So you’ve read all about what Carnival in Rio is like, and you’re ready to jump on a plane yesterday right?
This post should help guide you through planning and booking Carnival in Rio—from when to start booking, where to stay, and other things to consider before booking your cachaça fueled trip.
WHEN IS CARNIVAL 2016?
Carnival 2016 runs from Friday, February 5 to Wednesday, February 10. There will be plenty of parties in the days before and after these dates, but this is when the official blocos and parades take place, and definitely the minimum amount of time that you’ll want to be in Rio.
HOW LONG SHOULD I SPEND IN RIO?
As long as you can.
I spent eight nights in Rio and found it to be very rushed. I spent the first four days (Monday – Thursday) running around town visiting the Christ Statue, Sugar Loaf, hang gliding (because of the weather this can eat up an entire day), Forte Duque de Caxias, and I only got to spend one day lounging on Copacabana beach before it was overrun with Carnival partiers. I spent the last four days and nights moving from bloco to bloco with zero time to relax on the beach or sightsee, and I missed the last day of Carnival when the Super Mario Bloco happened. I also didn’t have enough time to do a favela tour or visit Tijuca Forest either.
I’d say if you plan on doing a lot of sightseeing, give yourself at least ten days in Rio. But obviously the more the better. If you’re only planning to visit Rio for the Carnival dates, be prepared for slower traffic, large crowds, and not seeing much of the city outside of the blocos.
WHEN SHOULD I BOOK MY FLIGHT?
Unless you plan on staying at a fancy beachfront hotel, flights will most likely be the most expensive part of your trip. Even before you’re ready to book your flight I recommend you start playing the points game with your frequent flyer miles or travel credit card well in advance. Otherwise you’ll most likely be seeing fares for over $1000 from the US. Flights to Rio are definitely not cheap.
Once you’ve decided on which dates to travel you’ll want to book your flights (and accommodation) as soon as possible. Try being a little flexible with your dates to see which days are the cheapest and you might save a few bucks.
If you need a visa, you’ll need this flight confirmation first as part of your visa application.
DO I NEED A VISA OR ANY OTHER TRAVEL DOCUMENTS?
If you’re traveling from somewhere other than Brazil you’ll obviously need a passport. Make sure that it’s valid for at least six months after your return date, and that you have enough blank pages to accommodate the entry/exit stamps. Some countries also require a visa, so make sure to leave a full blank page for that if necessary.
US citizens also need to obtain a tourist visa (which right now is $140, good for ten years). If you live near a Brazilian Embassy or Consulate it’s fairly simple to schedule an appointment and go in with all of the paperwork and get it yourself. But if you’re nowhere near one you might have to pay a decent chunk of change to have an agency take care of it for you. This can get pretty expensive, so take care of it as soon as you’ve booked your flight so that you don’t also have to pay fees to expedite.
I used Travel Visa Pro to get my visa. Their site is horribly designed, but their customer service is outstanding. I had tons of questions during the application process, so I found their on-site chat feature to be a huge help to make sure I was doing everything properly.
When applying for your visa you’ll need to show proof of a booked round trip flight in to and out of Brazil. This can be difficult if you’re traveling a bit more loosely or on a one-way ticket, but it can be done. For example, I was planning on doing most of my travel to, from, and within Brazil by boat and bus, booking it all once I arrived and as I traveled. The people at Travel Visa Pro advised me to book a random bullshit roundtrip flight, print the itinerary, cancel the flight, then send the printed itinerary in with my visa application. I didn’t want to at first, but I ended up doing it through Expedia since they have a free 24 hour cancellation period, and everything worked out fine. I definitely felt shady doing it, but feeling shady is better than losing money and being denied a visa because you don’t have a return flight.
US citizens can check this link for more info on visa requirements: http://travel.state.gov/content/passports/english/country/brazil.html
DO I NEED ANY VACCINATIONS?
If you’re sticking to Rio de Janeiro and the surrounding coastal areas, then most likely no. But if you plan on traveling further inland before or after Carnival you might want to double check the recommended vaccinations. It’s never a bad idea to make sure you’re up on your routine vaccinations (such as MMR, etc.). Some health insurance plans will cover certain vaccinations, but others you’ll have to pay out of pocket at your primary care physician or at a travel vaccination center.
Here’s a link to help you decide what you may or may not need for Brazil: http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/destinations/traveler/none/brazil
WHEN SHOULD I BOOK MY ACCOMMODATION?
If you have any sort of standards or expectations (like a private bathroom, private room, etc.) while traveling, get your hotel/hostel/apartment situated ASAP. Prices are roughly three to four times their normal rates during Carnival and they book up early. I booked in October (four months early) for this year’s Carnival and all of the hotels and hostels were already picked over. I lucked out finding one in Copacabana that was about $80/night (usually only about $20/night), but I shared a dorm room with five others. It was fine for me since I was rarely in the hostel and I had the chance to meet plenty of others to party with, but hostels aren’t for everyone. The sooner you book, the more options you’ll have and the cheaper they’ll be.
