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Ah, Carnaval. The name evokes explosive images of colorful costumes, lavish floats, swarming masses, and last-minute debauchery before the sober Lenten season begins. Though it may look like sheer entertainment, Carnaval means hard work and dedication for many Cariocas; to some, it's a full-time job.

What's It All About?

The religious aspect of the celebration faded some time ago, but Carnaval's date is still determined by the ecclesiastical calendar, officially occupying only the 4 days immediately preceding Ash Wednesday. With typical ingenuity and panache, however, Cariocas have managed to stretch the party into an event lasting several months, culminating in the all-night feast of color and sound that is the Samba School Parade, where tens of thousands of costumed dancers, thousands of percussionists, and hundreds of gorgeous performers atop dozens of floats all move in choreographed harmony to the nonstop rhythm of samba.

If you're not able to attend Carnaval itself, rehearsals -- which usually start in mid-September or early October -- are an absolute must, and the closest you'll get to the real thing. Even if you are in town for Carnaval, attending a rehearsal will give you a great appreciation of the logistics involved in putting together the parade, plus you'll learn all the words and dance moves.

In the 2 weeks leading up to the big event, you'll begin to see the blocos. These are community groups -- usually associated with a particular neighborhood or sometimes with a bar -- who go around the neighborhood, playing music and singing and dancing through the streets. Their instruments and costumes easily identify the official bloco members, but everyone is welcome and encouraged to follow along and add to the merriment. A number of blocos are so well known that they draw throngs of followers in the tens of thousands. The Banda de Carmen Miranda in Ipanema with its extravagant drag queens is a hoot.

Carnaval finally kicks off on the Friday before Ash Wednesday with an explosion of lavish balls (bailes). Originally the bailes were reserved for the elite, while the masses partied it up with vulgar splendor in the streets. Today, they're still a pricey affair and the Copacabana Palace Ball remains the society event in Rio. The blocos also kick into high gear once Carnaval arrives with several groups parading every day from Saturday through Tuesday.

Watching the Samba Parade

Then, there is the pièce de résistance: the Samba School Parade, the event that the samba schools work, plan, and sweat over for an entire year. Starting Sunday and continuing through Monday night, the 14 top-ranked samba schools (really community groups whose sole focus is the parade) compete for the honor of putting on the best show. The competition takes place in the Sambodromo, a 1.5km-long (1-mile) concrete parade ground built in the center of Rio for this once-a-year event. Each night over 60,000 spectators watch the contest live, while millions more tune in on TV to catch this feast for the senses.

Even before the parade starts, the streets surrounding the Sambodromo are closed to car traffic, while the grounds around this stadium are transformed into Carnaval Central. A main stage hosts a variety of acts and performances, and hundreds of vendors set up shop with food and drinks. This terreirão do samba (samba land), as Riotur calls it, is open the weekend prior to Carnaval, from Friday through Tuesday during Carnaval, and then again for the Saturday afterward for the Parade of Champions.

On the day of each parade, the schools arrive outside the parade grounds to assemble their floats, props, and other gear. The streets around the Sambodromo, including Avenida Presidente Vargas, are closed for traffic, and pedestrians can stroll watching the schools put finishing touches on a year's worth of work. A great opportunity to take a close-up look at the floats, take pictures, and meet some of the people who put it all together.

How & Where to Get Tickets

It is next to impossible to buy tickets directly from Liesa, the Liga das Escolas de Samba (tel. 021/3213-5151; www.liesa.com.br). The tickets go on sale a few months before Carnaval and always sell out in 20 minutes. The few tourist tickets that remain Liesa sells at an extraordinary markup. Most tourists are left buying from scalpers or travel agencies. Reputable travel agencies include Blumar (tel. 021/2142-9300; www.blumar.com.br), Rio Services Carnaval (tel. 877/559-0088 U.S. and Canada; www.rio-carnival.net), and BIT (tel. 021/3208-9000; www.bitourism.com), which sell good tickets at reasonable rates, but which often sell out early. If you've got your heart set on seeing the parade, buy your tickets by October or at the latest November preceding the year you want to go. As a next to last resort, try your hotel, but expect to pay a hefty premium for this service. As a last resort, you can try the scalpers outside the stadium. (The scalpers will find you as you come out any of the Metrô stops near the Sambodromo.) Be careful! Each ticket consists of a magnetic plastic card and an attached paper slip -- you need both to enter. The best deals come after the first couple of schools have paraded (say 11pm) when the scalpers start to get a little desperate.

