Rio Carnival

February 28 - March 4, 2014
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Photo credit: Leandro S, Creative Commons
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Crowd
    Intimate to                 Massive
Attendees
    Local to                 International
Participation
    Spectator to                 Immersive
Preparation
    Simple to                 Complicated
Transformation
    Quiet to                 Life-Altering

Overview

Mix pagan ritual, tribal beats, indigenous dress, a pre-Lenten celebration, and several million people in the sexiest city on Earth to make the hottest party of the year.

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Festival Stats
  • Crowd
  • Attendees
  • Participation
  • Preparation
  • Transformation

Location

Rio de Janeiro is located on Brazil's Atlantic coast. Facing largely south, the city sits on an inlet of this stretch of the coast, called the Guanabara Bay.

Chip's take

Carnival is one, big exercise in metamorphosis—from ritual to festivity and…

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Carnival is one, big exercise in metamorphosis—from ritual to festivity and religion to recreation. Brazilian daily life, with its strife and monotony, is transformed into hedonism and revelry—similar to how Catholic ritual has morphed into one of the world’s sexiest and most ecstatic festivals. Rio is the Carnival capital of the world, ground zero for experiencing the world’s best known festival. No serious student in cultural curiosity should miss it. Ask your hotel concierge anytime of year about where you can see the samba schools practicing, because Rio experiences this festival year round.

King Momo (the Fat One), who is crowned on the opening day of Carnival and receives the key to the city, proclaims, “Let the happiness begin.” Rio is a happy city throughout the year, partly because the stunning beaches are so accessible. Yes, Carnival is a festival of the night, but don’t miss Copacabana, Ipanema or Leblon beaches. “Tall and tan and young and lovely” doesn’t just define “The Girl from Ipanema,” but also the boys and the multitudes that are in-between who blossom like wildflowers during Carnival.

Brazilian daily life, with its strife and monotony, is transformed into hedonism and revelry.

Photos & Videos From the Festival

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Essentials

Get in the parade. Join a samba group and rent a costume for the grand parade.

Party with a bloco. Hundreds of street parties carry on during Carnival, so if you’re not in one of the traditional venues, don’t worry, there’s a party just around the corner.

The best view of the parade is from the grandstand. Book tickets in advance or show up late to avoid high prices from scalpers.

Attend a masquerade ball. The Scalas are the most elegant of Rio’s parties. Book tickets and costume rentals in advance.

Bahia, Olinda and Paraty are other fantastic Carnivals in Brazil if you want to try something different. 


Practicalities

Rio is an international city accessed by most major airports. U.S. citizens are required to have a visa, so allow at least a month before your trip to sort out the details.

Once considered dangerous due to crime and violence, the city of Rio has increased security in an effort to promote tourism in anticipation of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. However, crime, especially petty theft, still exists.

Make your hotel reservations very early because Rio’s hotels fill up quickly. Start planning for tickets to the parade and the balls in advance, or have a healthy bit of money set aside if you want to leave it to the last minute and the scalpers. If you can’t find tickets to the Samba Parade, check with the scalpers around midnight (four hours into the parade) and you should be able to get grandstand tickets for about $10.

Taxis are a preferred form of transit because the metro doesn’t run all night long.

Earplugs are a good idea for those who tire of the sound of drums.

Details

Carnival in Rio has earned its reputation as the world’s most famous dance party, when all matters serious come to a halt during the five days leading up to Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. Attending Carnival is the ultimate rite of passage for global festival lovers. Go, and you’ll understand why the Cariocas (Rio’s enthusiastic locals) affectionately refer to it as “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

Party Like a Pagan

Those old world pagans sure knew how to translate religion into party. In Catholic Europe beginning in the Middle Ages, all decadent food and drink had to be consumed prior to Lent to remove temptation during the 40-day period of fasting leading up to Easter (Carnival period begins on the Saturday before Lent and ends on Shrove Tuesday, also called Fat Tuesday). Historically, winter supplies were emptied in an all-out, gluttonous feast of the flesh to welcome the spring. As these traditions migrated to the Portuguese colony of Brazil, Carnival transformed into something new. While the reformations and Inquisition attempted to sweep Europe of sin and tamed the wild feasts, the church could not contain what had developed in the Southern Hemisphere.

Getting Schooled in Samba

In Brazil, Catholic rituals collided with African tribal beats and Native American traditional dress to produce a hedonistic, sensual romp where creativity is expressed through dance, movement and music. Samba, the cultural heartbeat of Brazil, is a Bahia-born dance form that is fully on parade during Carnival.

Colorful costumes, uninhibited dancing, parades and wild partying fill the streets.

More than 200 samba schools call Rio home. Colorful costumes, uninhibited dancing, parades and wild partying fill the streets. During Carnival, you can expect to find upwards of two million revelers in the streets every day. The most famous parade takes place at the Sambodromo, designed by architect Oscar Niemeyer, with more than 70,000 enchanted spectators lining the route for the Samba Parade, where samba schools compete like there’s no tomorrow. The official parades take to the streets Friday through Monday, with the biggest and brightest on Saturday and Sunday nights. Schools can have enormous floats, over 400 drummers and even more rhinestone-studded g-strings. One samba school could have more than 5,000 performers! The flamboyant costumes are inspired by Native South American traditional feathered headdresses with a notable lack of much other material to allow for hip-shaking freedom.

Gender-Bending and Color-Coordinating

One of the best and most accessible ways to celebrate Carnival is by attending a bloco or banda (street parties). It’s basically a band of drummers leading a free dance party in the streets for all who want to join in. A leader orchestrates the bunch, much like a Brazilian Pied Piper with drums. It’s a come one, come all dance-off and as memorable as the samba parades. The blocos are the party of the people. According to police estimates, in 2012 one bloco reached more than 5 million participants. The Banda de Ipanemais especially famous, with a very lively crowd complete with drag queens and costumed dancers. Rio Carnival is considered the largest gathering of transvestites in the world, so be prepared for gender illusionists (Carmen Miranda is the patron saint of this contingent). Just know that some street parties are color-coordinated and may require you to purchase a t-shirt or special color to assure that you’re part of the temporary tribe.

Have a Ball

The most elegant and upscale of the Rio events are the Carnival balls. The most famous are the Copacabana Magic and Scala balls. The Copacabana Magic Ball is the most glamorous, attracting the celebrities of Rio (though behind the masks and makeup you might never know it). If you want to start planning now, the theme for 2014 is oncinhas or little leopards. You should dress to impress with tuxedos for men and ball gowns for women. That is, if you don’t come in your leopard suit or some other elegant costume. It’s a sensual affair that goes well into the night — the vibe is definitely sexy. Tickets run upwards of $200, and you should get a standing ticket instead of a table because that way you’ll meet more characters, which is what a party like this is all about. 

Carnival Outside Rio

While Rio Carnival is the most famous in Brazil, Carnival celebrations occur all over the country. Salvador de Bahia (where Samba was invented and the original home of the competitions) throws a particularly energetic one. If you happen to meet anyone from Bahia they will be sure to let you know where the best Carnival is (and it’s not Rio). Olinda and Recife have a particularly charming day and night Carnival respectively. The Olinda Carnival occurs in the World Heritage old town. It’s almost a completely daytime party, which is unusual for Brazil. Almost two million people attend each year. Another of the famous Carnivals is the Paraty Mud Carnival or the “Bloco de Lamas” to the south where “mud people” dance in the streets. It’s one of the more photogenic and perhaps bizarre celebrations. For those who can’t travel far, you may be lucky. In many communities with large Latin-influenced populations, you can find a Carnival celebration in your own backyard.