Sites like Airbnb are also a good option, especially if you’ve got a heap of cash to throw down up front. Unfortunately they’re not necessarily cheap, but you can easily reserve a multi-room place and then find other people to fill the rooms and split the cost.
When I searched for hotels in October I was seeing rates starting at $300/night and up, so good luck with that.
WHERE SHOULD I STAY?
Don’t worry about staying near the Sambadrome (where the main Carnival parade happens). It’s far from basically everything and the surrounding area doesn’t have the best reputation at night, so you’re better off only making the trek there for the parade.
Most of the blocos happen in Zona Sur (the South Zone, where all of the beaches are) and downtown, so you’ll definitely want to stay in one of these areas.
I found Copacabana to be a perfect location—right on the beach, and easily accessible to all of the blocos on the beach and downtown because it’s basically right in the middle. Ipanema and Leblon beaches are beautiful and they say more upscale than Copacabana, but they’re also a bit further from downtown than Copacabana is. Botafogo, Flamengo, and Lapa are also popular tourist spots; especially near the Lapa Arches where tons of people meet for drinks pretty much every day and night during Carnival.
I stayed at the Rio Rockers Hostel about four blocks from Copacabana Beach and felt 100% safe day and night. To the point where I drunkenly walked 15 minutes to McDonald’s with my phone in my hand texting at midnight one night. In retrospect that was an extremely stupid idea and I should’ve been robbed (as others I’d met were robbed in the same area), but hey, sometimes you drink a million caipirinhas and do stupid stuff.
In my opinion, staying near a train station is a great way to get around during Carnival, especially since the streets close down for blocos and it can be difficult to get around them. The trains run 24 hours during Carnival and are always packed with party goers, so it makes the ride between blocos an event in itself. Some of the subway stations will close down too if there’s a bloco happening there, but it’s not difficult to figure out the next closest stop since everyone will be getting off there (in costume and beer in hand).
If you’re really broke you can check out couchsurfers, but just remember that if they bail last minute you could be left shelling out a ton more money for last-minute lodging.
Here’s a link to some more information about the neighborhoods in Rio: http://www.rio.com/practical-rio/neighborhoods-rio
HOW EARLY DO I NEED TO BOOK TICKETS TO THE SAMBADROME?
For many people (both locals and tourists) a highlight of Carnival is the parade at the Sambadrome. Personally I’m not a fan of parades, so I had absolutely zero intention of going until I developed a severe case of FOMO once I realized basically everyone else in Rio was going.
If you don’t care much about the Sambadrome then you can pick up some cheap last minute nosebleed seats once you’re in Rio. You’ll be able to see the parade, but you might want to bring some binoculars or at least a camera with a decent zoom. However, if you want a good view and comfortable seats you’ll want to purchase tickets as far in advance as possible as they sell out very early—especially for the best parade days.
I got tickets at my hostel for about $35 the day before and we sat in the very last section on the parade route. Our seats were set back quite a bit from the parade, so it was difficult to see the detail of the costumes with the naked eye. But people were still singing and dancing and having a great time, squeezed elbow to elbow in the stands. Overall it was fun and tolerable for a couple of hours, but be warned that these parades go on literally all night long.
The main parades (i.e. the biggest and best samba schools) are Sunday and Monday, with most people opting for Monday. If you’re a clueless tourist like me you probably won’t recognize much difference between the different schools, so go whichever night is most convenient and affordable for you.
I was also told by locals that you can show up on Monday around 1 or 2AM and try to bargain cheaper seats, so that’s worth a shot too.
Here’s a bit more info about the samba schools and the parade and tickets.
WHAT ELSE DO I NEED TO BOOK FOR CARNIVAL?
To me, the best thing about Carnival is the street parties. And better yet they’re free and awesome. So you can show up to any of them with a beer in hand and have the time of your life, no need to book anything in advance.
So really, the only things you should book in advance are flights, hotels/hostels, and Sambadrome tickets. But if you plan on spending any time immediately before or after Rio in a nearby beach town or island such as Ilha Grande or Paraty, you’re better off to book that in advance also. Lots of people plan to do the same so places can book up a bit in advance if you wait until the last minute. We had to rearrange our plans for the first three days after Carnival because there were no hostels available in Paraty.
Now that you’ve got the basics covered, just save up some money and start counting down the days! There are tons of other celebrations all over Brazil (like the more traditional celebration in Salvador) so if you can swing it, it’s worth checking some of those out too before visiting Rio.
Anything else you’re wondering about planning a trip to Rio for Carnival? Comment below!