Guinness World Book of Records lists Brazil’s Carnival as the world’s largest for good reason. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil hosts almost three million travelers during the five day Carnival celebration. If you haven’t been to Carnival in Rio de Janeiro yet, add it to your “to do” list right now! And here’s why…
Officially, Carnaval (as spelled in Portuguese) begins the Friday before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Catholic Lent. Unofficially, the locals begin the Carnival celebration many weeks prior to this with more than 500 blocos to take part in.
What Are Blocos?
Think of blocos as American block parties on steroids. From early morning to early evening there’s dancing, debauchery, drinking and good plain fun. Every neighborhood has their own Carnival bloco celebration complete with bands, dancers, street food and parades. With 500 blocos to choose from in Rio alone, celebrating Carnival every day for a month will be easy.
Show up early in the morning and ready to drink caipirinha. The national drink is made with cachaça (Brazilian rum), lime and sugar. Three simple ingredients that are tasty, refreshing and tend to sneak up on you.
At blocos, costumes are not only allowed but encouraged. During carnival it doesn’t matter who you pretend to be as long as it’s not yourself. Locals and tourists alike use carnival as an escape from the real world. The poor dress up, the rich dress down and everyone celebrates together.
Blocos are free to join in on—it doesn’t get better than that—and are sponsored by local Samba schools that are not taking part in the sanctioned Carnival contest at the Sambadrome.
What is the Sambadrome?
Built in 1984, the Sambadrome is a 90,000 seat, open air stadium that is home to the Carnival Parade contest. The top 12 (13 in 2018) samba schools compete for the title of year’s best. They are rated on their theme, costumes, music, dancers and floats. This is where the extravagance of Carnival really shines.
Samba schools in the competition spend the majority of the year preparing for this. Their 75-minute presentation has to have a minimum of six floats and tell a story in an innovative way. The winners get national bragging rights for a year, a trophy, and a party on Ash Wednesday. The competitors spend millions of dollars on their entries. In fact, latest reports show an average of 5 million dollars spent on each entry. That’s one expensive trophy!
After Hours Balls
So, you spent your morning dancing in the streets at a bloco and your evening watching the competition at the Sambadrome. What’s next?
A Carnival ball, of course. While there are hundreds of balls in Rio during Carnival, only a few are for the tourists. They range from truly formal galas to sponsored, over-the-top, overly wild parties.
The oldest, most formal ball is the one held at the Copacabana Palace Hotel. In 2019 the ball begins at 10 pm on Saturday, March 2nd and ends at 5am on the 3rd. This is a black tie event which requires tuxedos for men and gowns for women, or equivalent costumes. Tickets range from $1300 for standing-room-only to seats in the Golden Room for $2500. If your dream is to rub elbows with Rio’s rich and famous, this is the ball for you.
The Scala Nightclub (perhaps the liveliest nightclub in Rio) offers balls every night from Carnival Thursday through Fat Tuesday. All the balls are themed and one requires you to wear red and black to enter—aptly named the Red and Black Ball. The Scala also hosts the Scala Gala, The City Ball, The Gay Costume Ball, and The Ball of Beer.
The Mangueira Carnival Ball boasts a performance by one of the most popular samba schools in Rio. The City Ball is themed to the city of Rio, and draws mainly Rio locals. The Ball of Beer is all about drinking free beer, of course.
Prices range from $70 to $150 a ticket depending on which ball you choose.
There are lots of singles balls during Rio Carnival, one every day of the week. These give singles a chance to meet up with some Rio locals. Copacabana beach hosts several of these single balls. Attending a Rio Single Ball is a great way to meet new people and make new friends. Tickets to the Rio Carnival Single Balls sell for about $20. This is a steal considering the amount of entertainment and excitement that these single balls offer.
The Cinelandia Street Ball is a free event held every night of Carnival. Cinelandia Street Ball has been a local favorite for the past two decades. Held in Cinelandia Square in downtown Rio, this Ball attracts mainly an older crowd and the working class of Rio. And did I mention that it’s free?!
In the Beginning
This celebration began in the late 1700s as a food, drink and sin celebration prior to the Catholic fasting period known as Lent. It was a time of indulgence. A time to eat soon-to-be-forbidden foods, drink alcohol to excess and celebrate sin. The unique characteristics of Carnaval are rooted in a cultural clash between the Portuguese and the Africans. The two cultures bringing their differences together for one exciting event., and eventually it became tradition to celebrate together in the streets. Food, musical styles and other customs merged over time.
In 1917 this culminated in the invention of samba as both a music genre and a dance genre. In Rio de Janeiro, the first samba schools opened in the early 1920s. 1933 saw the birth of the samba parade competitions. To monetize the festival and increase local and tourist safety, the Sambadrome was built in 1984. With seating for 90,000 it is now home to the parade competition.
Carnival was (and still is) a no-holds-barred cultural celebration like no other. Tourists who attend are in for an experience they won’t soon forget.
Post written by Cynthia Sawyer