What’s the first thing that springs to mind when you hear the word ‘Brazil’? The amazing nature, the Amazon, the beaches… and the Carnaval? It’s a spectacle that’s well known around the world, occupying a line of every traveller’s bucket list and dominating the plot of a multitude of non-Brazilian films about Brazil. Even The Simpsons did it! Even though the main event is over for the year, the Sambódromo tickets for 2018 are already up for grabs, and it’s never too early to start planning when it comes down to Carnaval in Rio.
Disclaimer: I actually arranged my carnival plans at the very last minute. I had my accommodation booked in September (by which time all of the good central locations had already been booked out) but due to poor planning, ended up browsing flights too late (around New Year’s). I cancelled my accommodation after deciding that close to 400 euros was too much to throw away on flights that wouldn’t even take me directly to Rio and settled to celebrate the carnival in the south. However, about two weeks before the carnival I decided to check out the flights one last time and found the jackpot: direct return flights for 200 euros! After checking booking.com for hostels, I made the rash midnight decision to go to Rio, and I am SO. GLAD. I. DID.
(I stayed in Sao Conrad. It was bad but it was cheap. Please book your accommodation on time.)
So, how do you get the best out of the carnaval?
Join the parade
Perhaps the most famous element of Rio’s carnival is the samba parade that takes place over the main carnival weekend. On the Sambadrome, or Sambódromo in Portuguese, the samba schools of Rio bring out their best efforts to impress the judges and entertain the audience. Women with peacock-like feathers stretching taller than their heads lead the groups of dancers dressed up as boats and the sea, clowns, horror flick characters and minions; huge floats slowly make their way down the length of the runway while the scantily-clad dancers flash their brightest smiles and best moves, holding on for dear life to the unsteady vehicle. No matter what section they’re seated, cariocas will be dancing along to the music and cheering wildly for their favourite schools.
Your best option to enjoy the parades is to purchase a ticket. Although it may seem pricey, seeing the awe-inspiring show in person is very much worth it. The prices vary depending on the parade and the seats, so unless you’re adamant at seeing a certain school, you can plan your visit accordingly.
However, if just hanging out at the bleachers is not your thing, it’s also possible to join the parade. Some samba schools offer tourists a chance to be a part of the show, provided that you’re willing to pay for your costume, learn the songs of the school and often take samba lessons before the parade day. You can browse your options on the schools’ websites and be directly in touch with them if you’re interested. While it seems more likely you’ll be dancing in one of the crowds between the floats, my good friend Sofie was actually lucky enough to meet a girl who was part of the parade and managed to get a spot on a float!
Note: Participating in the parade is not cheap fun since you’ll have to pay for your samba lessons and costume as well as a ticket to see the parade from the grandstands in case you want to keep watching after your school has finished. However, it is definitely a once in a lifetime experience (I am only mildly envious at Sofie that she had the chance to be a part of the show!)
2. Party at the blocos
Here’s something I didn’t know about the carnaval before I went: you can also be a part of the fun completely free of charge. While the lavish parades take place throughout the night on the Sambódromo, the streets are alive with street parties or blocos as they’re called in Portuguese. These parties go on from the morning till approximately midnight and usually last for 1 to 3 hours. They’re not spontaneous; instead, you’ll need to find out where they’re held, show up at an appropriate time and follow the crowd. The bloco is lead by a drumming band and followed closely by a slow-moving truck blasting music and carrying live singers. Most people show up in some kind of a costume, whether it’s just a simple headband and loads of glitter (like I did) or a full-body Halloween costume. (However, you’ll be dancing wildly for hours in a thick crowd in the Brazilian summer. There is a reason why most people show some skin.) Many guys also cross-dress. My favourite bloco was held at Leblon, where the parade progressed towards the Sugar Loaf with the ocean on the other side. After it ended, many of the party-goers wandered off to the nearby boardwalk to watch the sunset by the sea. Dunno man, Rio’s magical.
Note: Some blocos get really busy, so if you get anxious in crowds, stay on the outskirts of it. Don’t take a lot of stuff with you; my recommendation would be to get a money belt or a pouch to keep some cash in, tuck your phone in your bra (or I guess underwear if you’re not wearing one?) and have a blast.
Ps. Like I mentioned, blocos end around midnight, after which some head home and some hit the clubs. If you’re somewhere near a beach, there are bound to be small open-air bars where you can keep drinking and hanging out with your carnival crew.
3. Visit Rio before or after carnaval
The main carnival events in Rio take place for four days before the beginning of Lent, and the dates naturally vary every year. If you’re not in town for the main weekend, not to worry! You can still enjoy the carnival hubbub before or after the actual dates. Blocos already start a few weeks before the actual carnival and go well into March, even April – and not only in Rio! I’ve attended some great street carnivals in Porto Alegre both before and after the dates (and I thought south wasn’t supposed to be great for carnival??).
As a bonus, samba schools have to rehearse their drill on the Sambódromo before the actual parades, and these technical rehearsals are free to attend. You won’t see any of the lavish floats and the parading people will be wearing their school’s t-shirts instead of costumes, but it’s still fun to watch and a neat way to check out the samba scene in Rio in case you’re not there for the parade or find the cost of the tickets too high.
+1: Get out of Rio!
Rio Carnival might be the most famous, but it’s not the only one. Why not try celebrating the Carnival in some other city? Other cities known for phenomenal celebrations are Salvador, Recife and Olinda, but most of Brazil celebrates Carnival and parties can be found anywhere. While Rio is known for samba, other carnivals boast different types of music; for example, the carnival in Salvador is strongly influenced by the lively African culture in the area.
The North is known as a the best place for Carnaval, whereas South gets a little bit of flack for lack of a good party. If you find yourself stuck south of Rio, Florianópolis supposedly has the best celebrations and it is known as the gay carnaval capital. However, one of my friends spent the main weekend there and told me that there are not really any street parties but everything happens in clubs, which can be very pricey to get into.
Wherever you go, though, you will have a great time partying alongside Brazilians that stay up till 5 or 6 and get up again to join the first blocos of the morning.
Carnaval flash round:
How early should I book everything? As early as possible; if you’re looking for accommodation at a good location and a reasonable price, six months isn’t early enough. Same goes for flights. (Well, unless you get lucky like I did.)
Where should I stay? Lapa, Leblon and Copacabana are all central areas where most of the parties happen and in the proximity of a beach. Centro and Barra de Tijuca are also safe neighbourhoods which have pretty easy access to the metro and thus to the parties in the city.
Is participating in the Carnaval dangerous? Rio gets a bit of a bad rep as a violent city. Technically, Rio during Carnaval is a safer place than usually because of the crowds, but this can improve your chances of getting pickpocketed. Only carry what you need, get a money belt and tuck your phone in your bra (is this the reason so many guys cross dress for the carnival?), keep out of dark alleyways and have fun!
What else is there to do in Rio? Rio is a splendid city with lots of interesting hikes, museums and sightseeing. However, if you want to get the most out of Rio’s attractions, I’d recommend you book to stay a bit after or before the main carnival weekend since a lot of places shut their doors during the celebrations. Hikes and beaches are of course still available, but the chances are you are too hungover or tired – or just too busy! – to take on the challenge. During the Carnaval weekend, it’s all about the celebration.
How the hell do you actually spell the word?? It’s carnival for English speakers but you’ll also hear Carnaval which is the Portuguese spelling. (And then you have confused little me who happily mixes all the languages. Ooops?)
Have you been to Brazil for the Carnaval or do you want to go?
All the pictures on the post were taken at the Sambódromo on Saturday 25th February.