Rio Carnival 2014 is in full swing as I write this. Talk about FOMO to the Nth degree! I’m sitting here in Olympia, Washington, shivering in my fleece pajamas, and longing for the days I spent dancing freely to live samba music on the streets of Rio de Janeiro, wearing little more than a bikini and a gigantic smile, eyes closed and hands in the air, not a care in the world. *Sigh*
I arrived in Rio de Janeiro in February 2013 with no plan, no timeline, no idea what to expect. I was two weeks into my journey through Brazil and all I knew was Carnival season was about to begin. What did this mean, exactly? What is Carnival? How does it work? What are these blocos that everyone speaks of? What is this Sambadrome thing all about? How much are these festivities going to hurt my backpacker budget?
In true Traveling Thy style, I didn’t bother finding out in advance. I just showed up and the true magnificence of Rio Carnival revealed itself in no time.
How I got to Rio de Janeiro
To say I “just showed up” is to oversimplify. It took a clunky 25 hours for me to get to Rio — approximately 1,175 kilometers / 730 miles — and by BUS, no less. It was not an easy journey.
I had come from Trancoso, that jungly paradise I told you about earlier, and there were no direct routes to Rio that I knew of. What I did was take a bus to Eunápolis (about two and a half hours away), where I hoped to catch the next bus to Rio – only to find out every single bus headed to Rio that day was full.
Doh! What were my options? Well, I could look for a place to stay in Eunápolis for the night, and catch the first bus out the next morning. But as a seasoned (ok, frugal) backpacker, there was no way I was going to spend the money on an unnecessary overnight stay. I was determined to get to Rio STAT!
Problem was, I didn’t speak Portuguese, and there wasn’t a single person at this bus station I could communicate with to find out what other options I had for getting to Rio. Fortunately, there was another guy at the station – André – who was just as devastated as I was that there were no more buses to Rio, and he was frantically running around the station in search of an alternate route.
Long story short: André would push through our language barrier to become my angel that day, getting us on a bus from Eunápolis to Macaé, then arranging our bus from Macaé to Rio. To be honest, I didn’t actually know what was happening at the time. I literally just got on whatever buses he was getting on. I trusted my instincts that he was a good guy. And I was right.
I was super pleased he came to my rescue, but I could tell the whole clunky ordeal was a bit frustrating for him. The journey started at 3:30pm on a Monday and ended at 4:30pm on Tuesday, and there were a lot of stops. I also got the sense from him that it cost us more than it should have. In total, I spent approximately 215 reai (just over $100 USD at that time) to get from Trancoso to Rio, and to this day, I actually have no idea if that was reasonable or not.
I just know I made it to Rio at last. I also made a new friend along the way named Deividi, and we would get into some great adventures in the favelas (slums) of Rio and down in the island of Florianopolis, which I’ll tell you about later.
Right now, I wanna tell you about Carnival!
What is Rio Carnival?
Rio Carnival is a lot of things:
- A street festival of epic proportions – the largest in the world, I believe.
- The grandest, most elaborate parade you will ever see in your lifetime.
- A fierce samba school competition.
- A wild celebration of the days leading up to Lent.
- An anything-goes costume party.
- An opportunity for pickpockets to come out in droves.
- An excuse to plant wet sloppy beijos (kisses) on total strangers.
…and much more. It sounds a lot like Mardi Gras as we know it and love it in the US, right?
Well, it is, but on steroids. Throw in that MASSIVE spectacle of a samba school competition in the Sambadrome (it’s a BIG freaking deal), a few more millions of people, the beautiful beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana, and the unparalleled passion and energy (not to mention the ridiculously good looks) of the Brazilian people. There’s absolutely nothing else like it in the world.
Don’t expect to find that Mardi Gras tradition we have of women flashing boobage in exchange for beads – that’s child’s play. I didn’t see that anywhere in Rio. It’s probably just an American thing. Ohhhh America.
Simply put, Rio Carnival is complete debauchery and in the best possible way.
When is Rio Carnival?
Officially, it begins the Friday before Ash Wednesday. It goes through the weekend and culminates that Tuesday (Fat Tuesday, if you will). However, Carnival festivities begin long before that – as early as a full month before.
How to “do” Rio Carnival?
I can’t say with certainty that I “did” Carnival right. But while in Rio, I ended up in a tight network of extremely well-connected people, both locals and internationals, and I feel pretty good about how Carnival turned out for me.
Keep in mind that the information that follows is from a backpacker’s perspective. If you’re looking for tips on how to do Carnival with any kind of glamour or luxury, well, um…hi, I’m Traveling Thy, and I’m a scrappy couchsurfin’ budget backpackin’ kind-o-gal. I can’t help you with any of that fancy shtuff.
Also take note that the prices and currency exchange information posted here are from 2013.
Ok, first things first:
Find a Place To Stay
I completely lucked out on finding a place to stay in Rio. Thanks to Luis, a Hollywood-acquaintance-turned-totally-awesome-couchsurfing-host, I was high-rollin’ in a penthouse in Botafogo for free.
