Rio de Janeiro is one of the most bright and lively cities in the world, and when its annual carnival rolls around, everyone hits the streets to celebrate, and all that energy comes together to form the world’s greatest party.
From the dazzling, colourful costumes and awe-inspiring floats of the Samba Parade to the vibrant street parties filled with euphoric party-goers and lively samba bands, Rio Carnival really is out of this world.
If you’re headed to the bright lights and glitz ‘n’ glam of Rio Carnival, read on to find out everything you need to know about this mind-blowing event.
Everything you need to know about Rio Carnival:
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The history of Rio Carnival
Dating as far back as the 17th century, Rio Carnival is a Catholic event by origin, although it is also thought to be rooted in European pagan traditions too. According to The Culture Trip, the Portuguese word carnaval is derived from the Latin carne vale, which translates to ‘goodbye flesh’, as the carnival was originally a food festival ending on Ash Wednesday - the start of Lent and the 40 days of deprivation that followed.
The carnival is said to be the result of a cultural clash of Portuguese and African culture, starting with the Portuguese bringing the festival (Entrudo) with them from Europe after colonising Brazil in the early 17th century. Grand balls and parties were held only for the elite Portuguese, but soon, Afro-Brazilians decided to hold parties of their own, playing African-inspired music and wearing fancy dress to mock the formal dress of the elite.
The two celebrations stayed separate for many years until the turn of the 20th century when the parties took to the streets. The festival was now an annual party, with musical styles and dancing merging over time. In 1917, this traditional dancing and music style was officially coined ‘samba’ and has been a core part of Brazil’s musical heritage ever since.
Carnival was being celebrated all over Brazil, but it was in Rio where the carnival we all know today started to take shape, as the first Samba schools were formed in the early 1920s. By the 1930s, samba schools were starting to compete, with the addition of parades and floats in a bid to be crowned the Carnival winners.
Facts about Rio Carnival
How many people go to Rio Carnival?
Today, Rio Carnival attracts 6 million participants, with 2 million people on the streets every day during the festivities. With roughly 1.5 million tourists joining in with the celebrations, it’s thought that the carnival brings in a fantastic 2.5 billion Brazilian Real (£5 million) in tourism revenue.
When is Rio Carnival?
Officially, Carnival runs from Friday night to noon on Ash Wednesday (which can fall anywhere between February 4th and March 10th), but that doesn’t stop locals and tourists partying from as early as January! The celebrations officially kick off when the mayor of Rio de Janeiro hands over the keys to the city to King Momo, a mythical figure said to lead the festivities, which this year, will happen on Friday 1st March 2019.
“Carnival is a fun experience, but it is also a unique cultural experience. Nowhere else in the world will you see such vibrant costumes, large street parties, and friendly people,” says travel blogger Bailey Busslinger from Destinationless Travel. From the exquisite costumes to the fired-up atmosphere, there really is nowhere better to party! It’s no wonder Rio Carnival is registered as the biggest carnival in the world in the Guinness Book of Records.
“The entire city of Rio de Janeiro during Carnival is electric! Almost all of the locals get time off work which means it is time to party, and Brazilians sure can party!” Says Bailey. Walking through the streets of Rio, you’re sure to find revellers dancing and celebrating in true Brazilian style, colourful fancy dress costumes in every direction and a wealth of pop-up bars, shops and food stalls.
Carnival street parties
Wandering further through the streets of Rio during Carnival, you’re sure to stumble across at least one of the 500 street parties happening at any one time. Also known as ‘blocos’, street parties are organised and planned in advance by dedicated groups, some of which have been around for several decades!
Each bloco has a theme and writes its own theme song for its samba band to play. Themes can range from wild and wacky to casual and family-orientated, even catering to those who are older or suffering from mental health problems. Anyone is welcome to join in with a street party’s festivities but deciding which one to join can be a tough choice.
Although each bloco can draw in a fair crowd, the largest is the Cordão Da Bola Preta (‘Big Cord of the Black Ball’) which takes place in the city centre on the Saturday of Carnival, drawing in about one million eager party-goers.
“At any one given time (even at 6 am) you will find at least one bloco where you can join in on the fun,” says Bailey. “Blocos often involve live music, dancing, dressing up, and of course some drinking!” Five days (or sometimes more) of partying is thirsty work, so much so that Brazilian drinks giant AMBEV estimates that 1.8 billion gallons of alcohol is sold over the duration of Carnival.
If you’re hoping to get dressed up alongside locals, Rafaela Medina from local Rio tour group Strawberry Tours recommends heading into the city centre. “Buy your carnival costume at the popular market located in the city centre. This is part of the tradition and with little money, it is possible to buy a nice costume and have fun with the locals. Glitter is mandatory! Prepare to shine during the five days of partying.”
Finding the best street parties At Rio Carnival
Although you’re likely to stumble across all kinds of blocos just by walking around the city, blogger Claire Sturzaker from Tales of a Backpacker recommends looking at the timetable of the main blocos over on the carnival website.
Rafaela also told us about her favourite street parties that are sure to impress, each having a very different theme!
Cordão do Boitatá
Looking to get involved with Brazil’s samba culture? Then Rafaela recommends attending the Cordão do Boitatá (‘Cord of the Boitatá’) bloco, which falls on the 24th March 2019.
“The Cordão do Boitatá was founded by both students and musicians in 1996 and can be found on the Praça XV square, in the centre of Rio. Even though it was not part of the official bloco program of the city, Boitatá was responsible for the revitalisation of the street carnival in Rio.
