Ah, Carnaval. The name evokes explosive images of colorful costumes, lavish floats, swarming masses, and last-minute debauchery before the sober Lenten season begins. Though it may look like sheer entertainment, Carnaval means hard work and dedication for many Cariocas; to some, it's a full-time job.
What's it All About?
The religious aspect of the celebration faded some time ago, but Carnaval's date is still determined by the ecclesiastical calendar, officially occupying only the 4 days immediately preceding Ash Wednesday. With typical ingenuity and panache, however, Cariocas have managed to stretch the party into an event lasting several months, culminating in the all-night feast of color and sound that is the Samba School Parade, where tens of thousands of costumed dancers, thousands of percussionists, and hundreds of gorgeous performers atop dozens of floats all move in choreographed harmony to the nonstop rhythm of samba.
If you're not able to attend Carnaval itself, rehearsals -- which usually start in mid-September or early October -- are an absolute must, and the closest you'll get to the real thing. Even if you are in town for Carnaval, attending a rehearsal will give you a great appreciation of the logistics involved in putting together the parade, plus you'll learn all the words and dance moves.
In the 2 weeks leading up to the big event, you'll begin to see the blocos. These are community groups -- usually associated with a particular neighborhood or sometimes with a bar -- who go around the neighborhood, playing music and singing and dancing through the streets. Their instruments and costumes easily identify the official bloco members, but everyone is welcome and encouraged to follow along and add to the merriment. A number of blocos are so well known that they draw throngs of followers in the tens of thousands. The Banda de Carmen Miranda in Ipanema with its extravagant drag queens is a hoot.
Carnaval finally kicks off on the Friday before Ash Wednesday with an explosion of lavish balls (bailes). Originally the bailes were reserved for the elite, while the masses partied it up with vulgar splendor in the streets. Today, they're still a pricey affair and the Copacabana Palace Ball remains the society event in Rio. The blocos also kick into high gear once Carnaval arrives with several groups parading every day from Saturday through Tuesday.
Watching the Samba Parade
Then, there is the pièce de résistance: the Samba School Parade, the event that the samba schools work, plan, and sweat over for an entire year. Starting Sunday and continuing through Monday night, the 14 top-ranked samba schools (really community groups whose sole focus is the parade) compete for the honor of putting on the best show. The competition takes place in the Sambodromo, a 1.5km (1-mile) long concrete parade ground built in the center of Rio for this once-a-year event. Each night over 60,000 spectators watch the contest live, while millions more tune in on TV to catch this feast for the senses.
Even before the parade starts, the streets surrounding the Sambodromo are closed to car traffic, while the grounds around this stadium are transformed into Carnaval Central. A main stage hosts a variety of acts and performances, and hundreds of vendors set up shop with food and drinks. This terreirão do samba (samba land), as Riotur calls it, is open the weekend prior to Carnaval, from Friday through Tuesday during Carnaval, and then again for the Saturday afterward for the Parade of Champions. Contact Riotur (tel. 021/2217-7575) for more detailed program information.
How & Where to Get Tickets
For information on tickets contact the Liga das Escolas de Samba (tel. 021/2253-7676; www.liesa.com.br). You can also purchase tickets through a designated travel agency such as Blumar (tel. 021/2511-3636) or BIT (tel. 021/2256-5657). Tickets for the best bleachers sections cost R$250 (US$104); chairs start at R$580 (US$242) in sections 9 and 11. As a last resort, try your hotel, but expect to pay a premium for this service. If you have tickets you can head directly to the Sambodromo. In case you still need tickets you can try the scalpers -- but be careful. Each ticket consists of a magnetic plastic card and an attached paper slip -- you need both to enter. The parade grounds are divided into sections: even-numbered sections can be accessed from the Central Station side (Metrô: Central); odd-numbered sections can be accessed from the Praça XI side (Metrô: Praça XI). Don't worry, there are lots of police and staff around to point you in the right direction. Unless you snag some fancy front-row seats or box seats, you will be sitting on concrete bleachers. There are pillows for sale, or you can bring your own.
