World famous beaches, bronzed bodies dancing to sensual samba beats, and hundreds of thousands of people looking to have a good time. Who hasn’t thought about partying in Rio de Janeiro for Carnival at least once in their life? Well I have, many times. So I finally took the plunge and went this year, at the ripe old age of 29, and I had a freaking blast. And I totally think you should go in 2016.
I’ll admit there was a small part of me that thought that maybe I was a bit too old to go to Carnival. The same part that loves going to sleep by midnight, hates large crowds, and even secretly hates drinking. But after my plane touched down in Rio, that part of me disappeared.
If you’re thinking about going to Rio for Carnival, I hope that this post will give you an idea about what it’s like and also convince you that it is an awesome, unforgettable experience. This is part of a two post series, so next I’ll follow up with everything you need to know and do to start planning—including flights, visas, accommodations, and how soon to start planning.
WHAT IS CARNIVAL?
Technically speaking Carnival is a festival held on the Friday before Lent, and continuing through Ash Wednesday. I think there might be more religious significance behind it but you won’t learn about that here, sorry. To me, Carnival in Rio is a giant, nonstop party with elaborate costumes, sexy dancing, and millions of happy people in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The energy is amazing, the dancing is endless, and the caipirinhas are delicious. It’s heaven.
But more importantly, Carnival in Rio de Janeiro is basically made up of two things—the infamous Sambadrome Parade, and blocos, which are basically the most badass block parties you’ll ever attend. There are Carnival Balls (haha balls) and parties at clubs as well, but those cost quite a bit of money, so again you won’t learn about those here. You can drink on the streets in Rio, so why would you pay to go in somewhere when you can grab a beer, walk down the road, and join one of hundreds of street parties for free?
All those photos and videos you see of nearly naked women shimmying around in six inch heels and bedazzled costumes are from the Sambadrome. The Sambadrome is the 13-block long outdoor stadium with bleacher style seating, where the various samba schools perform and compete in elaborate costumes alongside even more elaborate floats. Stay tuned for more detailed info on how to snag Sambadrome tickets and where to sit in part two!
Blocos are the street parties scattered all around the city, and in my opinion the best part of Carnival. They’re usually centered around a band in a set area or along a parade route that partygoers follow while singing and dancing along. Many of these blocos have themes or costumes, but they’re free and open to anyone who wants to attend.
In 2015 there were 456 registered blocos in the few weeks just before, during, and slightly after Carnival, with some of them putting on more than one party. Translation: you will have zero problem finding an awesome party at any given moment. Most of the best blocos happen during the day, so it’s not unusual to be out on the streets partying by 9am.
You should definitely look up the official dates, times, and locations posted once Carnival 2016 arrives, but here are a few of the annual blocos you won’t want to miss out on:
- Sargento Pimenta was one of my favorites, and is an absolute must for Beatles fans. The band plays several hours of Beatles music with a samba spin, as the crowd sings and dances along to every word. Sometimes they mix it up and throw some Portuguese in there, but it’s exactly what you’d imagine a lovey-dovey Brazilian Woodstock to be like, and it’s an absolute blast.
- Cardao do Bola Preta started up in 1918, and is the oldest and largest bloco in Rio. One year it had about 2.5 million attendees, so it’s very likely you’ll be partying alongside at least a million other people. The official costume for this bloco (encouraged but not mandatory) is anything white with black polka dots.
- Banda de Ipanema is a street band that holds three different parties—the first two on the Saturdays just before Carnival, and the third on the Tuesday during Carnival week. This bloco attracts a diverse crowd but is also well known amongst the LGBT community and famous for the parade of drag queens.
- Boitata happens on Sunday morning during Carnival weekend every year. Rafael, the awesome front desk guy at Rio Rockers (who I’m convinced knows absolutely everything about Rio) told me it’s his favorite bloco, so naturally I had to go. It was indeed a blast.
