Get plenty of sleep before you board the plane, because once you land, it’s nonstop revelry until Ash Wednesday brings it all to a close (sort of). With around 500 street parties happening in every corner of town, you will not lack options. For the full experience, join a samba school and parade amid pounding drum corps and mechanized smoke-breathing dragons before thousands of roaring fans in the Sambódromo. Or assemble a costume and hit one of the Carnaval balls around town. The buildup starts weeks in advance.
If you haven’t heard by now, Rio throws one of the world’s best parties, with music and dancing filling the streets for days on end. Officially, Carnaval is just five days of revelry from the Friday to the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday but the city begins partying months in advance.
The culmination of the big fest is the brilliantly colorful parade through the Oscar Niemeyer designed Sambódromo arena, with giant mechanized floats, pounding drummers and whirling dancers. But there’s lots of action in Rio’s many neighborhoods for those seeking more than just the stadium experience. Out of towners add to the mayhem, joining cariocas (residents of Rio) in the street parties and costumed balls that erupt throughout the city.
There are free concerts to be found (in Largo do Machado, Arcos da Lapa and Praça General Osório, among other places), while those seeking a bit of decadence can head to the various balls. Whatever you do, prepare yourself for sleepless nights, an ample dose of caipirinhas (cocktails consisting of lime, sugar and sugarcane rum) and samba, and plenty of mingling with the joyful crowds spilling out of the city.
Joining the bandas and blocos (street parties) is one of the best ways to have a carioca experience. These marching parades consist of a procession of brass bands (in the case of bandas) or drummers and vocalists (in the case of blocos), and are followed by anyone who wants to dance through the streets. Some bandas suggest costumes (such as drag or Amazonian attire), while others expect people simply to show up and add to the good cheer.
All about Carnaval Rio de Janeiro
Although the exact origins of Carnaval are shrouded in mystery, some believe the festival originated as a pagan celebration of spring’s arrival sometime during the Middle Ages. The Portuguese brought the cele- bration to Brazil in the 1500s, but it took on a decidedly local flavor by adopting indigenous costumes and African rhythms. The origin of the word itself probably derives from the Latin ‘carne vale’ ‘farewell, meat’ whereby the Catholic population would give up meat and other fleshly temptations during the 40 days of Lent.
The first festivals in Rio de Janeiro were called entrudo, during which locals danced through the streets in colorful costumes, throwing mud, f lour and various suspect liquids at one another. In the 19th century Carnaval meant attending a lavish masked ball, or participating in the orderly and rather vapid Europeanstyle parade. Rio’s poor citizens, bored by the finery but eager to participate in a celebration, began holding their own parades, dancing through the streets to African-based rhythms. Then, in the 1920s, the new sound of samba emerged in Rio.
It was music full of African flavors, brought to the city by former slaves and their poor descendants a sound that would forever more be associated with Carnaval. Since those days, Carnaval has grown in leaps and bounds, and its elaborate parades have spread from Rio de Janeiro to other parts of Brazil. It has also become a huge commercial enterprise; visitors to the city spend in excess of R$1 billion each year. Carnaval 2017 will be held from February 24–28.
The highlight of any Carnaval experience is attending (or participating in) a parade at the Sambódromo. Here, before a crowd of some 90,000 (with millions more watching on TV), each of 12 samba schools has its 80 minutes to dance and sing through the open Oscar Niemeyer– designed stadium. The pageantry is not simply eye candy for the masses. Schools are competing for top honors in the parade, with winners announced (and a winner’s parade held) on the Saturday following Carnaval.
Carnaval on the Streets Rio’s street parties the bandas and bloco have exploded in recent years. Ten years ago, there were only a handful of these events happening around town. These days there are around 500 street parties, filling every neighborhood in town with the sound of pounding drums and old-fashioned Carnaval songs not to mention thousands of merrymakers. For many cariocas, this is the highlight of Carnaval. You can don a costume (or not), learn a few songs and join in; all you have to do is show up. For Zona Sul fests, don’t forget to bring your swimsuit for a dip in the ocean afterwards.
Samba Land & Samba City
Another festive space for concerts is the Terreirão do Samba (Samba Land), an open-air courtyard next to the Sambódromo’s sector 1, where a variety of bands play to large crowds throughout Carnaval (beginning the weekend before). There are also dozens of food and drink vendors. The action starts around 8pm and continues until 5:30am. Admission is R$15. For a behind-the-scenes look at Carnaval, plan a visit to Cidade do Samba . Located north of Centro near the port, the ‘samba city’ is actually made up of 14 large buildings in which the top schools assemble the Carnaval floats. Visitors can take a tour through the area or attend a live show, which features costumed dancers, live music and audience participation, and comes with free drinks and appetizers. It’s touristy and pricey, but some visitors enjoy the Carnaval-style show nonetheless. Confirm times and prices with Cidade do Samba, or check with Riotur.