How to enjoy Rio carnival

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.

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Rio Carnival 2014 – Smiles, Social Comment and drones!



It’s been a strange time in Rio since the protests of July 2013. After so much unrest, a lot of the outrage seemed to evaporate (at least from the front pages). However, none of the issues that provoked the protests have been resolved, and so I think many of us have been feeling that the anger that drove the protests is simmering under the surface, waiting for a time to strike again.

Would Rio carnival 2014 be the time for people to voice their dissatisfaction? Would the street parties turn into street protests? Would carnival be marred by stun grenades and tear gas? Or would everyone forget about their grievances, distracted by all this bread and circus?

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Carnaval do Lixo



Carnival 2014 is over! Phew! So how did it go? Well, I had a great time – it didn’t rain and we went to some really nice blocos on Saturday, Sunday and Monday. I’m afraid that 3 days solid partying is about all I can manage nowadays. When Tuesday came around I found myself longing for a quiet day on the sofa!

As usual, I was snapping away with my camera, always on the lookout for some inventive fantasia or other fun sight. Here are some highlights:

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Rio Carnaval 2014 – Off to Paquetá!


Arriving on Paquetá, we were struck by the tranquil atmosphere due to the lack of cars and motorbikes.


Well, I’m officially in a full-on carnival state of mind! Last Saturday, some friends and I went to a bloco called Pérola de Guanabara (Pearl of Guanabara) which was held on the island of Paquetá. Paquetá is a small island in Guanabara Bay that you can visit by taking a 1:15hr ferry ride from Praça 15. It was my first visit to the island so I was already pretty excited, but to combine it with my first bloco of 2014 was an extra bonus. Little did I know that the highlight of this special day would be the ferry ride home!

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Carnival Songs: Mulata iê iê iê



It feels like the perfect storm: carnival is nearly upon us, my best friend from England arrives in Rio tonight and to top things off, it’s Friday! It’s enough to make you want sing isn’t it? Well don’t hold back – today I’m adding another classic marchinha to my list of favourite carnival tunes (see under the “Carnival” menu item above).

Being the ignorant gringo that I am, I had some trouble finding this song because I knew it only as ‘that passarela song’. It is often listed as “Mulata Bossa Nova”, but officially it is called Mulata iê iê iê (‘iê’ sounds like ‘yeah’).

The song was written by our old friend João Roberto Kelly (remember Cabaleira do Zezé?) and made famous in 1965 by Emilinha Borba (pictured above). Emilinha sounds like she must have been quite a character, having well publicised feuds with rival divas of the time, including an actual physical fight with Linda Batista over the affections of a visiting Orson Welles! Anyway, let’s hear her sing the song shall we?

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Carnival Songs: Mamãe Eu Quero

Well it’s that time of year again – carnival lovers start planning their fantasias while carnival haters start looking for a quiet country pousada where they can escape the mayhem.

This will be my fourth carnival and I’m really looking forward to it. Contrary to what you might expect, I have enjoyed each carnival more than the one before. This has been due to knowing what to expect, better planning, and getting to know the marchinhas (traditional carnival songs).

That last point might sound strange, but imagine yourself surrounded by thousands of people who are having the time of their lives, all singing their hearts out to what sounds like a really catchy song. Only problem is you don’t even know the tune, let alone the words. Sure there are worse things that can happen to you, but still, it’s more fun when you know the songs.

With that in mind, I’m adding another classic marchinha to my list of classic Carnival Songs that everyone should know. Mamãe Eu Quero, written by Vicente Paiva in 1936, is one of the most popular marchinhas of all time. Paiva was born in 1908 in São Paulo and sadly I could only find one picture of him.


Vicente Paiva may not have left a lot of photos, but his music is still going strong.