Depending on the agency, or the desperation of your scalper, tickets for the bleachers begin at around R$110 for section 4, and rise to R$300 for section 7. Chairs in a front row box (frisa) start at R$3,000 in section 4 and R$4,800 in section 7. These are base prices. Many agencies charge much more.

Note: Many tour agencies offer transportation to and from the Sambodromo, at a very hefty markup (the cheapest charges some US$80 for the bus ride). These transfers are not only unnecessary, they're actually a disadvantage. Getting to the parade, the easiest, safest quickest route is by Metrô. Due to street closures, buses will take much, much longer to reach the stadium. Coming home, there are plenty of taxis outside the Sambodromo, and you can leave whenever you want. If you've booked a package, you're expected to wait on the bus until 7am when the last school finishes before you can go home.

General seating is in concrete bleachers, with no space assigned. Your ticket gives you access to the section. After that it's up to you to find a spot and squeeze in. There are pillows for sale, or you can bring your own. The exception to the hard concrete rule is in section 9, the tourist section, where there are numbered assigned places. The advantages are obvious. The disadvantage is that you miss out on some of the joie de vivre that comes with being surrounded by hundreds of happy partying Brazilians.

In addition to the bleachers, there are front-row boxes, called frisas in Portuguese. These are comfortable chairs that sit in a strip of boxes located at ground level along the parade route. There are six seats to a box (three rows of two) and seating is assigned. The frisas have the advantage of closeness and assigned seating. The disadvantages are a higher price tag and -- some say -- being too close to really appreciate the whole of the spectacle (like sitting in the very front row at a musical or movie).

Besides frisas and bleachers, there are the exclusive VIP boxes. However, if you can wangle an invitation to one of those, you don't need any help from us.

Whether you choose bleacher or frisa, the best sections are 5, 7, and 9. These place you near the middle of the parade avenue, allowing you to see up and down as the schools come through. Avoid sitting at the start or the end of the Avenida (sections 1, 3, 4, 6, and 13).

If you have tickets you can head directly to the Sambodromo. The parade grounds are divided into sections: even-numbered sections can be accessed from the Central Station side (Metrô: Central); odd-numbered sections can be accessed from the Praça XI side (Metrô: Praça XI). Don't worry, lots of police and staff are around to point you in the right direction.

The parade starts at 9pm, but unless you want to stake out a particular spot you may as well take your time arriving, because the event will continue nonstop until about 7 or 8am. We recommend leaving a bit early as well to avoid the big crunch at the end when the entire crowd tries to squeeze through a narrow set of revolving gates. Food and drinks are available inside the Sambodromo. Though prices aren't outrageous, it's a serious pain elbowing your way back and forth from your seat: Grab something at one of the many inexpensive kiosks outside the Sambodromo before you head in.

Carnaval Redux -- If you miss the parade during Carnaval, attend the Parade of Champions on the Saturday after Carnaval. The five top schools give an encore to close the Sambodromo Carnaval season. Tickets go on sale the Thursday after Carnaval. At R$80 and up for a good spot, they're considerably less expensive than the original event. Contact the Liga das Escolas de Samba (tel. 021/3213-5151; www.liesa.com.br), Blumar (tel. 021/2142-9300; www.blumar.com.br), or Rio Services Carnaval (tel. 877/559-0088 U.S. and Canada; www.rio-carnival.net) for ticket sales.

A Few Helpful Hints

Whether you are attending a rehearsal, following a bloco, or watching the parade, here are a few helpful hints to ensure you have a good time.

  • Dress casually and comfortably. The weather is usually hot and humid so a tank top or bikini top and shorts are fine. Comfortable shoes are a must as you will be on your feet for hours, dancing and jumping to the music.
  • Pack light. A purse or any extra accessories are not recommended, especially at the rehearsals and the blocos as you will be dancing and moving around. When watching the parade you can bring a small bag or knapsack and leave it at your feet, but the lighter you travel the better. Make sure you bring enough cash for the evening, some form of ID (driver's license or some other picture ID that is not your passport), and maybe a small camera you can tuck into your pocket. Leave jewelry and other valuables at home.
  • The events themselves are very safe, but be aware of pickpockets in large crowds. At the end of the event, take a taxi or walk with the crowds, avoiding any deserted streets or unfamiliar neighborhoods.
  • Keep in mind that prices will be slightly higher, cabs may add a premium, and drinks and food at the parade and some other venues may be higher than what you are used to in Brazil.
  • Plan to have enough cash for the entire Carnaval period. All financial institutions close for the duration, and it's not unusual for bank machines to run out of money.