“Every year the bloco’s incredible performances attract thousands of people, which last for seven hours and always held on the Sunday.”
Desliga da Justiça
Lover of comic books and superheroes? Then this bloco is for you! Kicking off before the official celebrations on February 16th 2019, this bloco is not one to be missed.
“The super fun Desliga da Justiça (‘Justice Cut Off’) is superhero themed, even their musicians dress in superhero clothes! Get ready to see Batman, Wolverine, Wonder Woman and so many other comic book characters getting the crowd into the carnival spirit. The bloco is based in a pleasant plaza in the neighbourhood of Gávea, and it is very usual to see parents taking their children to watch the performance.”
Love the Beatles? Then Sargento Pimenta (which translates to ‘Sergeant Pepper’, as in the Beatles’ album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) should be at the top of your street party list, falling on the 25th January 2019.
“For those who think that the Carnival of Rio de Janeiro is restricted to samba, make no mistake!” Says Rafaela. “One of the most popular blocks in the city, Sargento Pimenta was founded in 2011 by fans of The Beatles. The bloco plays the biggest hits of the British band in carnival rhythm and draws in a huge crowd of Beatles’ fans that love to passionately sing along. Wear your mask of John Lennon, hire a yellow submarine and party the night away in Rio de Janeiro!”
The Samba Parade
One of the main events of Carnival is the highly anticipated Samba Parade, held in the city’s Sambadrome arena. “The Sambadrome is another place to find electric energy during Carnival,” says Bailey. “This is the official Samba competition. It goes on over several nights and is a ticketed event showcasing thousands of dancers all performing in extraordinary costumes.”
The competition is made up of 12 samba schools that practice all year to be crowned the winners of the carnival. Each school spends up to $4 million on outfits and preparations, with a grand total of 3,000 dancers, musicians and float operators. Most of those that take part in the parade are from local communities such as the favelas (slums), with each school presenting a different theme to entertain the 72,000 spectators in the arena (not counting those watching on television!)
Becky Moore, GlobalGrasshopper blogger, absolutely loved watching the Samba Parade. “Brazil’s most famous parade is a glitter-filled whirlwind of euphoria and there’s nothing else quite like it in the world. When the day finally arrives, the dancers adorn themselves with brilliantly colourful costumes that are truly mind-blowing.
“I personally think everyone should go at least once in their lifetime as it’s one of those bucket list events, especially for people who love to travel and experience other cultures. Dance, have fun and lose yourself in the music!”
Food and drink at Rio Carnival
As well as partying like a local, Claire from Tales of a Backpacker also gives us some advice for eating and drinking like a true Brazilian during Carnival.
“Brazilian food is delicious and varied. During Carnival, street food is king as everyone is outside joining the parties. You'll find street stalls selling barbecued meats, pão de queijo (delicious balls of cheesy bread), ‘pastels’ (deep-fried pastries) or ‘empadas’ (pies) which are filled with meat, cheese or shrimp. My favourites are ‘coxinha’, teardrop-shaped dumplings filled with shredded chicken or the ‘bolinho de bacalhau’ fried codfish balls.”
If you’d like to sit and enjoy a traditional Brazilian dish in a restaurant, Claire recommends booking ahead. “You may need to reserve a table, as Rio is busiest during this time of year. The city has some amazing restaurants and you can enjoy the all-you-can-eat Brazilian barbecues (rodizio), feijoada (black bean and meat stew) and moqueca seafood stew as well as plenty of regional Brazilian specialities. You can also find international restaurants of all types, including plenty of sushi which is very popular in Rio.”
Heading to the Sambadrome to watch the parade? Be careful not to take too much food and drink items in with you, says Claire. “You can take two 500ml plastic drinks containers (including alcohol if you wish) and two food items inside with you. There are also plenty of fast food stalls inside the Sambadrome, if you're going to party all night you will probably need to eat something while you're there!”
Tips for staying safe at Rio Carnival
Rio Carnival is the perfect excuse to let your hair down and dance the night away, but there are some safety tips to consider. Rafaela told us how to keep safe during the celebrations and ensure you enjoy yourself to the full.
“February and March are very hot and humid months with average temperatures of 35 degrees Celsius. Drink lots of water, coconut water or isotonic. The heat is strong, the party is good, and we often forget the fundamental: hydration.”
Only bring the essentials
Unfortunately, Rio Carnival is a great target for petty crime. Rafaela recommends that you “only bring a few accessories with you and, preferably, use belt bags for safekeeping. If you need to bring documents, take a copy with you and leave the original on the ship.
“Wear lightweight and comfortable clothes, sneakers, and make sure you protect yourself from the sun with caps/hats and sunscreens. In Rio de Janeiro, during the summer, the sun rises at 6 o'clock in the morning and only sets at 8 o'clock in the evening.”
Only buy bottled drinks
As you can’t verify your drinks will be safe, Rafael says to “avoid buying drinks such as caipirinhas or other drinks made with cachaça or vodka from street vendors. If you are buying something on the street, you may prefer pre-bottled drinks such as mineral water, beer or soft drinks”. Or if you’re able to, bring your own in a plastic bottle.
If you’d like more advice for keeping safe at Rio Carnival, Claire has put together a tourism safety guide here.
Want to attend the ‘World’s Biggest Party’? Check out our range of Azamara cruises that are sure to make Rio Carnival a celebration you’ll never forget.
Image credits: World Latin Entertainers; Cordão do Boitatá, Facebook; Desliga da Justiça, Facebook; Sargento Pimenta, Facebook