Carnival is the southern hemisphere’s answer to Mardi Gras. You can find Carnival celebrations across the region, from Barranquilla, Colombia to Trinidad and Tobago. But nowhere will you find Carnival festivities quite like you will in Brazil. Several cities in Brazil, especially Bahia and Pernambuco in the northeastern part of the country, celebrate Carnival, but Rio de Janeiro is the epicenter. Originally a Catholic event, Carnival starts the Friday before Lent and ends on Fat Tuesday. This year Carnival in Rio will run from Feb 9 to 14, although a few events take place later in the week.
Carnival originated in Europe, brought to Brazil by the Portuguese. Since the 40 days of Lent (a time of repentance and preparation for the coming of Easter in the Christian tradition) required culinary austerity, it was the last chance to indulge in a feast until Ash Wednesday. Brazilian Carnival represents a cultural amalgamation of European and African traditions, the latter of which were brought to Brazil by African slaves. The African influence is particularly evident in the music.
The week entails a series of parades and street parties, known locally as “blocos”, which are held throughout the city. The parades take place at the Sambadrome (Sambodromo in Portuguese), and require a ticket to get in. Elaborately costumed and plumed dancers from Rio’s world-famous samba schools perform a top floats that snake through the 13-block long stadium. The final event of Carnival is the Champions’ Parade, which happens at the end of the week after the rest of the festivities, such as the blocos, have wound down. This year it will be held on February 17th. You can see the schedule and buy tickets online at https://rio-carnival.net/EN/Program.
The street parties—the blocks—are free and don’t require tickets. All you have to do is show up in the neighborhood of your choice and be prepared to party. Samba bands perform at various locations around Rio on designated days. Some of the most well known include the Banda de Ipanema (on the beach), Bola Preta, Sargento Pimenta, and Monobloco, which is arguably Rio’s most famous bloco.
Book your accommodation early as nearly half a million tourists descend on Rio for the week. Most people stay near the beach or in Lapa for easy access to the blocos. As Carnival lands in the middle of the South American summer, bring plenty of water to stay hydrated in the 40 degree celsius heat. You can also bring your own alcohol, or sip caipirinha (the national drink, made with cachaça, sugar and lime) you buy on the street. (Common sense says to buy from the myriad of licensed vendors, but there are plenty of independent purveyors of alcohol as well). Don’t forget your own sequins and dancing shoes to join in the fun!!
Charlotte West is a freelance writer based in Seattle, Washington. She has written about travel, design, and architecture for publications such as Print, Afar, Budget Travel, and dwell.com. She has lived abroad in the Netherlands, Sweden, and Peru.
Images: Nate Clicks courtesy Flickr - cc
Banner Image: Nicolas de Camaret Flickr - cc