- Boi Tolo is the perfect bloco if you’re a musician and want to play along during Carnival. Boi Tolo was formed when Boitata changed their route one year, leaving a bunch of people standing in the streets confused and forced to create their own party. They’re super inclusive so you should be able to show up with your instrument and just roll with it.
- Super Mario bloco is every 80′s kid’s dream come true. This band marches around alongside hundreds of Marios and Luigis while playing hours of Super Mario songs. And yes people run at warp speed when the Star Power song comes on. Enough said.
- Carmelitas is a bloco in Santa Teresa that was formed in honor of a nun who supposedly jumped out the window of a covent in order to partake in Carnival. Each year they hold two parties, one at the beginning of Carnival to signify her joining in the festivities, and one at the end to celebrate her return to the covent unnoticed. People dress up as nuns as a symbol to “hide” the escaped nun.
IS CARNIVAL EXPENSIVE?
While it’s not super cheap, it also doesn’t have to be super expensive. Unless you’re a super raging alcoholic, transportation and lodging will be the most expensive part of your trip. In that case then yes, Carnival is very expensive. More on that in part two.
Once you’re at Carnival I find you can spend as much or as little as you want. The drinks I bought were usually around $1-$2 USD for a beer, or about $4-$5 USD for a caipirinha. But I’ve found that you can talk the vendors into deals by buying more than one drink. Also you can grab cheap street food for dirt cheap, or walk into one of the many grab-and-go style shops for a quick sandwich, slice of pizza, or bowl of açaí. Then again you can pay like $40 USD and eat like a king at an all-you-can-eat churrascaria (which I definitely recommend doing at least once. I went to Churrascaria Palace in Copacabana and thought I’d died and gone to meat heaven).
Some of the tourist attractions can be a bit steep though. I paid 350 Reais (about $109 USD) to go hang gliding + take home a CD with pictures and a video, but everyone else I met had to pay 650 Reais for that same package (about $204 USD). Don’t ask how we got that deal because we definitely weren’t supposed to, but I’m not complaining. Other things like the roundtrip van + ticket to the Christ Statue was around 50 Reais (or $16 USD). Bottom line, bring some money to play with.
Another way to save money is to take public transportation because taxis are EXPENSIVE. The subway runs 24/7 during Carnival and there’s almost always a constant party on it, so that’s always a fun way to get around. Buses are cheap, frequent, and easy to navigate as long as a bloco isn’t blocking their route.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE TO SEE AND DO IN RIO?
If you’ve never been to Rio then you’ll no doubt want to check out some of the awesome things that make Rio amazing.
These are some of the more popular attractions, and it’s easy to see how you could fill an entire month. Most tours shut down during Carnival, so make sure to tack on extra days before or after in order to plan for these. I arrived on the Monday before Carnival and left on the Tuesday right before it ended and I was constantly rushed to fit in everything I wanted to do. I feel like I missed out on quite a bit and wish I would’ve had at least another week there.
- Corcovado and the Cristo Redentor (the Christ statue and mountain. On a clear day, go in the morning and you’ll have the sun hitting the face of the statue. Since the sun goes behind the statue in the afternoon, taking photos will be nearly impossible unless it’s closer to dusk. There are numerous ways to head up there, but if you’re like me and you hate tourist attractions, and you just want to get up there, snap a couple photos and get back down as quickly as possible, check into the vans that take you from places like Copacabana Beach. They’re not very expensive and they drive you all the way up to the top. Or check out the helicopter tours if you’re loaded.)
- Pao de Acucar (Sugarloaf Mountain, and FYI it’s incredible at sunset)
- Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon Beaches
- Sunset at Aproador (the rocky area between Copacabana and Ipanema where everyone gathers and claps as the sun sets. Bring beer!)
