Shaking the ground to the beat of their drums, Rio de Janeiro's famed carnival parades returned Sunday in a swirl of glitter, sequins and samba, the festival's first full-on edition since Covid-19 and Brazil's bitterly divisive elections.

The world's biggest carnival, which officially started Friday, hit peak party level as Rio's top samba schools opened their annual parade competition in the giant avenue-turned-stadium known as the "Sambadrome."

"Celebrating carnival after the pandemic is a feeling of freedom and happiness so big I can't even describe it," said 25-year-old Debora Soares, who was beaming in a sequin-studded costume atop a giant green-and-gold float as she prepared to dance in samba school Imperio Serrano's parade.

Members of the Unidos da Tijuca samba school perform during the first night of Rio's Carnival parade at the Sambadrome Marques de Sapucai in Rio de Janeiro on 20 February, 2023.

"It also comes after a historic, watershed election, after all the darkness we went through. Carnival brings the hope that the coming years will be better," added Soares, an event planner and model from Cidade de Deus, or "City of God," the Rio favela made famous by the 2002 film of the same name.

Rio is ready to party, after two pandemic-disrupted carnivals and October's polarising presidential election, in which veteran leftist Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva ousted incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, an ultra-conservative carnival critic accused of authoritarian tendencies.

The iconic beach city canceled carnival in 2021 because of the pandemic and held a reduced version last year, banning the epic street parties known as "blocos" and postponing the parades by two months because of a surge of Covid-19, which has claimed nearly 700,000 lives in Brazil.

Revellers from Mocidade samba school perform during the first night of the carnival parade at the Sambadrome, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 19 February, 2023.

'Goose bumps every time'

Now, the full-scale festival is back.

"The happiness is double. With this carnival we can celebrate the end of (Bolsonaro's) government and leave behind the horrors of the pandemic," Amanda Olivia, 34, told AFP as she prepared to parade with renowned samba school Mangueira.

The samba schools, the pride of Rio's impoverished favelas, spend months assembling the sparkling costumes and creating the over-the-top floats that are the trademarks of the parades.

In the parade competition, the city's top 12 samba schools vie for the title of champions with dazzling floats, thundering music and thousands of singers, drummers and dancers in revealing jewel-encrusted and feather-covered costumes.

The parades were often politically charged during the Bolsonaro years, with thinly veiled criticism of the far-right government over issues such as racism, religious intolerance, environmental destruction and Brazil's disastrous management of Covid-19.

This year's parades are less political.

A reveller from Unidos da Tijuca samba school performs during the first night of the carnival parade at the Sambadrome, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 19 February, 2023.

Many of the schools are returning to their roots, choosing themes linked to founding figures of the samba genre, the Afro-Brazilian culture from which it emerged, and Brazil's northeast -- the poor, majority-black and multiracial region that is the percussion-heavy musical style's spiritual home.

Imperio Serrano, the opening samba school, paid tribute to singer-songwriter Arlindo Cruz, a living legend of samba and a sister genre, pagode.

Taiza Marques, a 30-year-old police officer taking part in her fifth parade contest, was preparing to make her entrance atop a float that featured giant green dragons whose heads swung dramatically toward the capacity crowd of more than 70,000 revelers.

"Returning (after Covid-19) is such a joy to everyone who loves samba," said Marques.

"It's so important, after so much sadness."

Iaraci Santos, a 64-year-old nurse, has been participating in the parades since she was seven years old.

But she said it never gets old entering the "Sambadrome," with its bright lights, booming bass drums and glittering parades.

"Every time I enter that avenue is like the first time," she said.

"It always makes me want to cry. I get goose bumps every time."