Rio carnival (carnaval in Portuguse) is the biggest of it’s kind in the world – it draws two million people onto the streets daily. But what is it? And how can you get the most out of the experience?
Dating back to 1723, this city-wide, five day party has become synonymous with carefree fun and exuberance – one of the things to do at least once in your lifetime. But like most other things related to this city (and Brazil in general), Rio carnival is not something that can be easily explained in a sentence or two – there are many aspects and intricacies not immediately obvious to the casual observer.
I’m not going to be able to tell you everything about Rio carnival here, but what follows will hopefully help you understand what’s on offer and how you can best enjoy the experience.
What is Rio carnival?
Rio carnival has two main sides – the samba school parade (Desfile das escolas de samba) and the street parties (Blocos; Carnaval de rua). There are also carnival balls (bailes) which are rather fancy evening events – these aren’t really my thing so I won’t be covering them here.
When is Rio carnival?
Carnival officially starts 5 days before Lent, meaning it lands in February or early March [dates of carnival to 2022]. In 2017, the official dates of carnival will be Friday 24th February to Wednesday 1st March. However, there’s more to it than that. There are pre-carnival events (early blocos and samba school ensaios – rehearsals) from January onwards. And although Wednesday is officially the last day of carnival, there are plenty of blocos on Thursday and Friday for those who want to keep going. There is also the samba school Champions’ Parade which happens on the following Saturday (3rd March 2017).
Samba Schools and the Parade
First off, samba schools aren’t really schools in the usual sense of the word. It’s probably more helpful to think of them as samba clubs or associations. Each school is based in a neighbourhood, has a headquarters, flag, special colours and lots of fanatical supporters. The schools are separated into divisions and compete against each other to be named that year’s champions. Many of Rio’s locals support their chosen samba school with as much passion as they support their soccer teams. I was once in a taxi at the moment the radio announced that the driver’s favourite samba school was champion. The guy went nuts! He was cheering and whooping so much he had to pull over and take a moment.
The carnival procession ground is known as the Sambadrome (Sambódromo). Designed by Oscar Niemeyer, this 700 metre long stretch of Rua Marquês de Sapucaí in downtown Rio is flanked by permanent tiered seating with an elegant curved arch at one end. As well as Sambódromo, it is sometimes referred to as Sapucaí or the more wordy Passarela Professor Darcy Ribeiro.
When and where to watch the parade
There are samba school parades on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday (and also the following Saturday – the Champions’ Parade). All of these events are going to be amazing – there’ll be thousands of dancers, musicians and singers, incredible floats and fanatical supporters dancing and cheering for their favourite schools. However, experienced carnival-goers will tell you that some nights are much more spectacular than others.
Another thing to consider is where within the Sambadrome you will watch the show (see the sectors in the diagram above). Not so long ago, I raised these questions in a local Facebook group on behalf of a friend who was coming to Rio carnival for the first time. I received two extremely helpful responses (big thanks to both!):
Linda O: I have attended carnival for about 14 years in a row. I really like Sector 3, in the grandstands. You can watch the next group lineup, and it’s across from the drum niche where they park themselves for almost half of the parade so the intensity of the drums is amazing. I also like it because the parade is over for sector 3 well before the rest of the sectors, meaning you can leave early, catch the metro or get to taxis without the crush of the crowd. Over the years I’ve also sat in sectors 2, 5, 7, 9 and 11. But for the price sector 3 is great. Note – Sunday and Monday night are always the most popular competitions of the top/best groups.
Bibi B: Another option is Sector 9, the so-called tourist section. Admittedly, it is a somewhat sanitized version with a focus on “feeling safe” – the down side of this is that you’re not surrounded by the Rio faithful, whose energy is a big part of the fun. But there are up sides: security is extra high for the tourists, the bathrooms are cleaner, there’s plenty of breathing space and seats are reserved so you don’t need to protect your space all the time. And it isn’t completely without character – an increasing number of Brazilians are choosing this area, especially Brazilians from other parts of the country. I sat in Sector 3 one year, but I decided I’d rather watch the parade coming toward me, rather than watching paraders from behind once they fill the avenue.