- Maracanã Stadium (one of the biggest stadiums in the world where local favorites Flamengo play)
- Escadaria Selarón (you know, those colorful steps in the Snoop Dogg and Pharrell Williams video for Beautiful)
- Santa Teresa
- Carioca Aqueduct (the Lapa Arches)
- Fort Copacabana
- Guanabara Bay
- Free walking tours of the city (check out Free Walker for walking tours and pub crawls)
- Favela tours (easily arranged at most hostels)
- Hang gliding and paragliding (do hang gliding, seriously)
- Lagoa and the Botanical Gardens (I’ve heard renting a bike to ride around the lagoon is great)
- And there are a ton of options if you want to get a bit more active: hiking Dois Irmãos, Tijuca National Park, rock climbing, biking, kayaking, stand up paddle boarding, etc. etc. I’m convinced that Rio is paradise.
I definitely recommend picking up a copy of Rio For Partiers too, it’s a handy little book full of information—from what to see, do, eat, and drink, to how to say things, and coupons to save you money and get free drinks all over town. It’s super handy and really explains everything you need to know about Rio de Janeiro.
*Pro tip: Right now you can download the ebook for free on their site, so for all of you broke ass backpackers, take advantage of this! –> Rioforpartiers.com
A FEW MORE TIPS AND THINGS TO KNOW
I’m usually not one to drink in crowded places because I have a bladder the size of a water balloon, so the bathroom scene is key to my enjoyment of any alcohol-fueled outing. All throughout Carnival there are a ton of chemical toilets at the different blocos, but their quality and cleanliness definitely differ, as do the lines. In Leme for example there were hour-long lines for basic, stinky, dirty port-a-potties, but in Ipanema I only waited behind three people for a fairly nice, well maintained toilet with an attendant. Peeing in the street is illegal though so don’t get caught doing that!
WHAT TO PACK
February is summer in Rio so it’ll be really hot. Like 30-40ºC/86-104ºF all the time. Pack light, meaning bikinis, swim trunks, tank tops, shorts, dresses, etc. I wore flip flops the entire time but some people opt for lightweight sneakers since the grounds can get pretty nasty and people will step on your toes. It’s totally acceptable to walk around in next to nothing in Rio, so the less clothes you have on the more you’ll fit in. Leave the fancy designer labels and flashy jewelry at home though, and if you can bring a small waterproof handheld camera as opposed to an SLR, do so.
If you have room for some costumes or props then go ahead and bring them, but if not don’t worry. There are plenty of little spots all over the city where you can buy stuff for super cheap.
There are people making out EVERYWHERE at Carnival. EVERYWHERE.
Brazilians have a huge make out culture as it is. It’s completely normal for them to make a move within minutes of meeting someone as their way of showing interest. As an almost 30-year-old woman with an undeniable attraction to Latin men, venturing into the motherland itself sounded exciting at first. Like “yes, there’s going to be a ton of hot Brazilian men lining up to make out with me.” But then I got there and reality set in. They’re just like guys anywhere and six out of ten of them are disgusting. The other four are twelve years old. Plus it’s pretty off-putting to see someone make out with one person and then move right along to the next. And call me old fashioned (or just old) but I guess I need at least a little bit of a spark and maybe some conversation before swapping spit.
At Carnival guys will literally grab you by the arm as you walk by and ask “make out with me?” And that’s if they have manners. Other guys will just come right up to you and go for it, usually kissing your ear or near your mouth. Some will be VERY persistent and follow you for blocks, rubbing you down with ice cubes and blowing on your back to cool you off in the the hot afternoon sun. Not that that happened to me or anything…
If you’re not keen to get chapped lips or mouth herpes, my best advice is to stick with a group of people to significantly lower the amount of guys who try to face rape you. And just politely say no to anyone you’re not interested in. From my experience most guys will simply walk away, no big deal.