As well as being a composer, Paiva was also a pianist, singer and arranger. Mamãe Eu Quero is probably the song he is best known for, though he was no one-hit wonder – he also wrote O Cordão da Bola Preta and Voltei Pro Morro

But let’s get to his greatest success. Mamãe Eu Quero (Mummy I want it) was recorded in December 1936 by friends and collaborators, Jararaca and Almirante. Released in early 1937, the song was a huge hit in that year’s carnival. Here is that original version:

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My best Rio Carnival moment of 2013

I know I know, carnival is over – just accept it and move on… Well I’m not ready to move on! Back in 2012 I told you about my best moment of the carnival that year (just an entire carnival bloco invading the airport – if you haven’t seen it then don’t miss the video). This year’s carnival moment was perhaps not quite so dramatic, but as an example of the spirit of Rio carnival, it’s hard to beat.


The Google Maps Markers! The markers were actually joined by a rope which made for some interesting manoeuvring!


One thing I’m struck by each year at carnival is how often I see the same people at multiple blocos. One of us will nudge the other and go “Look, it’s those Google Maps Markers again” or “Check it out! It’s that girl in the monkey suit from yesterday!”. Well one team I saw both during carnival 2012 and also at several blocos this year were noticeable because of a sign they held: Ceará Livre!:

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Carnival Costumes

One of the things I like most about Carnaval de Rua (the free street carnival, as opposed to the paid procession at the Sambadrome) is the dressing up. And from the looks of it, I’m not the only one! Of course there are the classic costumes that show up every year (about 50% of all carnival photos will contain at least one pirate), but some people really go to town.

Today I thought I’d show you a few of the fantasias (way cooler then the English term I grew up with, ‘fancy dress’) that caught my eye this year. Let’s start off with Watermelon Man! Sure, anyone can put a watermelon on their head, but the shirt, cape and arm ‘protectors’ take this outfit up a level.

Watermelon Man

Simple, effective and, well, a bit mushy on the head I guess.


Next we get a bit naughty!

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Escondidinho – the little hidden

I know, I know – not everyone uses carnival as an excuse for a full-on, 5-day fun-binge. Some people actually dislike carnival and do their best to leave town during what is admittedly a bit of an inconvenient time if you want to do anything which doesn’t involve dressing up as a nun/ballerina/pirate and dancing in the street. Happily I fall into the full-on, 5-day fun-binge category and so for me this is a time I look forward to all year.

If you ask people who’ve been to carnival if they have any tips, you’ll probably get all kinds of advice, from best pee strategy (go whenever you get the opportunity, even if you don’t really need to go), to best bloco enjoyment strategy (set your alarm and get up early – a lot of the best stuff starts at 8am).

Today I’m going to give you another tip: Don’t forget to eat! I know that may sound a bit like saying “Don’t forget to breathe”, but it’s surprising how easy it is to get carried away with all the dancing and singing and moving from one bloco to the next. Before you know it it’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon and you’re absolutely exhausted and ready for bed.

If you like some beers and caipirinhas with your samba, you are going to need something good and heavy to keep you going – a green salad ain’t going to cut it! May I present Escondidinho:



Escondidinho (sounds like eskon-jee-JEEN-yo). This will keep you samba-ing to the end of day.


If something is hidden, it is described in Portuguese as escondido (sounds like eskon-JEE-do). Well you remember how much Brazilians like to add their diminuitives? The dish you see above roughly translates as ‘Little hidden’ and when you start eating it you soon see why.

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Video post: How to samba

Do you know how to samba? You should not be surprised to know that this clueless and somewhat awkward gringo doesn’t have a clue, so you can calm down if you thought I was was going to show you a video of me giving it a try.

Contrary to popular opinion, not all Brazilians are passistas (expert samba dancers) either. In fact I’ve seen a few Brazilian bloggers who have posted the following:



I find this message comforting. If not all Brazilians know how to samba then it seems perfectly acceptable that I don’t have a clue either.

However, I have just spent a few minutes checking out some instructional videos and it turns out it may not be completely impossible. Take a look at this clear demonstration:


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