About This Festival
Carnival in Rio has earned its reputation as the world’s most famous dance party, when all matters serious come to a halt during the five days leading up to Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. Attending Carnival is the ultimate rite of passage for global festival lovers. Go, and you’ll understand why the Cariocas (Rio’s enthusiastic locals) affectionately refer to it as “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
Rio Carnival - Party Like a Pagan
Those old world pagans sure knew how to translate religion into party. In Catholic Europe beginning in the Middle Ages, all decadent food and drink had to be consumed prior to Lent to remove temptation during the 40-day period of fasting leading up to Easter (Carnival period begins on the Saturday before Lent and ends on Shrove Tuesday, also called Fat Tuesday). Historically, winter supplies were emptied in an all-out, gluttonous feast of the flesh to welcome the spring. As these traditions migrated to the Portuguese colony of Brazil, Rio Carnival transformed into something new. While the reformations and Inquisition attempted to sweep Europe of sin and tamed the wild feasts, the church could not contain what had developed in the Southern Hemisphere.
Getting Schooled in Samba
In Brazil, Catholic rituals collided with African tribal beats and Native American traditional dress to produce a hedonistic, sensual romp where creativity is expressed through dance, movement and music. Samba, the cultural heartbeat of Brazil, is a Bahia-born dance form that is fully on parade during Carnival.
More than 200 samba schools call Rio home. Colorful costumes, uninhibited dancing, parades and wild partying fill the streets. During Carnival, you can expect to find upwards of two million revelers in the streets every day. The most famous parade takes place at the Sambodromo, designed by architect Oscar Niemeyer, with more than 70,000 enchanted spectators lining the route for the Samba Parade, where samba schools compete like there’s no tomorrow. The official parades take to the streets Friday through Monday, with the biggest and brightest on Saturday and Sunday nights. Schools can have enormous floats, over 400 drummers and even more rhinestone-studded g-strings. One samba school could have more than 5,000 performers! The flamboyant costumes are inspired by Native South American traditional feathered headdresses with a notable lack of much other material to allow for hip-shaking freedom.
Gender-Bending and Color-Coordinating
One of the best and most accessible ways to celebrate Carnival is by attending a bloco or banda (street parties). It’s basically a band of drummers leading a free dance party in the streets for all who want to join in. A leader orchestrates the bunch, much like a Brazilian Pied Piper with drums. It’s a come one, come all dance-off and as memorable as the samba parades. The blocos are the party of the people. According to police estimates, in 2012 one bloco reached more than 5 million participants. The Banda de Ipanemais especially famous, with a very lively crowd complete with drag queens and costumed dancers. Rio Carnival is considered the largest gathering of transvestites in the world, so be prepared for gender illusionists (Carmen Miranda is the patron saint of this contingent). Just know that some street parties are color-coordinated and may require you to purchase a t-shirt or special color to assure that you’re part of the temporary tribe.
Have a Ball
The most elegant and upscale of the Rio events are the Carnival balls. The most famous are the Copacabana Magic and Scala balls. The Copacabana Magic Ball is the most glamorous, attracting the celebrities of Rio (though behind the masks and makeup you might never know it). You should dress to impress with tuxedos for men and ball gowns for women. It’s a sensual affair that goes well into the night — the vibe is definitely sexy. You should get a standing ticket instead of a table because that way you’ll meet more characters, which is what a party like this is all about.
Carnival Outside Rio
While Rio Carnival is the most famous in Brazil, Carnival celebrations occur all over the country. Salvador de Bahia (where Samba was invented and the original home of the competitions) throws a particularly energetic one. If you happen to meet anyone from Bahia they will be sure to let you know where the best Carnival is (and it’s not Rio). Olinda and Recife have a particularly charming day and night Carnival respectively. The Olinda Carnival occurs in the World Heritage old town. It’s almost a completely daytime party, which is unusual for Brazil. Almost two million people attend each year. Another of the famous Carnivals is the Paraty Mud Carnival or the “Bloco de Lamas” to the south where “mud people” dance in the streets. It’s one of the more photogenic and perhaps bizarre celebrations. For those who can’t travel far, you may be lucky. In many communities with large Latin-influenced populations, you can find a Carnival celebration in your own backyard.