It’s not mandatory that you dress up, but I promise you’ll have way more fun if you do. Wear whatever you want—something simple or something awesome and well thought out. Just remember that it’s hot, you’ll probably sweat a lot, and angel wings will get in the way. You can change it up or wear the same costume every day, it doesn’t matter. You might want to grab a few extra props too, just in case you accidentally lose half of your costume in the ocean on the first day like I did.
You can pick up random odds and ends on nearly any street corner during Carnival, but Rua da Alfândega (the street just outside the Uruguaiana subway stop) is lined with a ton of super cheap costume shops.
I’m sure that I was naively seduced by Rio’s beauty and charm, but it seemed perfectly safe to me. At least in Copacabana where I stayed. To the point where I drunkenly walked alone for about twenty minutes to get food one night at midnight, with my phone in my hand, texting. In retrospect that was an extremely stupid idea and I should’ve been robbed just to teach my cocky ass a lesson, but hey, sometimes that’s what happens after drinking a gallon of cachaça.
However, Brazil is still a developing country where poverty and crime are obvious issues, but that’s easy to forget if you’re primarily in the touristy areas doing Carnival-y things. Nearly everyone I met had been robbed or mugged. I was just fortunate enough not to be one of them. One guy had his phone stolen out of his hand by a kid on a bike while walking down the street in Ipanema. Another guy had his phone taken in his hostel by a fellow traveler. A group of Brits I met wandered into a favela after dark and left without their wallets. Another group of guys got robbed at knifepoint near the bus station.
These things happen, and all I can say is just be extra cautious and aware, and use your street smarts. Don’t carry a bunch of things on you, because even sober people lose things in large crowds. If you’re a girl your bra will become your best friend. Keep your money (just enough for the day) in your bra, and tie your camera strap around the center of your bra and keep it stuffed in your cleavage for safe keeping. At least that’s what I did and I didn’t lose a thing!
The closest I came to any altercations happened around 9pm one night as the party was winding down on Ipanema Beach (aka everyone was drunk). I stepped away from the group to grab another drink, but while the guy was mixing it up, two girls approached me speaking Portuguese in a very harsh tone. The only word I could understand was “gringa” as they looked me up and down with a look of disgust. I was a bit tipsy, and these chicks towered over me, so for a second I thought “oh shit, this is where it all ends. I’m about to get knifed right here on the beach.” They got even closer and up in my face, but luckily the caipirinha guy stepped in and yelled at them in Portuguese, and they walked away (but not without shooting me a few mean looks over their shoulders). In my sensitively drunk state of mind I had a hard time grasping why two girls would come at me when I did absolutely nothing to provoke it, but a few locals told me they were “probably just jealous.” Sooo basically Brazilian girls are jealous of white girls, and us white girls are jealous of the insanely hot Brazilian chicks. Sigh, women.
OTHER TIPS TO HELP YOU SURVIVE CARNIVAL
- Drinking alcohol + sunshine can be a lethal combo. Remember to drink a bit of water here and there. Even better, buy a coconut to refuel whenever you’re feeling a bit dehydrated. It’ll change your life.
- Don’t forget sunscreen, and other protection if you’re planning to visit an infamous pay-by-the-hour sex hotel.
- Be prepared for long lines and head to the toilet well before you’re about to pee your pants.
- Since Rio is full of beaches that stay lit up well into the night, there’s a huge chance you’ll end up in the ocean after a day of drinking. Just be careful of riptides and strong currents, they seem extra strong when you’re drunk.
- If you’re a woman who’s traveling alone, find a group to go out with and stick with them. One night during a bloco in Leme I stepped away from the group to pee in the ocean and within six seconds some guy came up and latched onto me from behind. When I tried to swim away I felt his hands grab at my bikini bottoms. It took a good elbow in the side and a loud “NO!” to get him to leave me alone as I swam away. But joke’s on him since I was peeing the whole time.
Check out The Ultimage Guide to Carnival in Rio Part 2: How to Plan. In the meantime, is there anything else you’re dying to know about Carnival? Comment below!