C arnaval is Brazil’s biggest festival of the year, and it is celebrated throughout the country – from the Amazon to the Bahia coast – with week-long street parties, samba dancing and music. While customs, celebrations and costumes vary by region and city, Rio de Janeiro’s Carnaval is the biggest and flashiest. More than 500,000 foreign visitors flock to the Rio carnival each year. In 2013, 1.1 million people took part in the city’s celebrations.
Everywhere in Rio, celebrations take place in the form of blocos – street parties or smaller local parades that begin weeks before Carnaval. These blocos are derived from traditional parades performed by African tribes in the Portuguese colonial era in an effort to preserve their cultural identities in the face of the forced homogenization of slavery. Today, these parades have evolved to become massive street parties, where people dress up in various costumes, from clowns to super heroes, simply for the fun of it.
The Origins of Carnaval
Carnaval (known as Carnival in English) may be particularly unique in Brazil, but it’s not just unique to Brazil. The festival traces its roots back to Catholic origins: a time of indulgence that traditionally takes place on Shrove Tuesday (but often the weekend preceding it) before the start of Lent, a period of penance to remember Christ’s 40-day sojourn in the desert and his crucifixion.
The word Carnaval is said to be derived from the Latin expression ‘carne vale’, which means “farewell to meat”, signifying the last days when one could eat meat before the fasting of Lent. The word carne can also mean flesh, suggesting carne vale as “a farewell to the flesh”, which identifies with the spirit embraced by those who encourage letting go of your former (or everyday) self and embracing the carefree nature of the festival. That is why people often dress up in disguises during Carnaval celebrations, which mark an overturning of daily life.
The Biggest Show on Earth
Undoubtedly, the highlight of Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro is the desfile (samba parade) at the Sambadrome. What originally started as a series of samba street parades is now an organized competition among top samba schools from Brazil. These samba schools are huge social entities, with over 3,000 to 5,000 members, including some famous celebrities making special appearances.
With their 20m-high elaborately-decorated floats, troupes of costumed dancers, samba drummers in the thousands and sexy Carnival queens and transvestites, it’s no wonder the Sambadrome parade is known as one of the biggest shows on Earth.
This year’s samba parade began on 28th February and ended on Fat Tuesday, 4th March, with the winner’s parade taking place on 8th March. The best days for the parades – when the famous samba schools perform – were the last two days of Carnaval. I managed to get last minute tickets for the third night, 2nd March, and the show was absolutely impressive.
Every night, the parade starts at 9pm and ends only around 6am the next morning. Six schools perform every night, with each school taking one hour and twenty minutes to perform. Each school has its own theme song, though the same song will be sung over and over again for the entire 1.5 hours. Spectators are given a booklet with information on each school as well as lyrics of every theme song (albeit in Portuguese). By the end of the night, I could sing along to the songs and even now, a week later, the songs are still stuck in my head.
The parade takes place at the Sambadrome, or Sambódromo in Portuguese, which is a purpose-built stadium constructed specially to host the annual samba parade each year during Carnaval. The Sambadrome is made up of sectors, which flank half-a-mile long runway where the samba schools parade.
Ticket prices vary according to which sector you’d like to sit. Sectors 5 and 7 are said to be the best as they’re right in the middle of the desfile and you get a clear view of both the beginning and the end of the parade. Tickets are sold for seats (cadeira) or free- standing terraces (arquibancos). The seats are closest to the parade but you’re restricted to just one spot; on the terraces, you can dance and jostle for a variety of views and it’s far more fun to be mingling with the crowd (you’ll still get to sit on the concrete steps).
You can even join in the samba parade is you’re willing to splurge. All you have to do is pay a membership fee (around $500-950), get your costume, memorize the school’s tune and follow what the person in front of you is doing. It must be so much fun marching in the parade and being in the heart of all the action.
I sadly got the cheapest ticket (around US$40), which was in sector 13, all the way at the end of the Sambadrome. That said, I didn’t feel like I was too far from the action, in fact our sector was so crowded that it was bursting with energy. I was there with a small group of friends, which made it all the more fun, and I also befriended a Brazilian couple sitting beside me. They were plenty of fun to chat with, and had a wealth of knowledge on the samba parade, explaining to me what the participants were singing about, the sequence of the performance etc.
All in all, I was truly blown away by the samba parade and it way exceeded my expectations. The main reason for this trip to Brazil was to experience Carnaval there, and the Sambadrome parade did not disappoint. It was definitely the most impressive show I’ve seen in my life, in terms of magnitude, atmosphere and the sheer energy of participants. I know that I will be back for Carnaval in future – but the next time, I’ll be sure to join in the parade!
For those planning to see the Sambadrome parade, here are some tips:
- If you’re hoping to get good photographs, it’s wise to invest in a good front-row seat either in sector 5 or 7. A friend of mine booked his ticket just a few days prior to the Carnaval on rio-carnival.net and paid US$200+ for a seat in sector 5 and he was just inches away from the performers. I paid US$40 for a seat in sector 13, which was much further from the runway than the other sectors were.
- Book a hotel that is within walking distance from the Sambadrome (perhaps in Lapa) as taxis are hard to find around the stadium – many roads are closed and there are no taxi stands. You can also take the metro which is opened 24 hours during Carnaval.
- Safety isn’t quite as much of an issue as it is made out to be. There are quite a few touts standing at the stadium entrance, but once inside the Sambadrome, it is safe. I brought my big SLR camera and didn’t feel threatened or anything. That said, it is wise to bring as little as you can and walk in groups around the area.
- Try to gather a few friends to see the samba parade together – it will make a difference having people to party with!
- Get dinner before going as food options there are limited and expensive, plus it can be extremely difficult to squeeze through the crowd to get to the food stands.
If you’re simply visiting Brazil during Carnaval, here are some general advice:
- During Carnaval, accommodation is more expensive than usual and everything gets booked up very fast. Be sure to book your hostel/hotel a few months in advance — Booking.com is a great place to start. You can also check out apartment rentals at Airbnb.com or Flipkey.com.
- Finding inexpensive flights to Brazil during this time can be very difficult, since it’s the peak of the tourist season there. Try using flight aggregator searches like Skyscanner a few months in advance to find affordable fares.
- If you’re planning to do some sightseeing, I would recommend arriving in Rio a few days before/after Carnaval to have some quality time to explore the city without the crowd. Attractions are more crowded than usual during Carnaval and since some streets are closed for the blocos, getting around can be quite tricky.
- To find out where and when the blocos (street parties) are, download the app Blocos do Rio or get the list of blocos on Brazilbookers.com. The biggest blocos take place in Av. Rio Branco, near Cinelandia. From Saturday to Tuesday you can see the greatest variety of street bands there, and it is where the merry-making is at its wildest.
- When joining in the street parties, it’s wise to bring as little with you as you can. Keep cash in a safe area and avoid bringing your camera. It can get quite rowdy on the streets especially if you’re going to be drinking.
- There are also Carnaval balls in Rio’s trendy and hip clubs. The most famous is the formal ‘Russian Imperial’ black tie ball at the Copacabana Palace on Carnival Saturday between 11pm and 4am. These balls can be quite pricey though.