Insider’s Guide to the Rio Carnival

It’s that time of year! The eyes of the world are converging on Brazil as the Rio Carnival springs to life yet again. Our Insider’s Guide to the Rio Carnival outlines the ins and outs of this visual spectacular.

Carnival in Rio de Janeiro.

Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. Photo credit: shutterstock

What is the Rio Carnival?

Just as the rest of the world starts to recover from end-of-year celebrations, Brazil – and Rio de Janeiro in particular – is getting ready to revel in what is often regarded as the greatest party in the world. If you were to combine New Years’ Eve in Sydney with an Olympic Opening Ceremony, perhaps adding a Thanksgiving parade in New York and the Superbowl Final, you still wouldn’t reach the fever-high pitch of excitement that descends upon Rio de Janeiro, and Brazil as a whole, at Carnival time.

Although Carnival is usually advertised as ‘one’ party, it’s actually an event that runs for several weeks, even months, which has Pagan origins adapted to Christian traditions. Essentially, it’s a way to ‘live it up’ and indulge before the period of Lent-fasting begins, although you’d probably have a hard time finding a local who even knows of these origins. To Brazilians, Carnival is a wonderful way to stretch the end of year celebrations until March!

Samba schools prepare for a whole year to compete in the final, and it’s this event held at the Sambadrome that’s usually referred to when talking about ‘Carnival night’. With its overabundance of sequins, tanned skin, hypnotic music and out-of-this-world samba dancing, a night at the Rio Carnival final is one of the most unforgettable experiences you could ever have in all of South America. Yet heading to Rio for its Carnival can also be quite daunting for first-timers. There are literally millions of people converging on an already bustling city, hotels are booked to bursting point, crowds are crazy and figuring out where to go where – and where does one buy tickets, anyhow? – can be a headache.

Hence our desire to create this Insider’s Guide to the Rio Carnival, where we try to answer all the most oft-asked questions about this phenomenal event.

Parades and music during Carnival in Rio

Parades and music during Carnival in Rio. Photo credit: shutterstock

What are the dates for the Rio Carnival and how are they determined?

Rio Carnival dates are determined by Easter each year and have been taking place, in one form or another, for almost three centuries.

Here are the dates for the next three years:

2018 – 9th – 14th February

2019 – 1st – 6th March

2020 – 21st – 26th February

When should bookings for Carnival be made?

Return visitors to the Rio Carnival tend to be planners for very good reasons. Many will book their flights/hotel/accommodation and Carnival tickets at least 4-6 months in advance. A year would even be preferable for a greater chance at good deals and lots of choices. Now, for example, would be an excellent time to start planning and booking your Rio Carnival tour for 2018. Usually, we’ll book the whole kit and caboodle for our guests, reserving accommodation, party tickets and flights at the same time.

How much are tickets to the Carnival’s main events?

Tickets to Carnival in Rio range from $20 to $2,000. Really. From tickets at the back of the Sambadrome to amazing front-row private luxury suites for you and a few dozen of your closest friends, there’s a spot at Carnival to suit all budgets.

What are the 3 must-haves for Carnival in Rio?

There are three important essentials which are going to ensure your Carnival appreciation tour be one you’ll remember for all the right reasons. First come water and good rest: attending Carnival is not unlike participating in an endurance sporting event of untold challenge: pace yourself, have some early nights and keep hydrated in the intense summer heat. Sunscreen is a close second and will help ensure your rest efforts are not in vain. And third, of course, is a crazy outrageous Carnival costume, which you can purchase from one of the many shops in the Saara District.

What is a Samba Parade?

The Samba Parade: Sambadrome.

The Samba Parade: Sambadrome. Photo credit: shutterstock

This is the main event held at Rio’s Sambadrome, an incredible stadium which was built precisely for this event. Rio’s samba schools (which are more like organizations than actual teaching establishments) go head to head for a week of samba competitiveness, in order to be crowned the best of the best. The real winners of the samba Parades are undoubtedly the spectators. Unlike street parties, these are highly choreographed parades that blow your mind. Over 5,000 participants parade for hours, with costumes which have taken hundreds of hours to make, music that’s been specifically chosen by theme, and floats that have been painstakingly designed by the Carnavalesco, or Carnival Designer.

Can you see the Carnival without buying tickets to the Sambadrome event?

Of course you can! Blocos are street parties held in every suburb of Rio, and many locals will skip events requiring tickets and to catch these boisterous fiestas instead. In more than 500 venues across Rio, from Copacabana Beach right through to Zona Norte, you’ll find blocos boasting live samba bands, flowing caipirinhas, energetic dancing and general merry-making till the wee hours of the morning. Some of the most famous blocos, like Banda de Ipanema and Cordao da Bola Preta, have become true Rio institutions and considered part of the city’s cultural heritage. Check out the Rio Times’ guide to enjoying one of Rio’s blocos during Carnival. A comprehensive list of blocos is available in Rio hotels and visitor centers during Carnival.

Is a night of party at the Sambadrome worth it?

That would be a very fervent ‘YES!’ So worthwhile, in fact, that we consider a night of Sambadrome Carnival fun something everyone should experience at least once in life. When people talk of Carnival being ‘the best party in the world’, they do mean a night at the Sambadrome, a Samba Parade, which comes complete with fantastical floats, amazing music, insane dancing and fireworks. Do not even consider visiting Rio during Carnival and not scoring a ticket to a gig here! One of the main venues for last year’s Olympics, the Sambadrome hosts rehearsal events which are free to attend before the big events start.

Can tourists participate in Rio’s Carnival?

Sure, why should professional samba dancers have all the fun?! The public is more than welcome to apply for a spot and a costume with some of the schools participating in Carnival. In case you’re wondering, you are unlikely to be asked to don a near-invisible sequined bikini and dance in front of the line. Members of the public who want to join a parade make up the ‘numbers’ on the floor, which usually number in the hundreds. Hot and sweaty though it may be, taking part in the Rio Carnival would certainly be a travel memory to share with the grandkids!

What else can I do besides attend the Carnival in Rio?

Rio de Janeiro

Rio de Janeiro. Photo credit: shutterstock

Rio is a rewarding city to visit at any time of year, carnival irrespective. Moreover, the city’s international airport does a fab job of connecting visitor to all the country’s main highlights, including the majestic Iguassu Falls and the Amazon rainforest. If planning a trip to Rio for Carnival it would indeed be quite the genius plan to extend your visit and take in some of the most prominent attractions, not only in Brazil, but elsewhere in South America. From Rio, for example, you could fly to Foz to admire Iguassu Falls and take a connecting flight to Buenos Aires afterwards. February is a great time to explore the southern tip, Patagonia, or the wine regions of Chile and Argentina. South America may seem large (well, it is) but it’s very well connected. Rio de Janeiro is a brilliant springboard for adventures all over the continent.

Here are a few guides which will help you plan your once-in-a-lifetime tour of Brazil:

Missed out on this year’s Rio’s Carnival? Never fear…there’s always next year! Here at Chimu Adventures, we offer sensational Rio Carnival tour packages and unforgettable tours all year long, not just to Rio and Brazil, but anywhere in Latin America. So check out our extensive collection of tours and contact us for more info. We’ll get you into a sequined costume dancing samba with the pros if it’s the last thing we do!

Author: Laura Pattara

“Laura Pattara is a modern nomad who’s been vagabonding around the world, non-stop, for the past 13 years. She’s tour guided overland trips through South America and Africa, travelled independently through the Middle East and is now in the midst of a 5-year motorbike odyssey from Germany to Australia.”

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