Can you feel it? The involuntary need to shake what your mama gave ya?
Perfect! Because Carnival is coming and here’s Tripmasher’s Rio Carnival guide to help you survive the world’s biggest dance-off.
Rio Carnival – What should I expect?
Expect to have a lot of fun. If you are there to enjoy the atmosphere, cut a little loose, but not get totally stupid then you should be fine. I’ll come back to safety tips later on in the post.
The streets will be busy, revellers will be partying on public transport at all hours of the day and the beaches heave with people recovering.
You can join in or leave it behind.
Rio has lots to offer a visitor, so it’s worth checking out good work by tour providers like Be a Local if you want to combine your party experience with a cultural sojourn. But note that the city swells with Brazilians and visitors, so star attractions like Christ the Redeemer will be busy, but hey in a way it’s all part of this once in a lifetime celebration.
If you are looking to visit some of the more popular attractions like Sugar Loaf mountain, favelas or the amazingly modern Cathedral then find out which days the cruise boats arrive and avoid those days.
Rio Carnival Guide – The Parade at the Sambadrome
Welcome to the world’s biggest party!
Every day during Carnival, you’ll find a parade taking place at the Sambadrome. What you are inevitably there to see though is the top twelve schools parading on the Sunday and Monday of the Carnival. In 2016, this takes place on Sunday 7 February and Monday 8 February. Six schools parade each day for about 70-80 minutes. The parade starts at 9pm, so be prepared for a lot of dancing and whooping to get to the last school’s performance kicking off at around 3am. When we were there in 2015 we were dancing away from 7pm to 5am!
It was a total downpour for us, but that didn’t stop the party or the dancing! Just watch those paper programs that turn to mush and become super slippery.
What to wear?
The performers steal the show with their amazing costumes (or lack thereof :), but that doesn’t mean you can’t get creative and make this your best fancy dress party ever! We bought our masks at a market in Sao Paulo because we were advised it would be cheaper to do so. I’m not so convinced because there are loads of market stall sellers on the streets of Rio with great ensembles, flower garlands, glitter spray, wigs, body art stickers and whatever else you could imagine.
If the weather is looking dodgy then definitely buy a poncho or bring an umbrella. This will not keep you warm, so you may want to bring a jacket too (or make sure you just keep dancing!)
All this talk of dancing is making me thirsty.
We bought most of our drinks from a lady selling bags of beer. Pure class, I know!
I think it was 50 Brazillian Reais for 8 beers which is like US$25*. We did bring in a concoction of cachaça (a type of sugar cane spirit) and mixer but that was more for the walk to the Sambadrome. You really want to watch the liquid intake from both a drunken stupor point of view but also the need to use the portaloos. It ain’t pretty, so a bit of tissue and hand sanitizer can go a long way.
If you plan to stay for the whole parade then buy a cushion!
The seating is just concrete bleachers. When wet it’s cold and when dry it’s just plain uncomfortable. You can buy these from vendors outside the subway on route to the Sambadrome.
It may seem obvious but wear super comfy shoes. You will be on your feet whooping and dancing for the most part, so any shoes that are comfortable are ideal. Also, preferably shoes you don’t care too much about, because drinks will be spilt and navigating the port-a-loos is a bit gross.
And most importantly wear a smile!
So what is it all about?
For those religious folks, the Carnival marks the beginning of Lent with festivals dating right back to the 1700s.
When you are standing on the concrete bleachers marvelling at the energy, dancing to the great music and eyeballing fantastic costumes remember and appreciate the year’s worth of work that the schools and volunteers put in.
What ticket should I get?
We went on a Tucan tour and were seated in Sector 13. Here’s the low-down.
Sector 13 in the grandstand is at the end of the parade for dancers. Some say the dancers give it their all in sectors 6 – 8 where the judges are likely to be seated and ‘calm’ down by the end. I didn’t see anything like that and what you do have in Sector 13 is a chance to pick up a costume from one of the dancers and sit with a number of Brazilians supporting their samba school. Bonus! Others paid a lot more and were seated in Sector 11 for the Monday night parade. The seating is closer to the action and you will definitely have a great time.
To be honest, it is such a reveller’s affair if you are not having fun wherever you are sitting, I think you are doing it wrong.
