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For almost a month, Rio De Janeiro becomes one enormous party. This reaches a crescendo for the main 6 night of Carnaval - there are street parties that seem to go 24 hours a day and each evening tens of thousands converge on the Sambadrome to watch the samba schools compete against each other for the best floats, costumes, music and samba routine!
Carnaval dates back hundreds of years as a festival. In the last 100 years it has become increasingly about a celebration of samba dancing in addition to the huge celebrations.
Samba is a Brazilian style of music that has a lot of roots in Africa - via the slave trade. It has a rythym that is consistent throughout the songs and a familiar dance style. Samba dance schools will spend the entire year preparing choreographed routines in preparation for Carnaval.
Each school might have 5000 people involved (dancers, singers, musicians, choreographers) and their costumes can reach over USD3million! Each routine has a theme that is represented by the music & costumes. The dancers will perform for the entire length of the Sambadrome and it will take around 50minutes from the start to the end of the road. At the end of Carnaval, a Champion school will be crowned for that year.
Carnaval occurs every year in February before Lent. The dates for 2021 are 11th to 16th February. It is important to make plans and book well in advance as hotels and tickets to the Sambadrome get more expensive and booked out closer to the time.
If you come to Rio De Janeiro during Carnaval, it would be impossible not to notice it's happening.
If you drive around to certain places, there are different street parties going on and each neighbourhood has a distinct vibe to their street parties - from the trendy parties of Leblon to the more grungy sessions in Centro. It is definitely worth enjoying some of the street atmosphere, visiting the bars and spending time during the day at places like Copacabana & Ipanema to experience the atmosphere.
The main event of Carnaval happens each night at The Sambodrome - this is a drive outside the main areas. The best way to describe the Sambadrome is a long stretch of road with stadiums running either side. The samba dancers march down the middle and the crowd of 80,000 parties from the stands. The first school can often start marching around 9pm and the last one for that night will still be going when the sun is up!
There is a huge range of ticket options. You can have a party like atmosphere in the stands for quite cheap - from around USD20. The view of the dancer will be from further away. There are food and beverage outlets available and you can walk around areas where some of the dancers will be after they've performed. Tickets become more expensive the closer you get to the front, with options for private boxes and unlimited food & drink. Tickets to the boxes can range from USD200 to well over USD1000. You can purchase tickets online (via a broker), through agents and from places such as banks. Be sure wherever you are purchasing your tickets they are licensed by the only organising body LIESA. When you purchase your ticket, you will receive voucher which you will need to exchange for your physical ticket (often on the day).
We were lucky to be invited by Fairmont Rio to enjoy a night in their box, including access to the front row of the parade. The box was catered with food, drinks, entertainment and importably air conditioning. At anytime you are able to walk down to the section adjacent to the dancers and get a closer look. This is an incredible way to watch the parade up close and if it fits into your budget, its well worth the experience! Hotels such as Fairmont, put on several parties in boxes that are very well coordinated - including your tickets, tee-shirts that correspond to your box and transport to and from the Sambadrome.
There are also lots of small private parties that happen around Rio during Carnaval. If you know any locals are get invited to these parties its a great way to experience some of the authentic samba culture.
This is definitely the busiest time to visit Rio De Janeiro - so expect crowds. The streets around popular places like Ipanema and Copacabana have almost daily street parties. There is an incredible atmosphere around Rio - it is definitely not just a tourist event, with huge numbers of locals from Rio and all around Brazil celebrating Carnaval.
There are lots of accomodation options. I can thoroughly recommend Fairmont Rio - it is a great location on Copacabana and close to Ipanema. Importantly its quite easy to walk to these popular tourist places. The hotel has excellent F&B outlets, stunning pool and views across Copacabana to Sugar Loaf Mountain. Another great feature is the small private beach area with staff to watch over your belongings while you swim.
There are a great number of other things to do in Rio in addition to Carnaval. My top suggestions would include:
A constant question for people travelling to Rio is around safety. We were equally apprehensive and cautious before visiting the city, having heard lots of warnings about the crime. In our experience, the situation in Rio is similar to many other large cities in the world. Visitors should exercise caution and use common sense. There are absolutely areas of Rio that tourists simply shouldn't visit, especially the favelas. Being out alone at night in many areas isnt advisable. However, the great majority of places you will visit as a tourist are quite safe. There is definitely an element of petty crime, with lots of pick pockets in places like Copacabana Beach. So being careful with valuables is essential. It is very possible to arrange private guides or security if you wish. We used private car, Uber and metered taxis to get around and also felt walking around places like Ipanema, Leblon and Copacana was safe during the day.
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