Participating in the Parade

If you think watching the parade from up close sounds pretty amazing, imagine being in it. Every year, the samba schools open up positions for outsiders to participate in the parade. Putting on this extravaganza is an expensive proposition, and by selling the costumes and the right to parade, the school is able to recuperate some of its costs. But outside paraders are also needed for artistic and competitive reasons. To score high points the school needs to have enough people to fill the Avenida and make the parade look full and colorful. A low turnout can make the school lose critical points.

To parade (desfilar in Portuguese) you need to commit to a school and buy a costume (about R$500-R$1,200), which you can often do online. Some sites are in English as well as Portuguese; if not, look under fantasia (costume). Depending on the school, they may courier the costume or arrange for a pickup downtown just before the parade, or you may have to make the trek out to wherever they are.

For an added charge, a number of agencies in Rio will organize it all for you, getting you in with a school and arranging the costume. Blumar (tel. 021/2142-9300; www.blumar.com.br) or Rio Services Carnaval (tel. 877/559-0088 U.S. and Canada; www.rio-carnival.net) can organize the whole event for you for about R$1,000. For other organizations, contact Alô Rio (tel. 021/2542-8080 or 0800/707-1888).

As a participant in the parade you do not automatically get a ticket to watch the rest of the event. If you want to see the other schools you need to purchase a separate ticket. If your school finishes in the top five there will be a repeat performance in the Parade of Champions, held on the Saturday after Carnaval. If you are not able to parade again, consider donating your costume to a fellow traveler or keen Brazilian.

Watching a Rehearsal

Every Saturday from September (or even as early as Aug) until Carnaval, each samba school holds a general samba rehearsal (ensaio) at its home base. The band and key people come out and practice their theme song over and over to perfection. It may sound a tad repetitious, but you'd be amazed how a good band playing the same song over and over can generate a really great party. People dance for hours, taking a break now and then for snacks and beer. The income generated goes toward the group's floats and costumes. By the end of the night (and these rehearsals go until the wee hours) everyone knows the words to the song and has -- hopefully -- turned into an ardent fan who will cheer this particular school on at the parade. (General rehearsals usually don't involve costumes or practicing dance routines.) In December and January, the schools also hold dress rehearsals and technical rehearsals at the Sambodromo. Check with Riotur for dates and times.

Most of the samba schools are based in the poorer and quite distant suburbs, but a number of schools such as Mangueira, Salgueiro, Vila Isabel, and Rocinha are very accessible and no more than an R$30 cab ride from Copacabana. Nor should you worry overly much about safety. Rehearsals take place in an open-air space called a quadra that looks like a large gymnasium. There is always security, and the rehearsals are very well attended. Plan to arrive anytime after 11pm. When you are ready to leave there'll be lots of taxis around. Just don't go wandering off into the neighborhood, unless you're familiar with the area. Many hotels will organize tours to the samba school rehearsals, but unless you prefer to go with a group it's not really necessary and certainly a lot cheaper to go on your own.

Tip: A number of the famous schools that are located on the outskirts of the city will hold special rehearsals in the Zona Sul. The ones organized by Beija Flor and Grande Rio are the most popular, often attended by models, actors, and other VIPs. For an authentic experience, it's still better to go to the actual school.

To find out more about specific schools, rehearsals, or participating in the parade, contact the Liga das Escolas de Samba (tel. 021/3213-5151; www.liesa.com.br). If you can't find anyone there who speaks English, contact Alô Rio for assistance (tel. 021/2542-8080 or 0800/707-1888). Or you can try contacting one of the samba schools directly; below is a partial list:

  • Mangueira, Rio's most favorite samba school and close to downtown, Rua Visconde de Niterói 1072, Mangueira (tel. 021/3872-6786; www.mangueira.com.br).
  • Beija-flor, far from downtown but a crowd favorite and winner in 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2007, Rua Pracinha Walace Paes Leme 1025, Nilópolis (tel. 021/2791-2866; www.beija-flor.com.br).
  • Imperatriz, the winner in 1999, 2000, and 2001, Rua Prof. Lacê 235, Ramos (tel. 021/2560-8037; www.imperatrizleopoldinense.com.br).
  • Portela, Rua Clara Nunes 81, Madureira (tel. 021/2489-6440; www.gresportela.com.br).
  • Rocinha, young school, located in the Zona Sul close to Ipanema and Leblon, Rua Bertha Lutz 80, São Conrado (tel. 021/3205-3318; www.academicosdarocinha.com.br).
  • Salgueiro, close to downtown, very popular, Rua Silva Telles 104, Andaraí (tel. 021/2238-0389; www.salgueiro.com.br).
  • Vila Isabel, close to downtown, mostly locals and very untouristy, winner in 2006, Bd. 28 de Setembro 382, Vila Isabel (tel. 021/2578-0077; www.gresunidosdevilaisabel.com.br).

