The carnival held annually in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil is the most famous party in the world, growing year-on-year and attracting hundreds of thousands of foreign and national tourists. In the week around carnival 80% of the annual consumption of beer is drunk and 70% of the annual tourist income is collected, clearly showing the importance of the event economically. To Brazilians carnival and dancing are as important as football, which is really saying something! If you can time your visit to Brazil for the time of the Rio Carnival please give us plenty of notice as hotels, tickets and tours are at a premium, and be aware that everything costs double the normal price!
The Roots of Carnival
The name “carnival” comes from the Latin word carnelevare meaning abstinence from the eating of meat and poultry. Carnival week is held to coincide with the start of the Roman Catholic period of Lent, 40 days before Easter. Lent is traditionally a period of abstinence, prayer and self-evaluation for Christians and represents the 40 days that the Bible tells us Jesus spent in the desert resisting the temptations of Satan. As the dates for Easter vary each year so do those for the main carnival weekend. There are many parades and parties before and after the main ticketed events in the Sambodromo, many of which are free and held in the street in various neighborhoods around the city or as rehearsal weekends in the central venue itself.
Carnival as a celebration of music, dancing, tomfoolery and excesses and dates back to the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia which was introduced in 217 BC to lift the morale of battle-weary Romans after defeats by the Carthaginians. It was typically a week of eating, drinking and the mock reversal of the social order, slaves being given many more freedoms for example. Several Roman Emperors such as Augustus and Caligula tried to shorten the festivities to 3 days but were met with such uproar and were forced to leave the inhabitants to their merrymaking.
Rio Carnival is not the only party in Brazil but is still the most famous. The biggest carnival in terms of participants is held in Recife in the North where in 2006 1.5 million people took part. The Rio event has evolved continually in since it started back in the 17th Century and every year it grows in size and more neighborhoods and samba schools become involved in the spectacle. Blocos (Blocks) are small or medium sized groups of musicians and dancers drawn from neighborhoods who parade with a particular theme, slogan and message. They could be dressed in matching T shirts or in more extravagant costumes and there are now over 100 Blocos, many of whom do not even leave their street or neighborhood while parading. Hundreds of local people gather and accompany them in their efforts.
The more heavily financed samba schools are very large groups of performers which take part in parade competitions in the specially constructed Sambodromo. These schools parade on the 4 main nights of the carnival, with the headline parade being held on the Saturday night. The official competition is divided into 10 categories and a winner picked from each division after being judged on each of the following; Percussion band, Samba song, Harmony, Flow and spirit, Theme of the year, Overall impression, Floats and props, Costumes, Vanguard group and Flag bearer. There are 4 judges in each category and these people sit in booths along the parade route in the Sambodromo. Great prestige is awarded to the winners and the competition is taken very seriously with huge amounts of effort, practice and money invested.
Entry tickets for the Sambodromo parades are prized and as such are expensive even in the cheapest bleacher seats which cost several hundred dollars. Spots in the VIP boxes run to thousands of dollars as they give the viewer much more comfort and access to facilities, open bar, 3 course dinner etc. for what is a marathon of viewing. Tickets and certain hotels often sell out months in advance so, as we said earlier, if you want to go make sure you book a long way in advance.
The Sambodromo Parades
The Sambodromo is the focus of the Rio carnival and the huge, spectacular parades that take place there on the main 4 nights are broadcast all over the world. The costumes, dancing, music and elaborate floats are incredible and being inside the Sambodromo on one of these nights is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The Sambodromo consists of a series of nondescript concrete structures set along both sides of a central “runway”. Designed in 1984 by the modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer, the complex is 700 meters long and is an ugly, barren place set in some poor downtown districts when viewed outside carnival time. During carnival it is a crazy, colorful place filled with excited revelers.
The complex seats thousands of people in two seating options, grandstand, bleacher type seating on concrete steps, or more comfortable chairs in numbers boxes. Even the bleacher seating is expensive but it is a unique experience as you are engulfed in the excitement of the proceedings. There are fast food stalls, bathrooms, souvenirs shops and ice cream stalls either within or behind each of the seating enclosures, very necessary as the parade lasts so long. There is also a small museum at the venue which can be visited 11am – 5pm Tuesday to Sunday to learn more about its place in Rio culture.
The Samba schools have specific times to parade, preparing at one end of the runway before making their way down it, exiting at the other end. There are 4 main evening parades to which tickets are sold, Friday to Sunday in carnival main week and then Saturday the week after the main parade. The doors open at 5pm and some people with non-numbered seats who want to be near the front will be lined up beforehand waiting to get in. Many people will arrive later at 10pm or so when the atmosphere is really getting going. There is a small welcome show at 8pm before the main parade starts with “King Momo” officially opening proceedings. Momo is the Greek God of mockery and legend states that he was expelled from Mount Olympus to settle in Rio de Janeiro. He should always be jolly and the size of a house, and open all the official parades.
The entire parade can last 10 hours or more, many people will not be able to last the entire time and may spend 4 or 5 hours at the parade, watching 5 or 6 samba schools go by. Bring some money with you to get fast food and drinks, don’t bring anything that could be considered a weapon, glass bottles for example. If you have bleacher seats a little cushion would be handy, a light raincoat just in case and a pair of small binoculars. Remember your camera but take care outside the venue in the crowds.
If you are unable to make it to the main event over carnival week but are visiting Rio de Janeiro at another time before carnival there are many rehearsals and warm up events. Every weekend there are practice parades in the Sambodromo which are free to enter, make sure you catch one. Special balls and parties are held around Carnival, the most famous and prestigious being the Magic Ball at the Copacabana Hotel. The Magic Ball is very exclusive with tickets costing over 1000 dollars. There are a number of others which cost much less too.
Rio is a fantastic city to visit at any time of year with its great nightlife, superb beaches, great climate plus the sights of the Corcovado statue and the Sugar Loaf mountain. If you can get there over carnival or the weeks leading up to it you will be even more entertained. Book ahead, it’s the place to be!