The best sections are 5, 7, 9, and 11. These place you more or less in the middle of the parade avenue, allowing you to see up and down as the schools come through. Sections 9 and 11 are exclusively reserved for tourists, and tickets are sold through agencies. The advantage is that your spot on the concrete bleacher bears a number so you don't have to fight to squeeze in. Avoid sitting at the start or the end of the Avenida (sections 1, 3, 4, 6, and 13).
The parade starts at 9 p.m., but unless you want to stake out a particular spot you may as well take your time arriving, because the event will continue nonstop until about 6 a.m. We recommend leaving a bit early as well to avoid the big crunch at the end when the entire crowd tries to squeeze through a narrow set of revolving gates. Food and drinks are available inside the Sambodromo. Though prices aren't outrageous, it's a serious pain elbowing your way back and forth from your seat: Grab something at one of the many inexpensive kiosks outside the Sambodromo before you head in.
A Parade-Day Preview
On the day of each parade, the schools arrive outside the parade grounds to assemble their floats, props, and other gear. The streets around the Sambodromo, including Avenida Presidente Vargas, are closed for traffic, and pedestrians can stroll watching the schools put finishing touches on a year's worth of work. A great opportunity to take a close-up look at the floats, take pictures, and meet some of the people who put it all together.
If you miss the parade during Carnaval, attend the Parade of Champions on the Saturday after Carnaval. Tickets go on sale the Thursday after Carnaval. At R$80 (US$33) and up for a good spot, they're considerably less expensive than the original event. Contact the Liga das Escolas de Samba (tel. 021/2253-7676), Alô Rio (tel. 021/2542-8080), or Blumar (tel. 021/2511-3636) for ticket sales.
A Few Helpful Hints
Whether you are attending a rehearsal, following a bloco, or watching the parade, here are a few helpful hints to ensure you have a good time.
Dress casually and comfortably. The weather is usually hot and humid so a tank top or bikini top and shorts are fine. Comfortable shoes are a must as you will be on your feet for hours, dancing and jumping to the music.
Pack light. A purse or any extra accessories are not recommended, especially at the rehearsals and the blocos as you will be dancing and moving around. When watching the parade you can bring a small bag or knapsack and leave it at your feet, but the lighter you travel the better. Make sure you bring enough cash for the evening, some form of ID (driver's license or some other picture ID that is not your passport), and maybe a small camera you can tuck into your pocket. Leave jewelry and other valuables at home.
The events themselves are very safe, but be aware of pickpockets in large crowds. At the end of the event, take a taxi or walk with the crowds, avoiding any deserted streets or unfamiliar neighborhoods.
Keep in mind that prices will be slightly higher, cabs may add a premium, and drinks and food at the parade and some other venues may be higher than what you are used to in Brazil.
Plan to have enough cash for the entire Carnaval period. All financial institutions close for the duration, and it's not unusual for bank machines to run out of money.
Participating in the Parade
If you think watching the parade from up close sounds pretty amazing, imagine being in it. Every year, the samba schools open up positions for outsiders to participate in the parade. Putting on this extravaganza is an expensive proposition, and by selling the costumes and the right to parade, the school is able to recuperate some of its costs. But outside paraders are also needed for artistic and competitive reasons. To score high points the school needs to have enough people to fill the Avenida and make the parade look full and colorful. A low turnout can make the school lose critical points.
To parade (desfilar in Portuguese) you need to commit to a school and buy a costume (about R$250-R$800/US$104-US$333), which you can often do online. Some sites are in English as well as Portuguese; if not, look under fantasia (costume). Depending on the school, they may courier the costume or arrange for a pickup downtown just before the parade, or you may have to make the trek out to wherever they are.
For an added charge, a number of agencies in Rio will organize it all for you, getting you in with a school and arranging the costume. Blumar (tel. 021/2511-3636) can organize the whole event for you for about R$900 (US$375). For other organizations, contact Alô Rio (tel. 021/2542-8080).
As a participant in the parade you do not automatically get a ticket to watch the rest of the event. If you want to see the other schools you need to purchase a separate ticket. If your school finishes in the top five there will be a repeat performance in the Parade of Champions, held on the Saturday after Carnaval. If you are not able to parade again, consider donating your costume to a fellow traveler or keen Brazilian.
