Overland Travel Blogs
26Apr 2016

Top tips for experiencing Rio Carnival

Think of Carnival and chances are you think of South America, and specifically Rio Carnival which is probably being the most famous of all carnival celebrations and possibly the greatest show on earth. If you are considering an overland journey through South America it could be possible to schedule in carnival depending on what time of year…

Colourful costumes at Rio Carnival

Think of Carnival and chances are you think of South America, and specifically Rio Carnival which is probably the most famous of all carnival celebrations and possibly the greatest show on earth. If you are considering an overland journey through South America it could be possible to schedule in carnival depending on what time of year.

Background to Carnival

Carnival is a Christian festival that occurs before the season of Lent, typically occurring during February or early March. More than anywhere else in the world, South America though has truly embraced carnival and almost the entire continent grinds to a festive halt for just over a week to celebrate

Carnival celebrations typically involves parades with elements of circus, masks, fancy dress, Salvador carnival drummerspublic street parties and of course hedonism and excess.  Almost every town in South America will have a carnival celebration but there are a number who put their hands up to be considered the biggest or best. By far the most internationally famous is the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and this is the carnival most overland trucks will attend. Others that are definitely worth mentioning are the Salvador de Baia (BFlamboyant costumes at Barranquilla carnivalrazil) carnival which is possibly as big as Rio and is more of a street party than a parade.  The Oruro Carnival (Bolivia) is also a major event with t
he highlight being La Diablada the “Dance of the Devils” which is quite something to see and experience. And lastly the Barranquilla carnival (Colombia) rates a mention, this is also a truly great carnival where tourists are few and far between but those who make it there rate it very highly!

Rio Carnival

So back to the greatest show on earth, Rio Carnival! This festival unites the residents of Rio whether rich, poor, male, female, old, young, gay, transvestite you name it everybody gets together to join in and party for a week. The locals that really get involved will either join their local bloca (street parties) or for the true carnival experience they will join one of the samba schools.

brazil-carnival-sambaRio has more than 200 samba schools all with the dream of competing in the samba parade competition. Each Samba school comes from a particular neighbourhood and they are massive organisations with corporate sponsorships almost like football/soccer clubs and some of the big samba schools can have 4000+ members taking part in their parade!  The samba schools are ranked year on year and the top teams compete each year in Rio’s famous Sambadrome which is the corner stone of the Rio carnival.

The Samabadrome is a purpose built stadium for the parade and is 700 metres long and can accommodate 90,000 spectators each night. Each school will also have a number of floats and an overall theme, unique music and message. These chosen schools get to strut their stuff through the Sambadrome and be judged by 40 judges. Each school has 85 minutes to try and impress the judges. Each production is carefully choreographed and considering that it can consist of more than 4000 people together with floats, that is quite a feat! For the top schools the organisers take a full year to prepare their theme, music and floats.  The dancers themselves start practicing months in advance and it is a big social event for the community to attend these get-togethers to practice.

Tips for your Carnival experience

Here are my top tips for things to see and do at Rio Carnival:

  1. Sambadrome – no visit to carnival would be complete without spending at least one night at the Sambadrome! The show usually starts around 9pm and goes until the early hours of the morning.  Most overland groups hang out iSambadrome parade floatsn sector 13 which is fun but for a better position consider sector 11 or look at a map of the stadium and work out where the best place is. If possible, tr
    y to get tickets for one of the nights that the “Special” (top tier) schools parade. Remember though tickets sell out a long time in advance so if your overland company is not arranging them for you make sure you book early this is possible online and then you collect your tickets when you get to Rio.
  2. Get involved in the parade – now here’s a crazy idea – imagine being part of one of these top samba schools and parading through the sambadrome! Well it is possible if you are prepared to buy your costume and contribute to the samba school. So if you are keen to get down and Samba with Rio’s best for 85 minutes and impress the judges this could be for you. This will involve collecting your outfit and understanding the basics and then showing up on time at the staging area and then you are good to go. Sound like fun?  You will need to arrange it before the time by either contacting a samba school directly or through an agency, but what an unforgettable way to experience Carnival!
  3. Street Parties (Blocos) – well the locals in Rio (known as Cariocas) certainly know how to party! At the street parties during carnival (known as Blocos) you can expect great music and lots of dancing as they take to the streets with their drums and other musical instruments fuelled by beers and cachaça (the local firewater) to celebrate life.  Anybody can join and it is for free and the locals are on the whole super friendly and you can just join in and have a blast.  A couple of blocos that are worth considering are: Banda de Ipanema (great music, parading along iconic Ipanema beach), Bola Preta (the biggest and craziest), Sargento Pimenta (Samba-style Beatles’ songs and everyone can sing along), Carmelitas de Santa Teresa (in the beautiful bohemian hilltop neighbourhood, a classic), Monobloco (the Sunday after Carnival in the streets downtown; the most famous bloco in Brazil, the only time they perform for free!)
  4. Gay Ball – Another carnival event to consider is the Gay Ball or Gay Gala held at the Scala night club on the last night of carnival. Here you can expect a truly exotic collection of characters to make grand entrances and take to the dance floors! It attracts a flamboyant crowd with lots of drag queens and their admirers, as well as people from all around the world who can’t resist the opportunity to express themselves in their most exotic and outlandish costumes!
    • Catch a glimpse for free as you try to get as close as possible to the pink carpet to see the guests arrive in all their splendour. You will need to be there a bit early to get a place but the first arrivals start at about 10pm and peak at about 11:30 pm; or
    • Get your glamour on! The other option is to buy a ticket and attend yourself with various options available from a simple standing/party tickets to private table tickets to even a private box. Just remember everybody is welcome but if you plan to attend you need to get dressed up in a suitable outfit (the more outrageous the better!), be ready to get down and party and try not to stare too openly.

Top Tips for Surviving Carnival

Rio carnival is an amazing event but a couple of things to remember:

  • Almost everything closes for carnival so make sure you have enough cash on hand, bank machines often run out of cash
  • Like any big event there will be an element of crime present so its best to go out in groups and watch your drinks don’t get tampered with
  • Transport around town can be challenging over carnival so plan how you will get home and don’t expect to travel around too quickly
  • Lastly – and I know it sounds logical but having taken a number of groups to carnival it is something that many people forget when they get into the party spirit – only take out what you can afford to lose and never take your passport or other valuable documents as you have a very good chance of losing them

Oh, and no matter what carnival you go to, have fun and party till you drop!

Salvador carnival party

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the things you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover." 
Mark Twain

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