So…I can’t tell you from personal experience what the hostel situation is for Carnival, but I can tell you what I heard from other backpackers.
Before I go any further though, I should tell you Brazil is crazy expensive. It is easily in the top 5 most expensive countries I have ever traveled in.
That said, a hostel during Carnival season — and by hostel, I mean, you get a bed in a shared dorm room with anywhere between 4 and 30 other people — costs about $100 USD per night. That’s more than double the average hostel rate. I met a British guy who actually paid that much during Carnival to sleep on a mattress on the floor, in between beds at a hostel. And no pillow or blankets, to boot! You can probably avoid this by booking early, like, months in advance.
Keep in mind, this was in 2013 — pre-World Cup 2014, pre-Olympic Games 2015. So good luck to those of you going to Brazil for either of those events! (Fun note: I have heard the favelas are becoming the choice affordable hot spots. To those of you going that route, I would love love LOVE to hear your stories!)
Party at the Blocos
Blocos are street parties, and I had more than 500 of them to choose from during Rio Carnival!
What happens at Blocos: Every bloco centers around a band with a specific theme of music. The band might be on some sort of float or vehicle, or just standing right on the street. They’ll perform a couple songs, get the crowd going, then move their way down the street, continuing to play, as the crowd follows suit. It’s extremely high energy, and once you get caught in a bloco, it’s hard to get out.
Beer and caipirinhas (Brazil’s national cocktail made with cachaça) are sold all over. My drink of choice quickly became the maracujá caipirinha (mah-rah-ku-ZJAW kye-puh-REEN-yuh) made with fresh passionfruit, yummmmmm! You can find vendors on the streets and in booths on the beach who’ll sell you everything from alcohol to costume hats and glasses, to snacks of the local variety such as flavored honeysticks and Halls Cough Drops (which they eat like candy in Brazil).
If you want to “party” be prepared to pay a premium. A single disco biscuit could cost you, like, 100 reai (~$50 USD).
How much do blocos cost: Nothing! They’re free.
When are the blocos: Officially, I don’t know, but my guess is 24 hours a day. I’m not kidding, there were blocos scheduled for 8 o’clock in the morning. Who gets up that early to go to a party?! Ohhhhhh that’s right – nobody actually goes to bed. Duh.
Where are the blocos: Everywhere! Blocos take place all over the city on various streets and beaches. It’s impossible to go anywhere in the city during Carnival without getting caught up in a crowd of revelers. It’s not uncommon to go to a bloco, make your way through the crowd and discover you’re in the middle of an entirely different bloco than the one you started in.
Types of blocos: The variety of blocos runs the gamut – from traditional samba music blocos to reggae themed blocos, even Beatles-themed blocos. I went to one bloco where, I kid you not, everyone was dancing and singing along to one dude playing a kazoo!
The blocos phone apps: During Carnival, phone apps are available for download, listing the who-what-when-and-where of every bloco in town. Simply search your app store for “blocos” – it’s a really handy tool! I didn’t actually use a phone while traveling in South America, but my friend Luis had one of the apps on his phone and we used it a ton.
Here’s a little taste of what you’ll see at the blocos:
My absolute FAVORITE photos from the blocos, unfortunately, don’t exist anymore. That’s because my dumb ass accidentally deleted an entire night’s worth of photos, gah! The memories I made with Luis, Lydiane, Morris, Henry, Frederik and gang that night will just have to live in our minds – if any of us can remember any of it, haha.
Protect Yourself From PickPockets
Rio Carnival draws both expert and amateur pickpockets. People come from all over the country specifically to pickpocket. Carnival is, after all, the largest festival in the world – an easy target.
Fortunately, I’m always hyper-aware of my surroundings — it’s like a sixth sense after all these years on the road — and I have never fallen victim.
However, at Rio Carnival, I actually caught someone red-handed, trying to pickpocket me! I was wearing a fanny pack (yes, a fanny pack – I think they’re rad), and I felt the subtlest of tugs at my waist. It was super gentle, hardly noticeable. I slowly and deliberately looked down at the zipper on my fanny pack and followed the length of the arm that had attached itself to it, until I met the gaze of the culprit. It was a woman, a bit plump and man-ish looking, wearing a colorful jester hat so as to fit in with us revelers. She didn’t even look away. She met my gaze and we stared at each other for a few seconds. I cocked my head and I said, “Really?”
She unplucked her fingers from my zipper, shrugged her shoulders, and walked away. Just like that! No big deal. On to the next potential victim.
The best advice I can give you is to leave your valuables at home and bring as little with you as possible. Maybe keep your money in your shoes. Write important phone numbers on your person in case you need to call someone. Basic rules of festivaling apply here. Always be aware.
Go to the Sambadrome Parade
Regardless of how you think you feel about samba and parades, nothing will prepare you for the Sambadrome. It’s such a unique experience, and I don’t possess the writing skills to adequately describe the energy, the vibrance, the passion. It’s not something you “do” or “experience” – it’s something you feel.
