The World's Greatest Party: Rio Carnival

Eleanor Hughes


What is often referred to as the greatest party on earth, Rio Carnival is amazing. The five day celebration occurs annually in the week leading up to Lent, seven Sundays before Easter Sunday. While Antarctica and Brahma beer may flow, the atmosphere is friendly and fun.

History of Carnival

Masked and costumed carnivals were originally held across Europe and were introduced to Brazil in 1723 by Portuguese immigrants. The celebrations evolved in the 19th Century into organised parades. In the mid-19th Century horse-drawn floats were used and in 1917, samba, originating from the African slaves, became part of the festivities. Held in the streets of Rio de Janeiro, by 1933 samba schools were parading and competitions held. Parades were transferred to the purpose-built Sambadrome in 1984.


The Sambadrome is a 700-metre runway with stadium-style seating along both sides, occupying what was once a main road. Seating 90,000, in thirteen sectors, Sector 9 is known as the tourist sector with more expensive, numbered seating, but according to some, less atmosphere. Sector seating ranges from plastic seats to concrete bleachers to cushioned sofas. VIP boxes and lounges with bars and buffets are also available. Sectors 7 and 8 are considered to have the best views, Sector 8 being closest to the majority of judges where schools put on their best show. Sector 13, the cheapest, is set back a little from the runway at the very end. There is therefore an 80 minute wait until the first parade participants reach the location. Screens on the side of Sector 11 however, give close-up views of what is occurring, and Sector 13 patrons, many of whom are locals, will be dancing long before the parade is in front of them.

The top twelve schools perform on the Sunday and Monday nights, six each night. These are the most expensive nights to attend with prices increasing the closer to the date, so buy well in advance.

The Sambadrome parade, like a wildly imaginative storybook exploding into life, begins at 9p.m. and finishes around 5 - 6a.m. Each school has a theme which entails around 2,500 – 4,500 outlandishly dressed participants swirling, sambaing and stomping along with 5 - 8 jaw-dropping floats that require cherry-pickers to remove performers from. It’s a full-on assault of the ears and eyes.

The Sambadrome is easily reached by Metro, the closest stops Central or Praca Onze stations depending on which end of the Sambadrome you’re headed. VIP tickets offer transportation to and from two meeting points.

Join the Sambadrome Parade

Want to experience a little more than just watching the parade?

Tourists can join the ‘alas’, or wings, which help tell the school’s story, with all participants wearing the same costumes. Don’t know how to samba? You’ll be shown. It’s hot, sweaty work, dancing for around one kilometre in the 65 to 80 minutes the school parades. Participants are required to be at the Sambadrome two hours before the parade begins and once they’ve performed they need to leave, or otherwise have purchased a sector ticket. Costumes, which participants keep possession of, are delivered to hotels beforehand. It’s costly, in the vicinity of US$800. But how many people do you know can say they’ve paraded at the Sambadrome?

Carnival Balls

The most elite ball, the Magic Ball is held at the Copacabana Palace Hotel and is a red carpet event attended by the rich and famous. Tickets are available but you’ll need plenty of money.

The balls held at Scala Rio Nightclub are cheaper. One of the most popular events, the Gay Gala Ball is televised nationwide. Straight men and women aren’t discriminated against, just make sure to wear an outlandish costume. 

Street Parties (Blocos)

Blocos were dreamed up in the late 19th Century. There’s singing, samba music and dancing in the streets at all hours, with thousands of revellers in party mood attending the 400-odd parties. In the vicinity of 100,000 attend the Copacabana beach bloco. Local papers and hotels provide information about parties but beware, some are in unsafe areas. Crowds can be a little overwhelming. Get caught up in one and you are swept along. Once parties have finished or moved on, authorities are quick to clean the debris up. 

Sights to see When Not Partying

Of course, there’s more to Rio de Janiero than Carnival, just be prepared to possibly queue to see the sights at this busy time. The Metro can resemble a tropical hothouse with stations sometimes closed due to overcrowding.

For views of the city, hike, tcable car, or even rock climb up Sugar Loaf Mountain. Below the harbour shimmers blue, see the long golden sand stretches of Copacabana Beach and green mountains dotted throughout the city with white skyscrapers nestled between. Situated near the small beach of Praia Vermelha, cable cars run from 8a.m. to 9p.m. Food and drink are available at the summit. You can even buy a pair of Havaianas there!

Christ the Redeemer, 30 metres tall, has overlooked Rio since 1931 and can be seen from much of the city. Official vans leave from three points to transport sightseers - Praca do Lido in Copacabana, next to the metro at Lago do Machado and Città America in Barra da Tijuca. A train, located at Trem do Corcovado station at the base of the Corcovado peak, travels through rainforest to reach the statue.

To learn about the favelas, shanty towns, take a tour led by someone who actually lives in one. Rocinha, one of the most well-known, occupies city hills with spectacular views. A warren of homes built upon homes, narrow twisting body-width alleys and stairs between, tours are educational and give an insight into occupant’s lives.

Ipanema and Copacabana beaches are normally a sea of sun umbrellas during Carnival. It’s difficult to find a patch of sand. There are changing facilities and lockers to keep valuables safe. Beach sellers ply drinks, including cocktails, and food. Both beaches are easily reached by Metro on which locals travel with chiller boxes and beach umbrellas.

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