Carnival in Rio is kind of a big deal. While not actually the biggest Carnival in Brazil (according to the Guinness Book of World Records Salvador’s is the biggest street party in the world), it is more well-known internationally and the world-famous Sambadrome Parade was my reason for going.
But Carnival is so much more than a parade. A week long event held every year before Lent, Carnival is essentially broken up into three parts: blocos, nightlife, and the parade. This is keeping it simple. In reality Carnival was madness. There was so much going on that half the time I felt like a (slightly tipsy) chicken with my head cut off, running around the city trying to experience as much as possible in the 5 main days of events. It involved a lot of sweat, glitter, and sleep deprivation.
But let’s start with the blocos. A bloco is a street party and during Carnival there are more than 500 of them taking place (with hundreds occurring at the same time). Five. Hundred. Street parties. It was insanity. Thanks to a 7 day minimum reservation requirement (at $60 US per night for an 8 bed dorm….don’t get me started), I had the same group of hostel Stranger Friends for the entirety of Carnival. We spent our days running across the city to different blocos and our nights hanging out in the streets in Lapa (I’ll get to that later).
Choosing which blocos to attend turned out to be a complicated matter because Brazil being Brazil they have only one website (in Portuguese) listing the names of all 500 blocos, their locations, and how many people are expected to attend (ranging from 200 to 2 million per party with a total of 5 million people attending throughout the week). A lot of asking around for recommendations resulted in us choosing two or three blocos per day, starting at 10 am and ending around 7 or 8.
My very first bloco was…interesting. It was the city’s biggest and essentially it was two (just two) parade floats playing Samba music…surrounded by over a million people drinking beers and Skol Beats (basically a cheap Smirnoff Ice) at 10 am. There was a constant stench of pee (Rio has a serious lack of public restrooms) and the heat was something fierce (all day ‘er day). It blows my mind that this many people would come all this way to roast in the 40 degree heat and be pushed and shoved around in the crowds before lunchtime.
While the “parade floats” were lackluster the people watching was epic. Locals dress in cheap Halloween costumes (tutus, pleather cop hats, fairy wings, etc.) and many a straight man dresses up like a woman. Everyone was drunk 24/7 and it was immediately evident that hook-up culture is huge. Companies distributed fans (seriously though…that heat) with condoms attached to them, one optimistic fellow was sporting a condom tied around his neck (and not much else), and the 20-something locals were constantly begging you to kiss them, getting down on their knees to plead when you refused to partake in the debauchery. At one point I witnessed a guy grab a passing chica by the hair in an attempt to get his mack on. So unnecessary. The whole thing was exhausting.
And this was only half-way through Day 1. In the afternoon we hit up a bloco for the well-known Banda de Ipanema (popular with the gays = best outfits), which had a couple more parade floats and a marching band that the masses (approx. 500,000 people) followed behind, dancing in the streets along the beach at sunset (how romantic). Unsurprisingly, it’s not that easy to dance in a crowd of 500,000. It was a lot of shuffling along, throwing elbows in protection of personal space, and attempting to maintain a death grip on your camera as the pickpockets tried to swat it out of your hand.
I’ll take a moment here to comment on Rio Carnival safety. It gets a bad rap but in my opinion it really wasn’t that bad, all things considered. In Salvador (at a pre-Carnival bloco I attended) they had cops in full SWOT gear and platforms with armed police set up on every block. This was not necessary in Rio. You rarely saw the police because aside from the pickpockets (which are expected in crowds that big) there really didn’t seem to be safety concerns. People just wanted to party.
I attended a few smaller blocos, as well, (10 – 20,000 rather than half a million in attendance) and personally I preferred these because you actually had room to breathe. Some blocos were more of an outdoor concert with a stage and different themes (Michael Jackson, The Beatles, and my personal favourite: “New Kids on the Bloco” where they sang Britney, N’ Sync and other songs reminiscent of my childhood). There were also blocos for the 50+ crowd, blocos for the kids…EVERYBODY GETS A BLOCO.
But let’s move on to the nightlife. A number of venues host “balls” (so very Cinderella) during Carnival but most are expensive so I didn’t partake. I wasn’t a huge fan of Rio’s night clubs either (too many sloppy 19 year-olds) but I did like Lapa, a street with a number of bars in the area where the crowds (you seriously can’t escape them) descended to dance (sort of…still a lot of shuffling and elbow throwing) and drink in the street.
One night we headed to nearby Centro which was a lot less touristy but fairly sketch as we were the only tourists in attendance (which means lots of unwanted attention). They had a series of booths selling dirt-cheap drinks with one blasting techno beats and a group of Magic Mike-esque locals attempting to woo us with their stripper moves. To be fair their moves were impressive (you’d think they were the understudies for Channing Tatum) but just…No.
And finally, friends, the moment you’ve all been waiting for: The Sambadrome Parade (insert canned applause here). Here’s how it works:
During Carnival four parades take place in the Sambadromo (a 13-block open-air stadium that looks like a giant runway), with the most popular (and most expensive) being the “First League” held on the Sunday and Monday. The First League is a group of the 12 best samba schools (just an organized group of people) in the city, with 6 schools parading each night.
I, with my obsessive love of parades, forked over the cash for half-decent seats (the best of the best will cost a kidney) on the most expensive day. It was so worth the money.
The Sambadrome Parade is of epic proportions. There’s 30,000 parade participants with 90,000 people in the stands each night. Each samba school has around 8 floats, all to a theme, and the whole thing (music, dancing, costumes, etc.) is highly choreographed. It takes just under 90 minutes for one samba school to parade through the stadium (because it’s so fucking huge) meaning the parade goes from 9 pm to 6 am. I heard this and worried I might be bored. A nine hour parade? Really? I honestly loved Every. Single. Second.
There were fireworks, people parachuting down from the sky, a guy dressed as Zeus with a jet pack, giant T-rex’s that ate scantily clad women, hats that operated as fountains, a pirate ship with crewmen swinging from ropes, women in jeweled thongs dancing samba in stilettos, and the most elaborate floats and costumes you can imagine. Words, pictures, even videos…nothing can do this parade justice. If I had any question in my mind about choosing Rio over Salvador for Carnival (because I seriously loved those Salvador drum groups), the Sambadrome parade squashed it.
Sweat, glitter, sleep deprivation…and the coolest parade of life. That was Carnival in Rio de Janeiro.