrepreneurs hawk Carnaval wares: beer, fluorescent string and artificial snow in a can, beer, confetti, beer, noisemakers, beer, costumes with masks, and beer. You can't take five steps without bumping into another vendor of ice-cold cans of suds.
Each city, town and village has its own method of celebration. Olinda's party has been known to go for 11 days, Salvador's for over a week. Smaller places may host one ball on one evening, then relax so vacationers can recuperate, or perhaps head for Olinda. Rio, without question, is the summit.
But don't come to Brazil only for the frolic. A trip down the Brazilian coast means galleries and theatres, delicious tortes, ice creams and pastries, fruits so juicy they need their own lifeguard, cheap prices, decent coffee (the best gets exported), stunning wealth, brutal poverty, Coke drunk by the tankerful, 500 years of history, mosquitoes and lots, lots more.