Watching a Rehearsal
Every Saturday from September (or even as early as Aug) until Carnaval, each samba school holds a general samba rehearsal (ensaio) at its home base. The band and key people come out and practice their theme song over and over to perfection. It may sound a tad repetitious, but you'd be amazed how a good band playing the same song over and over can generate a really great party. People dance for hours, taking a break now and then for snacks and beer. The income generated goes towards the group's floats and costumes. By the end of the night (and these rehearsals go until the wee hours) everyone knows the words to the song and has -- hopefully -- turned into an ardent fan who will cheer this particular school on at the parade. (General rehearsals usually don't involve costumes or practicing dance routines.) In December and January, the schools also hold dress rehearsals and technical rehearsals at the Sambodromo. Check with Riotur for dates and times.
Most of the samba schools are based in the poorer and quite distant suburbs, but a number of schools such as Mangueira, Salgueiro, Vila Isabel, and Rocinha are very accessible and no more than an R$30 (US$13) cab ride from Copacabana. Nor should you worry overly much about safety. Rehearsals take place in the warehouse or open-air space where the school builds its floats and sews its costumes. There is always security, and the rehearsals are very well attended. Plan to arrive anytime after 11 p.m. When you are ready to leave there'll be lots of taxis around. Just don't go wandering off into the neighborhood, unless you're familiar with the area. Many hotels will organize tours to the samba school rehearsals, but unless you prefer to go with a group it's not really necessary and certainly a lot cheaper to go on your own.
Tip: A number of the famous schools that are located on the outskirts of the city will hold special rehearsals in the Zona Sul. The ones organized by Beija Flor and Grande Rio are the most popular, often attended by models, actors, and other VIPs. For an authentic experience, it's still better to go to the actual school.
To find out more about specific schools, rehearsals, or participating in the parade, contact the Liga das Escolas de Samba (tel. 021/2253-7676; www.liesa.com.br). If you can't find anyone there who speaks English, contact Alô Rio for assistance (tel. 021/2542-8080). Or you can try contacting one of the samba schools directly; below you'll find a partial list:
Mangueira (Rio's most favorite samba school and close to downtown), Rua Visconde de Niterói 1072, Mangueira (tel. 021/3872-6786; www.mangueira.com.br).
Beija-flor (far from downtown but a crowd favorite and winner in 2003, 2004, and 2005), Rua Pracinha Walace Paes Leme 1025, Nilópolis (tel. 021/2791-2866).
Imperatriz (the winner in 1999, 2000, and 2001), Rua Prof. Lacê 235, Ramos (tel. 021/2270-8037).
Portela, Rua Clara Nunes 81, Madureira (tel. 021/2489-6440; www.portelaweb.com.br).
Rocinha (young school, located in the Zona Sul close to Ipanema and Leblon), Rua Bertha Lutz 80, São Conrado (tel. 021/3205-3303; www.academicosdarocinha.com.br).
Salgueiro (close to downtown, very popular), Rua Silva Telles 104, Andaraí (tel. 021/2238-5564; www.salgueiro.com.br).
Vila Isabel (close to downtown, mostly locals and very untouristy) Boulevard 28 de Setembro 382, Vila Isabel (tel. 021/3181-4869; www.gresunidosdevilaisabel.com.br).
Hanging with the Blocos
To experience the real street Carnaval, don't miss the parading blocos. The key to the popularity of the blocos is the informality; everyone is welcome, and you don't need a costume, just comfortable clothes and shoes. (Bear in mind, however, that the informality extends to scheduling. If your group doesn't start on time, grab a beer and chill -- they'll show eventually.) Different blocos do have certain styles or attract specific groups, so pick one that suits you and have fun. Riotur publishes an excellent brochure called Bandas, Blocos and Ensaios, available through Alô Rio (tel. 021/2542-8080). Also available from Riotur, Av. Princesa Isabel 183, Copacabana (tel. 021/2217-7563), is the Rio Incomparavel brochure, which has a full listing of events. While traditionally Rio blocos have been free of charge, in recent years a few have picked up on the Salvador practice of charging a small fee and issuing participants a T-shirt to serve as a show of support and a very visible proof of purchase.