Seat prices can range from $80 to $1600 – so let your budget decide! You can also pay up to $250 and purchase a costume and parade with a samba school. Providers like Rio Carnival offer a one stop shop to complete your Carnival experience.
Want to keep on partying?
Rio Carnival Guide on Money
ATMs and Money Exchange
Try and withdraw your money before entering Rio or indeed in the early days of Carnival as ATMs will often run out of money and banks are closed during Carnival. If you are using an ATM opt for one in a bank or shopping mall where the machine is less likely to be tampered with and you are not attracting any unwanted attention. This also goes for late night withdrawals – if possible, avoid using an ATM past 10pm.
Exchange booths will be open, but with the ever fluctuating Real, be aware you may not always get the best rate for your US or Euro.
If you plan to work on your tan, then bring your own sunscreen. It may sound odd, but this was unexpectantly pricey.
Drink sellers will often have deals, so travelling around in a larger group often gives you a chance to reap these savings. Plus more the merrier right?!? Or make your own watermelon punch!
Take advantage of your included breakfast. If you are staying at a hotel, then muster the energy to wake up or stay up to eat your included meal. We would often take a plate of fruit and yoghurt and leave them in our room fridge for later.
Take the subway and public buses. These are really easy to use and fun to get around. But a word of advice is to remember the subway station next to yours because some days every second station was closed. Taxis are not that pricey, but with the traffic pile-up they can become expensive by the end of the journey.
Rio Carnival Guide to Accommodation – Where should I stay?
We stayed in Lapa (Hotel Monte Allegre) and Copacabana (Mercure Apartments) and I think we got to have the best of both worlds. Lapa is a great location for street parties, picking up a costume and walking to the Sambadrome.
Copacabana gave us the option of beach parades and lazy sunny days. This was a perfect place to stay after the parade on the Tuesday night.
Others stayed in the Flamengo area at Argentina Hotel, Rua Cruz Lima, No 30. Flamengo. Loved for the closeness to the subway and beaches. Catching the subway around town gives you a chance to get into the party spirit well before you arrive at your destination.
If you are booking your own accommodation, then try and get onto it early with popular places in Copacabana and Ipanema filling up months in advance. Also, be aware that hoteliers take advantage during Carnival, so if your dorm would normally sleep 6, then expect 8 or 10 beds in the room.
Rio Carnival Guide on Saftey
We definitely saw a lot of police presence, but in saying that the city swells by nearly 1 million tourists. So you have more opportunistic pick-pocketers. Thankfully we didn’t get swiped, but those that did (and there were a few!) were not carrying much money, so it wasn’t a big deal. In some cases, it made their time in Rio all the more memorable, and in a good way!
That’s the moral of the story.
Carry small amounts of money! And carry them in a few places. Women use that bra. Are you wearing socks or a cap, then tuck in a few notes? Pants with zip pockets are great or even the daggy money holders. Whatever you do don’t make it look obvious and avoid wearing any bling. At the beach do not leave your stuff unattended. For the most part, the new money in circulation is plastic so a few dips in the ocean should be alright.
Solo female travellers
I had a few friends tell me about their experiences and it’s a sobering wake up call during this party atmosphere. You may think that it is part and parcel of receiving unwanted male attention, but at times, this can get quite upsetting and scary. So do travel in groups where possible. At the beach, try and sit close to a group of people (girls and guys) or a shop/bar. And avoid finding yourself on quiet streets hours before blocco parade times in the downtown area.
Your best bet is always safety in numbers.
Rio Carnival Guide for the Hangover – Where to go after Carnival?
There are loads of places you could visit to start to unwind and recover from the world’s biggest party.
A popular choice is Ilha Grande as advised by a few of our mates. We didn’t have the time as we found ourselves on a flight to Mexico City, but if I was to return I would be on the island for sure! Also recommended by fellow travel buddies is to stay in Rio and enjoy all the activities you may not have had the chance to do during carnival and no doubt negotiate a much more favourable rate for activities like paragliding.
And like most parties, the host is kicking you out and it’s time to wander home. This brings us to the end of Tripmasher’s ultimate Rio Carnival guide.
Listening to Samba hits galore!
* The Brazilian Reals has taken a dive against the US dollar recently, so on the ground pricing may be quite different.
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