If you haven't heard by now, Rio throws one of the world's best parties, with music and dancing filling the streets for days on end. Officially, Carnaval is just five days of revelry – from the Friday to the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday – but the city begins partying months in advance.
Need to Know
Carnival Dates 2020–22
- Carnaval 2020 February 21–25
- Carnaval 2021 February 12–16
- Carnaval 2022 February 25–March 1
Although the exact origins of Carnaval are shrouded in mystery, some believe the festival originated as a pagan celebration of spring's arrival some time during the Middle Ages. The Portuguese brought the celebration to Brazil in the 1500s, but it took on a decidedly local flavor by adopting indigenous costumes and African rhythms. The origin of the word itself probably derives from the Latin 'carne vale' – 'farewell, meat' – whereby the Catholic population would give up meat and other fleshly temptations during the 40 days of Lent.
The first festivals in Rio de Janeiro were called entrudo, during which locals danced through the streets in colorful costumes, throwing mud, flour and various suspect liquids at one another. In the 19th century Carnaval meant attending a lavish masked ball or participating in the orderly and rather vapid European-style parade. Rio's poor citizens, bored by the finery but eager to participate in a celebration, began holding their own parades, dancing through the streets to African-based rhythms. Then, in the 1920s, the new sound of samba emerged in Rio. It was music full of African flavors, brought to the city by former slaves and their descendants – a sound that would forever more be associated with Carnaval.
Since those days Carnaval has grown in leaps and bounds, and its elaborate parades have spread from Rio de Janeiro to other parts of Brazil. It has also become a huge commercial enterprise: visitors to the city spend in excess of R$1 billion each year.
Samba School Parades
The highlight of any Carnaval experience is attending (or participating in) a parade at the Sambódromo. There, before a crowd of some 90,000 (with millions more watching on TV), each of 12 samba schools has its 80 minutes to dance and sing through the open Oscar Niemeyer–designed stadium. The pageantry is not simply eye candy for the masses. Schools are competing for top honors in the parade, with winners announced (and a winners' parade held) on the Saturday following Carnaval.
The Big Event
Here's what to expect: each school enters the Sambódromo with amped energy levels, and dancers take things up a notch as they move through the stadium. Announcers introduce the school, the group's theme colors and the number of alas (literally, wings – subgroups within a school, each playing a different role). Far away the lone voice of the puxador (interpreter) starts the samba. Thousands more voices join him (each school has 3000 to 5000 members), and then the drummers kick in: 200 to 400 per school. The pounding drums drive the parade. Next come the main wings of the school, the big allegorical floats, the children's wing, the drummers, the celebrities, and the bell-shaped baianas (women dressed as Bahian aunts) twirling in elegant hoop skirts. The baianas honor the history of the parade itself, which was brought to Rio from Salvador da Bahia in 1877. Costumes are fabulously lavish, with 1.5m feathered headdresses; long, flowing capes that sparkle with sequins; and rhinestone-studded G-strings.
Crowning a Winner
The whole procession is an elaborate competition. A handpicked set of judges chooses the best school on the basis of many components, including percussion; the samba do enredo (theme song); harmony between percussion, song and dance; and choreography, costumes, story line, floats and decorations. The dance championship is hotly contested, with the winner becoming the pride not just of Rio but of all Brazil.
Most visitors stay for three or four schools, and come to see their favorite in action (every self-respecting carioca has a school they support, just as they have a favorite football team). If you're really gung-ho, wear your school's colors and learn the theme song (the words are found on the website of each school), so you can sing along when it marches through the Sambódromo. Mangueira (pink and green) and Salgueiro (red and white) are two of the most popular schools.
The Sambódromo parades start with the mirins (young samba-school members) on the evening of Carnaval Friday, and continue on through Saturday night, when the Group A samba schools strut their stuff. Sunday and Monday are the big nights, when the 12 best samba schools in Rio (the Grupo Especial) parade: six of them on Sunday night and into the morning, and six more on Monday night. The following Saturday, the six top schools strut their stuff again in the Parade of Champions, which generally has more affordable tickets than the big nights do. Each event starts at 9pm and runs until 4am.
Getting tickets for the parades at legitimate prices can be tough, even for locals. LIESA, the official samba school league, begins selling tickets in December or January, most of which are immediately snatched up by travel agencies and then later resold at higher prices. Check with Riotur (www.visit.rio) about where you can get tickets, as the official outlet can vary from year to year.
Prices At face value, tickets run from R$150 to R$500, though you'll probably have to pay about twice that (or more) if you buy just before Carnaval.
Where to sit The best seating areas, in order of preference, are sectors 9, 7, 11, 5 and 3. The first two (9 and 7) have great views and are in the center, which is the liveliest place to be.
Last-minute options By Carnaval weekend, most tickets will have sold out, but there are lots of scalpers. If you buy a ticket from a scalper (no need to worry about looking for them – they'll find you!), make sure you get both the plastic ticket with the magnetic strip and the ticket showing the seat number. The tickets for different days are color coded, so double-check the date as well.
