Like many people I thought Carnival in Rio de Janeiro in Brasil was just one giant party over 5 days. In fact, Carnival in Rio consists of a number of different events (samba parades, balls, and blocos). Here are my top tips for Carnival in Rio if you are thinking of going to the greatest party on Earth in the future.
Main Carnival Events
There are four days of samba school parades at the Sambadrome, followed by the choosing of a winner and 9 runners-up who will strut their stuff in the Champions’ parade at the Sambadrome the following weekend.
There are also balls in the tradition of Venetian balls. The Copacabana Palace’s legendary Magic Ball has a full-blown red carpet entrance which my friends arrived in time to watch. The other balls are neither particularly pricey nor exclusive. For example, the Scala ball happens every night of Carnival. The Gay Gala ball is so famous that it is broadcast to the rest of Brasil.
There are lots of blocos (street parties) around the city spread out over mainly the 5 days. For Carnival 2016, there were 505 official licensed blocos and countless other spontaneous street parties. Not all the streets were busy at all times. The city lists the official blocos and everyone is welcome to attend.
Top Tips for Carnival in Rio
Dressing Up for Carnival
If you are going to carnival in Rio, you simply have to get dressed up. The outfits fall into distinct categories. The women wear something skimpy and dress up with accessories. For men, anything goes but there’s a lot of cross-dressing. Children like to wear Disney or movie costumes.
If you are going to get to Carnival in Rio, expect to get dirty. The streets can get muddy, beer can get spilled and garbage cans overflow. Don’t wear clothes or shoes you care too much for. On the other hand, I was surprised by how quickly the city cleaned up after itself for the next day’s festivities.
The Carnival Atmosphere
Everyone we met seemed to like having their photo taken. Not only do they enthusiastically agree if you ask to take their photo, they will occasionally ask you to take their photo. Entire sidewalks will be full of people taking selfies.
People like to to drink and party. We, however, did not see violence. With the party atmosphere and the free-flowing beer, if Rio’s carnival took place in Britain, you know fights would have broken out, people glassed and the ambulances would be out in full force.
You should, however, be careful with your belongings as pickpocketing is common. My friend saw a chain being snatched off someone’s neck right in front of her face.
We wore our money in those traveller pockets that strap around your body under our shirts. Other people wore belt bags that they wore with a shirt untucked over the top. Frankly, not flashing your cash and keeping your money on your person is a good general tip for visiting Brazil anytime of year!
We kept small bills that were easily accessible for buying drinks, snacks or souvenirs in our pockets. Women tucked their phone into their bras. Men who weren’t cross-dressing tucked their phones into their speedos. Yeah really.
Everybody wants to be your new friend. Brasilians are friendly and no more so than during Carnival. I had any number of people warn me to be careful with my camera. I didn’t have my expensive DSLR but the Olympus mirrorless camera I bought in Japan. It was still relatively flashy.
Brasilian time is flexible. Don’t expect things to start on time. Don’t worry about being late for anything. If you are going to carnival in Rio, the mantra “don’t worry, be happy” could not be more applicable.
It’s a public holiday from Friday evening until noon on Ash Wednesday. The banks are not only closed but the doors to the ATM’s in the foyers are locked to prevent vandalism. Some of the shopping centers have ATM’s that work but they do run out of money by Saturday or Sunday.
Tip: Make sure you have enough cash before the bank holiday starts. You can change foreign currency at the airport even during the bank holiday.
Getting a taxi during peak carnival times can be difficult. Taxi drivers need to party, too! Streets get closed randomly and routes rerouted for the blocos.
The parties mostly start in the late afternoon and run into the wee hours of the morning. Most people are probably sleeping off hangovers during the fierce daytime heat. If not, they are baking on the beach.
Tip: February is the hottest month in Brasil. Be prepared to stay hydrated and to wear sun protection. The humidity will also make you wilt, and not in the glamorous way the Cariocas do.
Everything in Rio gets more expensive for Carnival. They know they have you by the party whistles so there is nothing you can do about prices.
Carnival with Children
We took our children to Carnival because we went with friends who also took their children. Our friends also brought their nanny with them which was handy for sending the children back to the apartment relatively early around 9pm – before the real partying starts!
The children really enjoyed the Children’s Bloco as well as seeing the samba schools perform at the Sambadrome. For children, there are also the children’s samba school parades on the tuesday (Fat Tuesday) which is free to attend at the Sambadrome.
We saw lots of families with kids (both locals and tourist) out and about during the day. It’s really your judgment call on whether you think your child is able to handle the crowds and noise of carnival festivities. The issue wouldn’t be safety so much as the intensity of the experience.