Although Carnival is celebrated throughout Brazil, it is the events held in Rio de Janeiro that are unquestionably the biggest and brightest. There’s an atmosphere of unbridled revelry, where organised parades take place alongside often spontaneous street parties, and it seems like the entire city is caught up in a maelstrom of samba. We’re not entirely convinced that Rio is actually the best place in Brazil to celebrate Carnival at its most authentic, but one thing is for sure, this is an experience you’re unlikely to ever forget.
Rio Carnival takes place over the five days preceding Ash Wednesday, and the most famous event is the samba school performances in the gigantic Sambodrome, which seats up to 80,000 people. Wondering how important dance is here? Rio has in the region of 200 samba schools, drawn from local communities, which are organised by division, and those in the ‘premier league’ get to strut their stuff at the Sambodrome in front of a panel of judges.
Each samba school is judged on everything from their individual movements to the quality of their (fabulous) costumes, and the overall integrity of their performance to the samba tradition, with the champion announced on Ash Wednesday. Competitors will spend months every year readying their costumes and their dance routines with the help of supporters in their communities to ensure the event goes off without a hitch, and many of the glamorous members of the audience clearly take their own preparations seriously, too.
There are several exciting itineraries that see you ensconced in the Sambodrome to watch the festivities, which are televised. Some even give you the opportunity to don a sequined costume and take part yourself! But to be honest, the raw excitement of Carnival is most keenly felt in the streets, where you can barely walk a block without encountering a conga line, a banda (marching band), a steel drum set-up, or a spontaneous party. It’s deliriously fun even when completely sober, so you should go in expecting to be drawn into dances at any time, to collect sackfuls of beaded necklaces, and not find your bed until well into the early hours of the morning.
You might also be lucky enough to attend one of the many costumed balls held in clubs and hotels around Rio de Janeiro during Carnival week, which are often attended by celebrities and the highest echelons of Brazilian society.
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The Sambodrome steals most of the limelight, but during the Carnival festivities there are numerous organised street parties taking place across the city, many of them led by bands that date as far back as the 1800s. These are the best option if you would prefer to rub shoulders with local people – cariocas – instead of simply watching the processions. You’ll find these blocos around neighbourhoods such as Ipanema, Copacabana and Leblon, some of them attracting many thousands of partygoers. Among the most famous is one that takes place in the Botanical Gardens, known as Suvaco do Cristo, or ‘Christ’s Armpit’, so called because it passes underneath the outstretched right arm of the Christ the Redeemer statue on Corcovado Mountain.
The most popular bloco for LGBT people tends to be Ipanema, while the versatile Leblon band perform not just samba but many other musical styles, and claim to have once entertained a crowd of 800,000. At the bloco das Carmelitas meanwhile the performers tend to eschew the sequins and dress as nuns instead. All told, Carnival is a week of parties that can easily feel like a month, with so many different options available to you depending on your mood, or where you happen to be staying, and every night promising new adventures.
What a way to finish
While there are several itineraries that focus only on the Rio Carnival, with a few guided tours to key landmarks such as Sugarloaf Mountain and the Christ the Redeemer statue between the partying, most Brazil holidays will take you to several different parts of the country. Given the dates of the Carnival are always fixed in advance you can quite easily finish your tour in style with a few days in Rio after seeing the Amazon and Pantanal, or even to celebrate the end of an epic overland trip across South America. And if Carnival’s not your thing, or you can’t quite get the dates to work, then there is also New Year, another fantastic event on the Rio calendar, when immense crowds of cariocas and visitors descend on Copacabana beach to see in the new year with champagne.
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