The Sambadrome is a half-mile stretch of permanent road and bleachers, designed especially for the Carnival parade. Every night of Carnival, the Sambadrome comes alive with samba talent from all over the region, but the best of the best come out on Sunday and Monday. Between those two nights, a total of 12 samba schools compete in a dazzling display of showmanship.
Each school (not “school” in the educational sense – “school” here means more like “team”) consists of thousands of musicians and dancers, and the most extravagant floats you’ll ever see. Each school has 90 minutes to get from one end of the Sambadrome to the other (half a mile), performing their song — a song composed uniquely for the competition — over and over and over again for those 90 minutes.
Truth be told, until the moment I arrived at the Sambadrome, I was completely indifferent about going to it. Parades just don’t do it for me. And listening to the same song for 90 minutes?! And then another one for another 90 minutes? And then another? That sounded like torture. (Turns out, it wasn’t.)
I didn’t make a huge effort to get tickets, but an opportunity presented itself that I couldn’t resist: to be IN the parade, dancing with a samba school through the Sambadrome!
The possibility of participating in the grand event changed everything. To be in the thick of the music, the energy…wearing some elaborate, sparkly, feathery get-up…I get goosebumps just thinking about it. My friend Lydiane, a local, knew a guy at one of the samba schools who could get us in. Eeeeee! We gave him 150 reai each to pay for the costumes, told him our shoe sizes, and anxiously awaited.
We were giddy all day long, beaming from ear to ear and practicing the samba. Lydiane’s an amazing samba dancer and she taught me a few moves. She, of course, looked poised and sexy, her tall, stunning, beautiful Brazilian self, while I…well, I looked like a baboon trying to walk across a bed of hot coals. You do remember what a horrible dancer I am, right? Didn’t matter. I was just stoked I was going to be in the parade!
But then bad news arrived: the school had run out of costumes.
CRYYYYYYYYYYYYYY!!! We were crushed.
We got our money back and sulked with disappointment. I can’t think of a single time in my life where someone handed me money and it made me feel SAD, ha!
I later met some backpackers who’d made it into the parade, and they told me it was as easy as going to a samba school rehearsal (days/weeks in advance), signing up and buying the costume. The girls who told me about this didn’t seem too enthused about their experience dancing in the parade. They admitted that they’d hoped for some extravagant costume, and ended up with something quite boring.
Personally, I would’ve been happy just to be in the parade at all!
Feb. 11, 2013
Anyway, I did end up going to the Sambadrome as a spectator. Luis, Francesca and I got tickets for the Monday night show. As soon as we stepped into the Sambadrome, we knew we were somewhere special. That music! That energy!
You receive a program that contains all the lyrics to each samba school’s song so you can sing along. And if you find it difficult to follow along with your limited knowledge of the Portuguese language, don’t worry – you have 90 freaking minutes of the song in repetition to figure it out! Sounds like it’d be annoying, but it’s actually a lot of fun. The music is so upbeat and it just makes you wanna dance.
We arrived around 10pm and were pooped by 3am. We left the Sambadrome, but the show continued on until sunrise! The cariocas (people of Rio) really know how to party.
A couple notes:
- The Sambadrome is located in a sketchy neighborhood, so take heed when you’re in the area (the Sambadrome itself is super safe).
- Eat beforehand or bring your own food – all they offer there is fast food and it’s not very good.
- They do sell beer there.
- It’s super hot, as you can see from our shiny faces in the photo here.
- Be sure to hydrate. I saw at least two people pass out.
- Bring a cushion or pillow to sit on.
- “Camarotes” are the coveted VIP suites. If you get into one of those, you’re golden. And probably a rich dude or hot chick.
- There are 13 seating sectors – even-numbered on one side, odd-numbered on the other.
- Sector 9 is considered the “tourist” sector. It also happens to be where each school’s drum department, “recuo da bateria,” breaks off the parade path and does a special routine to the side.
- Our seats in sector 10 were considered cheaper seats and we each paid 370 reai (nearly $200 USD) for them.
- If I were to do it all over again, I’d make sure I was IN the parade.
Here are a few of my photos. They’re horrible and I apologize! If you wanna see really good pictures, just Google “Rio Carnival Sambadrome.” There are some really great images out there.
The Rio Music Conference (RMC)
Rio is so alive with the party spirit that apparently Carnival isn’t enough – the Rio Music Conference also happens to take place during Carnival. It’s the largest EDM festival in Latin America and lasts 14 days. Luis gathered a bunch of people from A Small World and got us all out to Rio’s Catumbi neighborhood to see Erick Morillo and dance the night away.
Our night at RMC was also the last night of Carnival. This would be the same night (ok, morning) that I returned to my luxury Botafogo couch to see this radiant sunrise.
That sunrise was the perfect way to wrap up my Rio Carnival experience. Thank you to all the people who made it so special…the musicians, the dancers, Luis, Lydiane, Morris, Henry, Frederik, Francesca, Chad, Renata, André, Vanessa, Deividi, Guilherme…even the scumbag who tried pickpocketing me! I treasure the memories I made at Rio Carnival!