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The Ultimate Guide to São Paulo's Carnival

Picture of Euan Marshall
Updated: 23 March 2018
Carnival is just around the corner, and while Rio de Janeiro, Recife and Salvador are far more popular spots to spend this extravagant Brazilian holiday season, São Paulo, the country’s biggest city, beats them all hands down when it comes to diversity. We’ve already covered the best street parties at this year’s event, as well as even giving some good getaway tips for those looking to escape the carnage. Now, to prepare you fully for what’s in store, here is our ultimate guide to spending carnival in São Paulo.
The Ultimate Guide to São Paulo's Carnival
Cainan Tavares / | © Culture Trip

Take to the streets

While the lavish carnival parades you have seen on television are nothing short of spectacular, the true spirit of São Paulo’s carnival lies far from the Sambadrome, and in the city’s streets. Granted, São Paulo does have some of the country’s best samba schools and its annual carnival championship is among the most viewed on television. However, carnival in São Paulo is about the bloquinhos – the countless street parties that take on the most amazing variation of themes and play the most diverse types of music.

The Ultimate Guide to São Paulo's Carnival
Cainan Tavares / | © Culture Trip
The Ultimate Guide to São Paulo's Carnival
Cainan Tavares / | © Culture Trip

Each bloco follows the same structure: there is a concentração (gathering, where everyone comes together and the music floats get everything set up; next comes the desfile, which is the parade itself, dancing through the São Paulo streets on a pre-arranged route; and finally, the dispersão (literally, “dispersion”), as people slowly begin to go their separate ways, often still singing the tunes they’ve been hearing for the past few hours. I know what you are thinking: that sounds like a lot of time to spend at one party, especially when there are dozens more happening simultaneously around the city. And you’d be correct. Unless you have one absolute favorite bloco that you’d like to follow from start to finish, the best way to do it is by dropping in on several different parties throughout the day, joining the parades halfway through.

The Ultimate Guide to São Paulo's Carnival
Cainan Tavares / | © Culture Trip

Make a plan and prepare not to stick to it

Indeed, it is a good idea to plan your carnival ahead of time, mapping out a basic plan of the blocos you’d like to see throughout the day. Many parties occur close to one another, so it can be easy to flit in and out as you see fit. What’s more, the city’s subway system is usually free of charge during the festivities, meaning that getting across town to the next party is straightforward.

However, be aware that it is inevitable that your plan will be ripped to shreds at some point during the afternoon. It is simply very difficult to keep track of time while dancing at a street party, and some blocos are just too good to leave.

If you’re planning on meeting up with friends during the day, make detailed rendezvous plans in advance. Trying to reach people on their cellphone during carnival is notoriously difficult, while finding them in a crowd is essentially impossible.

The Ultimate Guide to São Paulo's Carnival
Cainan Tavares / | © Culture Trip

Pick your poison

It’s impossible to escape the fact that carnival is not a festival designed for teetotalers. While you can stay dry and have the time of your life, there is alcohol everywhere. Beer is a common choice, always bought ice-cold to provide some feeling of refreshment from the often cruel heat, but the King (or Queen?) of carnival in São Paulo is a curious drink by the name of Catuaba.

Catuaba is a sweet wine made from mysterious Amazonian plants that is said to be an aphrodisiac. It comes in super-classy plastic liter bottles and although you might shirk at the taste at first, you’ll soon fall in love with it as carnival goes on. The drink has become such an institution in São Paulo and particularly at carnival (it can be notoriously hard to find elsewhere in the country), so much so that this year, there will be an entire bloco dedicated to the wonders of catuaba.

During the festivities, drinks can be bought from the countless street sellers, carting massive coolers behind them. Although buying from these unlicensed vendors is largely safe, it is best to bring cash. A new scam has popped up in the city in which sellers will surreptitiously steal your card and exchange it for a clone without you noticing. If you must use a card, make sure you keep a close eye on it. And as always, as far as alcohol is concerned, do as your mother always told you: drink plenty of water and don’t accept drinks from strangers!

The Ultimate Guide to São Paulo's Carnival
Cainan Tavares / | © Culture Trip
The Ultimate Guide to São Paulo's Carnival
Cainan Tavares / | © Culture Trip

Fancy dress not optional

Wearing costumes is one of the most important parts of the carnival culture, dating all the way back to the festival’s origins in Italy. In São Paulo, you’re sure to see some incredible getups at every bloco. Even if you can’t think of something well thought out or eye catching, wear something. If you turn up in plain clothes, believe it or not, you’ll stick out like a sore thumb.

If you’re at a loss for ideas, head down to Rua 25 de Março, São Paulo’s one stop shop for all kinds of decorations and general tat. Failing that, cake yourself in glitter.

The Ultimate Guide to São Paulo's Carnival
Cainan Tavares / | © Culture Trip

Keep your belongings safe

With so many people, in public, often in compact groups, pickpocketing and street crime is inevitable, and carnival in São Paulo is no different. Petty crime in São Paulo is not exactly rife, but it does exist and gets ramped up during carnival, so be vigilant. It is often a good idea to wear a small fanny pack (concealed under your clothes) to store your essentials in. Ideally, leave anything valuable at home or in your hotel. You shouldn’t need anything more than a bit of cash. If you must bring your phone with you, don’t keep it on show for long periods of time. Equally, while walking between blocos, keep an eye out for teenagers on bicycles who are always on alert to nick cell phones from unsuspecting revelers.

Make the most of it

A good carnival in São Paulo is a truly unforgettable experience. Where else can you spend your mornings dancing to bhangra music alongside Bollywood dancers, before enjoying an afternoon belting out 2000s emo classics and rounding out the night at an outdoor toga party? Enjoy your carnival to the fullest, as it only comes once a year.

The Ultimate Guide to São Paulo's Carnival
Cainan Tavares / | © Culture Trip