Rio de Janeiro (AFP) - Casting aside its economic woes, corruption scandals and recent humiliation on the football pitch, Brazil opened five days of non-stop partying Friday as Rio de Janeiro's Carnival officially opened.
"King Momo," the portly partier who presides over Carnival, gave the official green light for the lavish festivities to begin, after arriving in a limousine flanked by the carnival queen and two princesses.
"For the second straight year I receive the key to the city and declare Rio carnival open," said this year's "Momo," 28-year-old Wilson Dias da Costa Neto, before busting some samba moves as revellers showered him with confetti.
Although his princesses were resplendent in long sequinned dresses -- albeit one of them largely transparent -- carnival is a chance for both sexes to bare maximum flesh in an outbreak of rampant and unashamed hedonism.
Momo himself urged revelers to "enjoy yourselves -- but be responsible."
In a nod to the latter plea Brazilian authorities said they were distributing more than 100 million condoms to push a safe sex message.
Rio's mayor Eduardo Paes joked that he was happy to relinquish symbolic control of the sprawling city and its "traffic snarl-ups" to Momo for a few days, noting: "I'll be back at work from Ash Wednesday."
A dozen samba schools, each with thousands of performers, compete Sunday and Monday in the Special Parade, which will draw around 70,000 spectators to the city's fabled Sambadrome.
The non-elite schools were having their taste of the limelight Friday night.
Tennis champion Rafael Nadal will be only one of a clutch of celebrities attending -- he plans to join a weekend sambadrome parade before looking to defend his Rio ATP title next week.
For three weeks already, Rio and other major Brazilian cities have been awash with hundreds of pre-carnival colorful street parades, known as blocos, each seeking to out-do one another in volume and visual outrageousness, with garish garb and cross-dressing de rigueur.
The countless street groups, whose traditions date back to the early 18th century, will be led by the Cordao da Bola Preta, Rio's oldest group, founded in 1918, which will gather an estimated 1.8 million people.
- Tourist throng -
Around a million tourists -- most of them Brazilian -- will descend on Rio, cramming the city for the dizzying and decibel-defying spectacle.
City hall officials hope visitors will spend around $500 million during the event.
Hotels in Rio will be at 78 percent capacity during Carnival week, according to the Brazilian Association of Rio Hotels.
The five-day party will unfold under tight security -- 15,000 military police will be on hand, 6,000 more than last year. Rio's main thoroughfares will be closed to traffic from Friday night.
Near the Sambadrome, 65 surveillance cameras have been set up to monitor activity in the crowded stands.
The samba teams, led by reigning champions Unidos da Tijuca, have spent months putting the finishing touches to giant colorful floats and glittering costumes with bold headdresses -- and not much fabric.
This year, the festivities will extend beyond Carnival's official end owing to Rio's 450th birthday on March 1. The city is also looking forward to next year's Summer Olympic Games, the first ever for South America.
Partygoers will be looking to forget the current context of economic malaise and a massive corruption scandal at state-owned oil giant Petrobras.
Two Japanese visitors to Friday's festivities as the noise level steadily rose said they were fulfilling a lifetime ambition to see the event unfold with their own eyes.
"It's completely crazy -- but very exciting. I can't believe I am actually here," said Shota Oniki, a 22-year-old language student.
"We've been playing samba drums at our university, the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, for the past four years. They have a Brazilian music club," Oniki explained to AFP.
"It's just so huge when you're used to the samba carnivals they have in Tokyo," he added, wide-eyed at the growing crowds.