Carnaval Behind the Scenes -- In 2005 the Cidade do Samba (Samba city) was inaugurated in Rio's old port zone (Rua Rivadavia Correia 60, Gamboa, tel. 021/2213-2503; http://cidadedosambarj.globo.com). This large warehouse-style construction provides the samba schools with a space to build their floats and work on their costumes. Visitors can have a look behind the scenes and see what it takes to put this event together. Twice a month, on Thursdays, the Cidade do Samba also hosts a musical performance giving viewers a taste of the parade. These shows are really designed for tourists and don't have anything of the authenticity that the rehearsals at the actual schools have, but if this is your only opportunity to get a taste of Carnaval it may be worth it. Open Tuesday through Saturday 10am to 5pm for visits (R$5). The evening musical performances are always held on a Thursday, starting at 9pm. Admission includes a buffet dinner, R$190 or R$95 for Rio residents (proof of residency required). For more information and to check on scheduling, please contact the Liga das Escolas de Samba (tel. 021/2253-7676) or Alô Rio (tel. 021/2542-8080 or 0800/707-1888). There's also some good information at the private site, www.sambacity.info.

Hanging with the Blocos

To experience the real street Carnaval, don't miss the parading blocos. The key to the popularity of the blocos is the informality; everyone is welcome, and you don't need a costume, just comfortable clothes and shoes. (Bear in mind, however, that the informality extends to scheduling. If your group doesn't start on time, grab a beer and chill -- they'll show eventually.) Different blocos have certain styles or attract specific groups, so pick one that suits you and have fun. Riotur publishes an excellent brochure called Bandas, Blocos and Ensaios, available through Alô Rio (tel. 021/2542-8080 or 0800/707-1888). Also available from Riotur, Av. Princesa Isabel 183, Copacabana (tel. 021/2271-7000), is the Rio Incomparavel brochure, which has a full listing of events. In Portuguese, the website www.samba-choro.com.br provides a comprehensive list of blocos, including parade routes and starting times. The Globo newspaper (www.oglobo.com.br) also provides a bloco listings page.

Some of the best blocos to look for are Bloco Cacique de Ramos and Cordão do Bola Preta in Centro; Barbas and Bloco de Segunda in Botafogo; Bloco do Bip Bip and Banda Santa Clara in Copacabana; Bloco Meu Bem Volto Já in Leme; and Banda de Ipanema, Banda da Carmen Miranda, and Simpatia é Quase Amor in Ipanema.

Bailes

More formal than the blocos, the samba balls (bailes) are where you go to see and be seen. Traditionally reserved for Rio's elite, some -- such as the Copacabana Palace ball -- remain the height of elegance, while others have become raunchy and risqué bacchanals. Numerous clubs around town host Carnaval balls.

Among the most fabulous is the notorious Baile Vermelho e Preto (Red and Black Costume Ball) held every year on Carnaval Friday in honor of Rio's most popular soccer club, Flamengo. It's known for both the beauty of the female attendees and the skimpiness of their costumes. The Baile do Preto Branco (Black and White Ball), also on Carnaval Friday, takes place at the Clube Botafogo. For both events contact Alô Rio (tel. 021/2542-8080 or 0800/707-1888) for details and ticket information. The popular Copacabana nightclub Le Boy organizes a differently themed ball every night during Carnaval, Friday through Tuesday included. These balls are gay-friendly but not gay-only. Call tel. 021/2240-3338. The prime gay event -- and one of Rio's most famous balls -- is the Tuesday night Gala Gay at the Scala nightclub, Av. Afranio de Melo Franco 296, Leblon (tel. 021/2239-4448). TV cameras vie for position by the red carpet, à la Oscar night. Google "Gala Gay" for video clips of the silliness.

The grand slam of all Carnaval balls is the Saturday night extravaganza at the Copacabana Palace Hotel, the Grande Baile de Carnaval, which plays host to the crème de la crème of Rio's high society. This is the ball of politicians, diplomats, models, business tycoons, and local and international movie stars. Tickets start at R$600 per person and sell out quickly. Call tel. 021/2548-7070 for details.

Rio Services Carnaval (tel. 877/559-0088 U.S. and Canada; www.rio-carnival.net) offers tickets to many of the balls listed above. Tickets start at US$60 for the Red and Black ball (or US$467 for a table for four people) and rise to US$635 for the Copacabana party (US$3,300 for a table for four).


Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.