The Sambódromo is where the main carnival event takes place, where the vast extravagant parades create a flamboyant runway that is televised all around the world. Huge floats of various themes amble along the corridor, flanked by thousands of euphoric spectators either side dancing and cheering in the stands. The atmosphere is filled by the heavy beats of steel drums and fast-paced samba rhythms that are met with the flurry of legs from the smiling, bedazzling samba dancers. The climax of the event is on Shove Tuesday (otherwise known as Fat Tuesday) yet the parades begin the previous Saturday.
Behind the parades are 14 of the best samba schools in Rio that prepare months in advance to give the best samba performance that Rio has ever seen, all with the same underlying goal – to convince the judges they are the winning samba school of carnival and ultimately be the object of Brazilian admiration. The background and status of the schools vary; some are at the forefront of the samba scene with rehearsals and planning taken seriously; others are a small part of a larger criminal organization; still more welcome travelers to train and participate in the parades alongside their best samba dancers.
Each school has a theme that is decided individually and presented through their performance and elaborate costumes. The presentation is aided with between 200 and 400 drummers that beat a hypnotic, quick rhythm that seduces the crowd and draws them into the compelling scene below. It was from these parades that the spirit of carnival was born and it’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
To get to the Sambódromo, either take a taxi or a shuttle bus direct from your hotel to the entrance. Bear in mind that during carnival there are dozens of street parties with tens of thousands of people so factor in major traffic delays if you use the roads. The easiest way of getting to the Sambódromo is to take the metro to Praça Onze and walk the 15 minutes from there. It’s well-signposted and you can enjoy some of the street celebrations on your way.
Outside of the Sambódromo, Rio comes to a halt for one week as the city’s streets fill up with dozens of daily street parties that are a key feature of Rio carnival. The parties become a test of stamina and endurance as each day sees more drinking, more dancing and more fun than the last. Known as blocos in Portuguese, the party is led by a moving van or float that trails slowly along with dancers, singers and streams of samba music that fills the air as people move along behind dancing, kissing, drinking and singing. Street sellers weave in between the sweating bodies selling refreshing frozen vodka tubes and icy cold cans of beers. Costumes are a must and whilst some blocos have special themes, any costume goes. Popular choices include police man or woman, cow girl, Indian, sailor, pirate or simply plenty of glitter and brightly colored clothes. Temperatures can reach over 40 degrees so layers are best left at home.
The Cordão da Bola Preta is one of the biggest and most popular blocos, based on the traditional roda de samba (samba band performance) in Rio. It is held in the city center and attracts approximately one million people. The traditional colors of this bloco are black and white polka dot with thousands of party-goers dressing up to match the theme. The full program of blocos is released near to the first day of carnival so check with your hostel or hotel to get the full schedule. The best blocos tend to be in Leblon, Ipanema and Copacabana – when you are among a packed crowd of thousands of people in the middle of Brazil’s summer, you’ll never appreciate the sea breeze as much as you do right then. There are also smaller blocos in Gavea and Botafogo, but they’re still packed with fun. Some of the most laid back blocos take place in Santa Teresa whereas Centro has the space for some of Rio’s largest and most intense blocos, with after-parties in Lapa. However, it is often enough to just go to the streets – the blocos will find you.
The carnival balls are large events held at certain venues throughout the city and in true carnival style are glitzy, outrageous and daring, pushing the boundaries of a standard night out and promising an unforgettable party. From masked balls at the glamorous Copacabana Palace to outlandish antics at the Gay Scala ball, these parties demand the most extravagant costumes and fun-loving crowds. Many play various music types that lean away from the samba-filled streets and enter an international music scene to provide a whole new layer of carnival.