Unfortunately in 2021, Rio won´t celebrate a carnival at all as all the major celebrations have been cancelled due to the ongoing pandemic. Since then Carnival has been THE EVENT in Rio´s yearly schedule and for sure will take the lead again once Covid-19 is conquered. Rio´s Carnival is popular all over the world. Colourful images of Rio´s feathered beauties dancing the night away became its symbol. But is this yearly highlight in the life of a Carioca (general name for the citizens of Rio) really the best Carnival in the world?
Let me answer this question for you with my ultimate Carnival guide:
When to go?
The usual international coverage of the Carnival action is mainly focused on the peak Carnival weekend when Rio´s best samba schools are battling it out with their spectacular parades through the Sambodromo. But the real action starts days or better let´s say at least the week before. Insiders will plan their trip with an arrival on the weekend before the parade. Carnival dates are changing every year, but are somewhere between the end of February and beginning of March (check on www.rio-carnival.net for further information).
In that pre-carnival week, you can experience why Rio is known as the Cidade Maravilhosa – Beautiful City, where the party never stops. Streets are filled with people dancing, laughing, singing and just enjoying life. It doesn´t matter where you come from or if you speak the same language after just one day out you will have for sure lots of new friends.
How about safety?
Rio has another world reputation, however a rather critical one, as it is also known as one of the most dangerous cities in the world in terms of criminality and murder rates. All this, however, stands on another page, as during Carnival the city seems to slip into a peaceful togetherness. Cariocas are very proud of their carnival and samba schools, so it is a question of honour to keep things calm when the whole world is watching. For sure this temporary peace is also owned by the hundreds of police brigades and Special Force groups that are placed around the city. For a tourist, there won´t be any safer time to visit than during Carnival.
Nevertheless, Rio is not St. Tropez so at any time certain safety rules have to be respected. Leave all your valuable belongings in the hotel or better completely in your home country. Best dress-code for a street carnival in Rio is either a funny costume or just a short, shirt and flip-flops. Don´t bring any kind of bag with you, just pop a small amount of money somewhere inside your cloth. Further, stay away from the Favelas (shanty towns) – although some of them are pacified and basically the birthplace of all the Samba schools. There are indeed possibilities to visit or stay in a few of them, but you should never go without a local there.
Where to go?
Respecting these simple rules – the Carnival fun is all yours. Ask around for the famous street parties called Blocos – which are starting already in the week before the main carnival weekend and are happening every day in many different places of the city. Usually, a certain band is playing on each Bloco. Often the Blocos have a special theme, but it is basically all about the music, drinks and fun dresses. My recommendation would be the Bloco das Carmelitas in Santa Teresa, Banda de Ipanema in Ipanema or the Bloco do Sargento Pimenta (all about the Beatles).
Lapa the nightlife spot of Rio is busy throughout the year, but during carnival that part of the city basically never sleeps. You can find great concerts at the Fundicao Progresso or Circo Voador and in all the small bars around like Caricoa da Gema. These venues usually charge an entrance fee, but the huge street party out there is just for free.
How about the main parade?
At the main carnival weekend don´t miss to go one night to the Sambodromo – where the big samba schools of Rio go on their stunning parades. Friday and Saturday are the days for the smaller schools and tickets are cheaper – on Sunday and Monday the most important schools have their shows. It is amazing what each school is setting up with incredible colourful floats, dancers and costumes. Rio might be chaotic in many ways, but carnival is a serious thing. The detailed organization is impressive. Each parade day starts with the first school (6 in total/ each school has one hour and twenty minutes to pass through the Sambodromo) around 20.00 hrs and ends the next day around 07.00 hrs in the morning….. 🙂 told you there is no sleep in a carnival.
Here is a very small introduction to the system: samba schools are almost like football clubs with their own colours, flags and supporters. In the parade, each school consists of around 3000- 5000 participants including the professional samba dancers from the school, plus flag holder, the Samba Queen of that year, the percussion band (Bateria) and various other sections of different costumes plus the massive floats. There is a team of judges who will give their points according to various criteria like the song, the harmony, the theme, the spirit of the dancers, the costumes and so on. Wednesday after the carnival weekend the results will be announced. The following Saturday sees a Champions parade consisting of the 6 best schools. My tip: get your tickets for this parade as they are much cheaper than on the carnival weekend and you will see the best selection. Schools take it less serious on that day and some floats are already slightly damaged – but still great fun!
For tickets, it is best to get them through a local tour operator as they usually have seats in good sections and they also organize your transportation. It is not so easy to reach there and some corners around the stadium are not very safe. For a special, however expansive experience get a Camarote ticket (kind of VIP box from around 500 USD per ticket) – there you have the best views plus food and drinks are included.
Can I participate in the parade myself?
Yes, you can – and you don´t need to be a born Samba dancer! All the samba schools have some sections in their line-up where the costumes are on free sale, so you can go before the carnival to the school and buy one (sometimes they put that online as well). However, costumes are quite expansive and often very heavy with many details (yeah, let the gringo tourist carry the heavy stuff 😜) If you don´t speak Portuguese it is also difficult to figure out where you have to go for your line-up and what you are supposed to do. They do not want you to make a mistake – even as a gringo (foreigner) – as the school can lose points with your misbehaviour. So be prepared that people will shout at you – but it is still a unique experience. The feeling when you enter the Sambodromo and have all the emotional samba dancers around you is thrilling. For sure a once in a lifetime experience. But if you go for this experience I recommend you to find in some samba school a costume – they call it fantasia- that is as light and simple as possible.
Where else can I enjoy Samba music?
Close to the Samba stadium is an open-air space called Terreirao do Samba – where you can find every night various bands on stage surrounded by food and drink village. There is a small entrance charge to get into this place, but for that, you can see great and popular musicians all night long.
Anything else that I have to be aware of?
Yes, especially the ladies among you – well, like I said the carnival is a crazy time and a time of pure freedom and fun. Occasionally people are taking that a bit too far and you might end up that guys will try to kiss you – Welcome to Carnival in Rio and I have to say there are many gorgeous and charming guys out there, so you might not be too sad about it 😁 However this is not for everyone and guys might get too pushy especially with foreign girls – so, in that case, put them off very clearly. Rio Carnival sometimes needs harsh words despite all the fun!
Heard about Motels?
One paragraph should be dedicated here to Motels – as they are a very Brazilian invention for a love affair and very popular during carnival (and also the rest of the year). For most of the people from outside a Motel is a kind of hotel mainly on a highway for a quick sleep en route. Well, yes people usually come also here by car and you can reach your room from an individual garage – but in Brazil, you go there with your lover, whoever that is 😉 Mostly you can find different type of rooms, sometimes with different themes and well let’s say amenities. And you might have guessed it already you pay there per hour – much said now, the rest is to be explored by yourself.
So is the carnival in Rio the best in the world?
For me….definitely this is a YES after having been there several times. Of course it always depends on your personal taste, but for sure Rio´s Carnival is unique in its colours and ambiance.