Some of the best blocos to look for are Bloco Cacique de Ramos and Cordão do Bola Preta in Centro; Barbas and Bloco de Segunda in Botafogo; Bloco do Bip Bip and Banda Santa Clara in Copacabana; Bloco Meu Bem Volto Já in Leme; and Banda de Ipanema, Banda da Carmen Miranda, and Simpatia é quase amor in Ipanema.
More formal than the blocos, the samba balls (bailes) are where you go to see and be seen. Traditionally reserved for Rio's elite, some -- such as the Copacabana Palace ball -- remain the height of elegance, while others have become raunchy and risqué bacchanals. Numerous clubs around town host Carnaval balls.
Among the most fabulous is the notorious Baile Vermelho e Preto (Red and Black Costume Ball) held every year on Carnaval Friday in honor of Rio's most popular soccer club, Flamengo. It's known for both the beauty of the female attendees and the skimpiness of their costumes. The Baile do Preto Branco (Black and White Ball), also on Carnaval Friday, takes place at the Clube Botafogo. For both events contact Alô Rio (tel. 021/2542-8080) for details and ticket information. The popular Copacabana nightclub Le Boy organizes a differently themed ball every night during Carnaval, Friday through Tuesday included. These balls are gay friendly but not gay only. Call tel. 021/2240-3338. The prime gay event -- and one of Rio's most famous balls -- is the Tuesday night Gala Gay at the Scala nightclub, Av. Afranio de Melo Franco 296, Leblon (tel. 021/2239-4448). TV stations vie for position by the red carpet, a la Oscar night.
But the grand slam of all Carnaval balls is the Saturday night extravaganza at the Copacabana Palace Hotel, the Baile do Copa, which plays host to the crème de la crème of Rio's and Brazil's high society. This is the ball of politicians, diplomats, models, business tycoons, and local and international movie stars. Tickets start at R$500 (US$208) per person and sell out quickly. Call tel. 021/2548-7070 for details.
Reveillon: New Year's Eve in Rio
Trust Brazilians to throw a party where everyone is welcome and admission is free. At Rio's annual New Year's Eve extravaganza, millions pack the beach for an all-night festival of music, food, and fun, punctuated by spectacular fireworks.
Arrive early and enjoy a New Year's buffet at one of the scores of restaurants or hotels along the beachfront Avenida Atlântica. Music kicks off at 8 p.m., as people make their way down to the beach until every square inch of sand is packed. By midnight, more than 2 million have joined the countdown. As the clock strikes midnight, the fireworks begin. Five barges moored off Copacabana plus more in Leme, Ipanema, Flamengo, Paquetá, and the Forte de Copacabana, at the end of the beach, flood the sky with a shower of reds, greens, purples, yellows, and golds. When the last whistling spark falls into the sea, bands fire up their instruments and welcome in the new year with a concert that goes on until wee hours. Many stay all night and grab a spot on the sand when they tire. The event is perfectly safe.
During the party, followers of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé mark Reveillon in their own way. New Year's Eve is an important moment in Candomblé, a time when followers make offerings to the powerful sea goddess Yemanjá. Along the beach circles of women dressed all in white light candles and prepare small boats loaded with flowers, mirrors, trinkets, and perfumes. They launch the boats into the surf in hopes of obtaining Yemanjá's favor for the year to come.
Cariocas traditionally wear white on New Year's Eve; it's the color of peace and the color worn by devotees of Candomblé to honor Yemanjá. Don a pair of white shorts and a T-shirt, but don't forget your swimsuit. The traditional New Year's Eve "polar bear swim" will be even more tempting when the temperature is a balmy 105°F (40°C). Many Cariocas will also buy flowers to take to the beach and offer these to Yemanjá by tossing them in the ocean.
The best way to get to the event is by subway (buy tickets in advance to avoid lines). Most streets in Copacabana are closed to traffic; parking anywhere near the beach is impossible. For more details on the schedule contact Alô Rio (tel. 021/2542-8080).
For more on what to see and do in Rio de Janeiro, visit our complete guide online at www.frommers.com/destinations/riodejaneiro.
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