Rio de Janeiro Carnaval: a guide to Brazil's biggest festival

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This is an excerpt from Lonely Planet's A Year of Festivals.

Location: Sambódromo, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Dates: culminating on Shrove Tuesday (Fat Tuesday), but beginning in earnest on the previous Saturday.

Level of participation: 1 – if you stick to the sidelines… but the spirit of Carnival may catch you, seduce you, and push the participatometer to 5 as you clamber to prime position in the parade.

Rio. Brazil. Carnaval.'Êxtase' by Leandro's World TourCreative Commons Attribution

In the former Portuguese colony of Brazil, Carnaval starts on Saturday and finishes on Fat Tuesday. In Rio de Janeiro, Indian costumes and African beats were incorporated into the celebrations in a rebellious show of indigenous identity. Today, the anticipation of Carnaval fills the air months before the actual event. A key feature here is the Brazilian bandas – street parties guided by drummers and singers through the streets of Rio and tailed by whoever wants to dance behind them. Some bandas require you to wear the right colours, others demand fancy (or cross) dress. Some simply sell you a T-shirt and welcome you along for the ride. No matter what shape, size and style of banda you boogie behind, they all lead to the heart of Carnaval. There are also lavish Carnaval Balls; glitzy, glamorous, outlandish, erotic – and a sure way to rub the bare or bedazzling shoulders of the in-crowd. The climax of Carnaval is the samba parade – the parade to end all parades. The Sambódromo becomes the world’s longest and most outrageous runway in the world, flanked by stands from which thousands of people are conducted into reverie by the dancers and drummers who hold Rio hostage over two nights.

The 14 best samba schools in Rio are each given the opportunity to show what they’re made of. Some schools are cutting-edge samba-suave, some are connected with crime syndicates and some are open to travellers who may be passing through town and are prepared to rehearse for weeks, master a theme song, buy an outlandish costume and wear it in front of tens of thousands of people. Come zero hour and the nervous energy backstage is channelled into mass focus, with the single goal of putting on the best samba spectacular that Rio has ever seen.

Each school is escorted by 200 to 400 drummers, who beat a pulse that connects the dancers with the cheering crowds. Every person in every school gives their all – the children’s wing shows what it’s learnt, the sub-wings show how far they’ve come, the best of the best become even better. Each individual battle is choreographed to form part of a bigger picture … and all under the gaze of the all-powerful judges, who must decide who brought the most to Carnaval: who had the moves, who had the look, who had the lyrics, who had the heart? And the winner is…the pride of Brazil.

Essentials: if you want to get close to the Rio action, you’ll need tickets. If you miss out, try going to Sambódromo a few hours into the show to buy discounted grandstand tickets from a scalper.

More info: www.rio-carnival.net

See more festivals in February here.

This article was first published in December 2010 and was republished in January 2013.