As the plane took off at 9am, no one was speaking anymore. A little bit later when we were fully in the air, I realised it was completely quiet, the lights had gone off and everyone was fast asleep. Had we been collectively drugged?
Not at all – we were all just coming back from Carnaval! I had spent the last five days in Rio, with a party every day. By looking around me on the plane, I realised I mustn’t have been the only one. And with Rio being the capital of carnaval, this made sense.
Carnaval in Rio is different from carnaval in some other Brazilian cities, such as Salvador. Rio has a lot of street parties, called blocos or bloquinhos for smaller ones. Other cities have those too, but may charge a fee. The blocos in Rio are free of charge and usually move from one place to another, whereas in Salvador, they often stay in the same place and you need to pay to get in (so I’ve heard). Although there are mega blocos in Rio (the largest ones host up to 3 million people!), there are many many smaller ones, always with live music and good vibes. They are usually announced ahead (so you can google it), but to find the best ones, you need to be in the scene. Make some local friends when you go next year and ask them for tips. Sometimes a bloco is organised spontaneously (I assume without an official permission) that is only known to a bunch of people – on my last night, I ended up at a tiny cute bloquinho on the beach in Lagao, with a live band and 200 people at most. It was the perfect party to end my stay in Rio.
But as you might know, Rio is best known for its samba carnaval parade, which is the absolute highlight of Brazilian carnaval every year. Every year for four days, different samba schools from Rio participate in this competition and put up their show. Every school decides on a new theme every year and is then being judged for its performance: the drummers, the song, the clothes, the dances, everything. They have about 80 minutes to perform their entire show (which consists of hundreds of people on carts and on foot!), and by then they need to have made it to the other side of the Sambódromo, which has a rectangular shape.
This highlight of the year is broadcast live on national television and many (including tourists) go to the Sambódromo to watch the shows. The first two days (Friday + Saturday) are for the lesser known schools and the last two days (Sunday + Monday) for the top schools; making tickets for the latter much more expensive. But did you know you could also participate in the event?!
I sure didn’t before moving to Brazil! When I found out about this, I made the arrangements right away. How cool would it be to participate in this major event? Well, pretty cool I can say now. Before knowing about this, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to visit the show – it seemed pretty boring, to sit and watch samba parades the entire evening. But joining a school is definitely a different thing and I’m seriously considering it again for next year!
The school had made the costumes for us (which we were allowed to keep) and we simply had to meet them a few hours before starting the parade. We were put on one of the carts, and that was it. There was no rehearsing of the song or of the dances; yes, this was definitely a Saturday school 😉 But as we entered the Sambódromo, I was so impressed. There were so many people watching us, the dancers in front and behind us did an amazing job, and when we passed the group of drummers in the middle, the energy was exploding. This was so much fun! Before I knew it, our job was done and we had reached the end of the Sambódromo. I had also never seen anything this organised in Brazil (apparently it’s a joke here, the only time Brazilians can organise themselves is during carnaval).
If I won’t participate in a show next year, I’ll definitely go watch the top schools on Sunday or Monday. I was already impressed with ‘my’ school, but watching the top schools on tv, I realised that’s really another level.
Thinking of going to Rio for carnaval next year? Seriously consider joining the parade, although you need some Portuguese or a local friend to arrange this. If that’s not an option, combine the show on Sunday or Monday with a variety of blocos, to get the best carnaval experience!
STAY SAFE! Carnaval this year was characterised by a wave of violence and criminality. Staying safe should be your number one priority. Take taxis or Ubers if you need to change location in Centro or Lapa, or in areas where there are not a lot of people on the street in Ipanema and Copacabana. Luckily, I didn’t encounter anything (well, except for that one man who tried to hit me!), but this year’s carnaval was pretty bad, despite the already increased security.
Don’t bring a bag or any valuables (except for your phone). I carried a fanny pack under my clothes, which had my phone, a debit card and at most 100 reais. I barely saw girls with a bag, and for good reason: I’ve heard stories from friends who got robbed during carnaval. You’re a much easier target with a bag.
Rent an Airb&b, not a hotel room. It’s much cheaper and you have more freedom! Ours was one block away from the ocean in Copacabana.
Smaller blocos are usually announced on Facebook, so get into that scene.
I expected some sort of King’s Day (national day in the Netherlands) vibe, with thousands of people everywhere, but it wasn’t like that. Places where there are blocos are very crowded during carnaval, but if nothing is going on, it’s just the usual high season weekend day (the beaches were full).
For the girls (something I was worried about): you can usually go to the toilet of the bars next to the blocos, you just have to pay 2 reais, so bring some change.
Dress up! Fancy dress – or at least some fun items – is a must. Bring glitters, a headband with flowers or feathers, etc. with you or buy them in Rio.
Give yourself enough days to enjoy carnaval in Rio – there is so much to do. I stayed for five days but I know people who partied for nearly two weeks.