As Linda said, the top samba schools parade on Sunday and Monday night. A first-time visitor might not notice the difference, but the elite schools puts on a far more spectacular parade.
Some final pieces of advice for those going to the samba school parades:
- Be prepared for a long night! The event starts at 9pm, there are 6 schools performing, and each one has a maximum of 82 minutes to perform. If you stick around until the end you will not be getting home until around 4am or later, so don’t overdo it during the day.
- Take a cushion/pillow! If you’re sitting in the grandstands then you will be very pleased to have some extra cushioning.
- You can take snacks. It’s a long night and although there are places to buy food, you are also allowed to take 2 food items (sandwiches, snacks, etc) with you.
- Children must be 5 or over. If you are taking young kids then you should take proof of age to ensure entry.
Street Carnival – Blocos
For me, the street carnival parties (blocos) are what I look forward to most each year. One thing that really sets Rio’s events above many of the other carnivals held around Brazil is that all the blocos are free of charge and open to everyone. Blocos vary in all kinds of ways – there could be a few hundred foliões (followers) or hundreds of thousands; some blocos stay in one place, others follow a route; some involve enormous sound systems, others are ‘unplugged’. But all blocos involve lots of music, dancing, crowds, street vendors selling beers and caipirinhas, fun and frivolity. [More info on blocos]
People love to dress up for blocos – your fancy dress (fantasia) could be as simple as some feathers in your hair or it could be a full-blown outfit which took days to put together and makes a witty statement on the latest sporting/political calamity or other topical event. [Tips for a Carnival Costume]
Choosing which blocos to attend
There are dozens and dozens of blocos every day, spread across different parts of the city [see the full list for 2018 here]. Choosing which blocos to attend is a bit like deciding which bands to see at a huge music festival – you can’t see them all so you’ll need to make some choices.
Some general advice though:
- I generally avoid the beach neighbourhoods (Leblon, Ipanema, Copacabana) – in my experience, most of the really great blocos are in Centro, Santa Teresa, Glória, Flamengo or Catete.
- Be prepared to wake up early – many of the best blocos start quite early in the morning.
- If you find a bloco you really enjoy, ask around to see which other blocos people are going to – you often see the same people again and again during carnival because they’re all going to the same/best blocos.
- Here are a couple to get you started:
- Céu na Terra is a brilliant bloco in Santa Teresa. It starts at 7am on Saturday 10th. It starts at Largo dos Guimarães (most people take the metro to Glória and then walk up the hill – just follow the crowds).
- Cordão de Boitatá is always great! Apparently they’re starting later than usual this year (2018) so get down to Praça XV by 11am on Sunday 11th.
More Street Carnival tips
- The footwear dilemma: flip-flops or trainers/sneakers? When there are millions of people drinking and dancing on the streets all day, every day, the very least you can expect is that someone will spill their drink on your feet. You might also step in a puddle of, er, ‘unidentified liquid’. Wearing flip-flips means you can easily wash your feet off with a bottle of water rather than sloshing around in stinky closed shoes all day. But with flip-flops you are much more likely to need to wash your feet in the first place.
- I know the Beatles-themed Sargento Pimenta bloco sounds awesome, but be prepared for huge crowds. It attracted 180,000 people in 2016.
- Daytime drinking on the street (or anywhere else) is totally acceptable and expected during carnival. If this raises fears of drunken aggression and public barfing, rest assured – Rio’s locals know how to have fun without disgracing themselves after a few drinks. Other nations (my own in particular) could learn a lot from the Cariocas.
- Learn the carnival songs! There’s nothing like singing along with 20,000 happy people dressed up as fairies/pirates/bananas as you down your third beer of the day at 9am [here are a few to get you started]
- I like to have at least one zipped pocket for money/card and phone. You will find yourself squeezing through crowds at regular intervals and it’s nice to have everything zipped up and secure.
- Don’t feel like you have to stay up all night – if you’ve started early then you may want to head home around 6pm so that you’re rested and ready to start early again the following day.
- Expect some chaos. Carnival is no place for meticulous plans and schedules. Hanging out in smaller groups (4-6 people) works best – otherwise you are always waiting for someone to get back from peeing, buying drinks, etc.