Carnaval, Carioca style

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One of the world’s largest parties, Carnaval – in all its colorful, hedonistic bacchanalia – is virtually synonymous with Rio de Janeiro. While the revelry officially spans five days, from the Friday to the Tuesday preceding Ash Wednesday, Cariocas (Rio residents) begin their pre-Carnaval festivities months in advance. Thinking of joining the fun? Best to start planning early, as accommodation and reasonably-priced tickets to the world-famous Sambódromo parades get snapped up well ahead of the event. Mark it in your diary now, party people: next year's Carnaval starts on Friday, 12 February.

It's no surprise that much of Rio Carnaval's focus is on the colorful parades held in the Oscar Niemeyer-designed Sambódromo. Before an exuberant, 30,000-strong crowd, 14 samba schools have their moment (actually 75 minutes each) to dazzle audiences with giant mechanized floats surrounded by thousands of twirling dancers and heart-pounding drummers. All are competing for top honors in the annual competition; the parades begin in moderate mayhem and work themselves up to a higher plane of frenzy. Although undeniably spectacular, events in the Sambódromo are, for many Cariocas, just a small part of the celebration. There's quite a lot happening elsewhere around town - and it's much more participatory if you don't happen to be marching in the parade.

Dancing in the streets

One of the best ways to whoop it up with Cariocas is to join the bandas happening all over town in the days leading up to Carnaval. Bandas (also called blocos) are processions of drummers, vocalists and other assorted musicians, followed by anyone who wants to sing and dance through the streets. Samba, with its infectious and highly danceable beats, is the music of choice. There are drink sellers who accompany the group along the way - meaning you'll never go thirsty for ice-cold cerveja (beer) or caipirinhas (Brazil's signature cocktail of crushed limes, sugar and cachaça).

One of the most popular bandas is the Banda de Ipanema, which attracts a wildly diverse crowd complete with drag queens, fairy princesses, giant baby dolls and bare-skinned barbarians. All gather in the beachside neighborhood for some early afternoon revelry. This one has been around since the 1960s and is a longtime Carioca favorite. The party begins on Praça General Osório in Ipanema at 4pm on the Saturday.

For a different scene, head to the bohemian enclave of Santa Teresa, home to the Bloco das Carmelitas. Named after the nearby Carmelite convent, this bloco encourages participants to dress up as nuns - preferably in bright yellow habits. It's highly rated by Cariocas, and it's good fun to party along the cobbled streets of one of Rio's most enchanting neighborhoods. It happens on the Ladeira de Santa Teresa (take the second tram stop in Santa Teresa) at 6pm on the Friday.

Other free and democratic events happening about town include the nightly concerts on Praça Floriano in Centro (5pm-3am every night) and the nonstop party scene in Lapa - free concerts and much merry making at the Rio Folia (held in front of the Arcos de Lapa, every night from 8pm onwards). Nearby are some of Rio's best samba clubs, including Carioca da Gema, Democráticus and Rio Scenarium, which throw special Carnaval parties and are all photogenic places to catch the local music and dance scene.

Join the parade

The big parades take place on the Sunday and Monday, starting at 9pm and ending just after dawn. Most Cariocas have a favorite school with particular colors (like pink and green for the ever-popular Mangueira samba school). Tickets can be purchased from travel agents after you arrive in town and cost US$50 and up. If you prefer participation over observation, why not sign up and join the parade? All it takes is cash for your costume and a willingness to strut your stuff among other costumed dancers before an enormous audience (and that's before you consider the million or so watching on TV!). There are numerous websites (like www.rio-carnival.net) where you can buy a costume online. Many hotels and travel agents in Rio can also make the arrangements if you let them know you're interested. Costumes run from US$300 to US$700.

Where to stow your bags

There are other options besides hotels. Good rental agencies (www.rioapartments.com and www.BlameItonRio4Travel.com) have extensive lists of one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments, and they can usually scrounge you up something in a hurry if you've left it til the last minute. Rio also has a growing number of hostels if you're traveling on a shoestring (try www.hostels.com). If you show up without a reservation, head over to the city's main tourist office, Riotur, where staff can call around for you and help you get a room.

Want to know more about Brazil's biggest, best and most beloved shindig? Check out Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree forum for tips and advice from travelers who've partied at Carnaval and lived to tell the tale...