If you haven't purchased a ticket but still want to go, you can show up at the Sambódromo during Carnaval at around midnight, three or four hours into the show, when you can get grandstand tickets for about R$50 from scalpers outside the gate. Make sure you check which sector your ticket is for. Most ticket sellers will try to sell their worst seats.
And if you can't make it during Carnaval proper, there's always the cheaper Parade of Champions the following Saturday.
Getting to the Sambódromo
The best way to get to the Sambódromo is by metro; several stations are within walking distance of the arena. The metro runs around the clock during Carnaval, from Saturday morning until Tuesday evening. This is also a great opportunity to check out the paraders commuting in costume.
If you take the metro, the stop at which you get off depends on the location of your seats. For sectors 2, 4 and 6, exit at Praça Onze. Once outside the station, turn to the right, take another right and then walk straight ahead on Júlio Carmo to sector 2. For sectors 4 and 6, turn right at Carmo Neto and proceed to Av Salvador de Sá. You'll soon see the Sambódromo and hear the roar of the crowd. Look for signs showing the entrance to the sectors. If you are going to sectors on the other side (1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11 and 13), exit at metro stop Central. You'll then walk about 700m along Av Presidente Vargas until you see the Sambódromo.
If you go by taxi, make sure you tell your driver which side of the stadium your seats are on.
Joining a Samba School
Those who have done it say no other part of Carnaval quite compares to donning a costume and dancing through the Sambódromo before roaring crowds. Anyone with the desire and a little extra money to spare can march in the parade. Most samba schools are happy to have foreigners join one of the wings. To get the ball rolling, you'll need to contact your chosen school in advance; it will tell you the rehearsal times and when you need to be in the city (usually it's a week or so before Carnaval). Ideally, you should memorize the theme song as well, but it's not essential (you can always lip sync). The biggest investment, aside from the airfare to Rio, is buying a fantasia (costume), which will cost upwards of R$600. If you speak some Portuguese, you can contact a school directly; many Rio travel agencies can also arrange this.
Those seeking an insider's perspective on samba schools should read Alma Guillermoprieto's excellent book, Samba.
Lapa becomes one of the city's major focal points during Carnaval. Rio Folia consists of open-air concerts held in front of the Arcos da Lapa on the Praça Cardeal Câmara. About half a dozen bands play each night (samba, of course). The music starts at 10pm and runs until after 2am, though revelers pack Lapa until well past sunrise.
Samba Land & Samba City
Another festive space for concerts is the Terreirão do Samba (Samba Land), an open-air courtyard next to the Sambódromo's sector 1, where bands play to large crowds throughout Carnaval (beginning the weekend before). There are also dozens of food and drink vendors. The action starts around 8pm and continues until 5:30am. Admission is R$15.
For a behind-the-scenes look at Carnaval, plan a visit to Cidade do Samba. Located north of Centro near the port, the 'samba city' is actually made up of 14 large buildings in which the top schools assemble the Carnaval floats.
Visitors can take a tour through the area or attend a live show, which features costumed dancers, live music and audience participation, and comes with free drinks and appetizers. It's touristy and pricey, but some visitors enjoy the Carnaval-style show nonetheless. Confirm times and prices with Cidade do Samba, or check with Riotur.
Samba Glossary for Parade-goers
Alas Literally the 'wings.' These are groups of samba-school members responsible for a specific part of the central samba do enredo (theme song). Special alas include the baianas (women dressed as Bahian aunts in full skirts and turbans). The abre ala of each school is the opening wing or float.
Bateria The drum section is the driving beat behind the school's samba and is the 'soul' of the school.
Carnavalesco The artistic director of each school, responsible for the overall layout and design of the school's theme.
Carros alegóricos The dazzling floats, usually decorated with near-naked women. The floats are pushed along by the school's maintenance crew.
Desfile The parade. The most important samba schools desfilar (parade) on the Sunday and Monday night of Carnaval. Each school's desfile is judged on its samba, drum section, master of ceremonies and flag bearer, floats, leading commission, costumes, dance coordination and overall harmony.
Destaques The richest and most elaborate costumes. The heaviest ones usually get a spot on one of the floats.
Diretores de harmonia The school organizers, who usually wear white or the school colors; they run around yelling and 'pumping up' the wings, making sure there aren't any gaps in the parade.
Enredo The central theme of each school. The samba do enredo is the samba that goes with it. Radio stations and dance halls prime cariocas with classic enredos in the weeks leading up to Carnaval.
Passistas The best samba dancers of a school. They roam the parade in groups or alone, stopping to show off some fancy footwork along the way. The women are usually dressed in short, revealing skirts, and the men usually hold tambourines.
Puxador The interpreter of the theme song. He (a puxador is invariably male) works as a guiding voice, leading the school's singers at rehearsals and in the parade.