South America

Rio Carnival

Laura Pattara

Laura Pattara  |  10 February 2020

Few festivals are as exhilarating and unforgettable to attend as the Rio Carnival – Your Complete Guide to Brazil’s #1 party shows you how YOU can be part of the action.

Brazil’s world-famous fiesta to end all fiestas is a cacophony of sights and sounds, with the normally exciting metropolis gripped by an even crazier hysteria of hypnotic music, astonishing dancing and colourful celebrations for an entire week. Visiting Rio during Carnival time is a once-in-a-lifetime experience everyone should have on their bucket-list. If you’ve never considered visiting Brazil at the height of its summer season, this Rio Carnival – Your Complete Guide may well change your mind. Aside from the gloriously steamy nights, flowing caipirinhas and street parties, Rio boasts an absolutely effervescent vibe during carnival week and soaking up the energy whilst touring the city is one of the most cherished memories all of us at VivaExpeditions have, even many years after visiting. There just isn’t a better time of the year to visit!

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Click the links below to skip through the article:

  1. How it all began
  2. Carnival at the Sambadrome
  3. Carnival on the streets
  4. How much are the tickets?
  5. What's a parade like?
  6. How far in advance should you book?
  7. Which are the best blocos?
  8. Is Rio safe during Carnival time?
  9. The biggest threat in Rio
  10. Can tourists dress up?
  11. How many days should you stay?

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Rio Carnival – How it all began

The Brazilian Carnival season has roots which date back to post-Columbian times, when immigrants to the New World introduced feasts and celebrations in accordance with their Christian traditions. The Rio Carnival is held over a period of 10 days, ending just before the official start of Lent, or 40 days before Easter. Essentially, it is the gorge before the sacrifice, a time of feasting, partying and celebrating before taking on the very serious and sombre task of fasting for Lent. For modern-day Brazilians, of course, Carnival is simply about fun and something they look forward to for an entire year. The Rio Carnival has grown exponentially over the last few decades to become the biggest carnival in the world. Over two million people converge on this stunning city every single day during the Rio Carnival, all eager to take in the action and soak up the atmosphere.

Rio Carnival dates change every year, in accordance with Easter dates.

The most famous and some say best Carnival is held in the northern Brazilian city of  Salvador, although Rio holds the trump card being a much bigger and more influential city. Rio is easy to reach and offers a greater choice of accommodation and sightseeing options (in between the party nights, naturally) so it attracts much bigger crowds.

Plus, Rio has the Sambadrome, South America’s most famous and outstanding stadium. 

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Rio Carnival at the Sambadrome

With tiered seating that’s ideal for viewing the parade of Samba school students sashaying and twerking their way down the long alley, the Marques de Sapucai Sambadrome is – quite literally – tailor-made for the Rio Carnival. The city’s famous festival was moved out of the streets and into the brand new Sambadrome in the mid-1980s, with the most popular events – the finals – being well-organized and ticketed events. Scoring these tickets is what foreign tourists covet most and, luckily, the sheer number and price-range of tickets mean everyone can attend, as long as tickets are purchased way ahead of time. Samba parades at the Sambadrome are visual feasts like few others, with thousands of participants – and their magnificent floats – competing fiercely over a few nights to ensure their Samba school is crowned king. Although the Sambadrome parades represent the peak of the events, you’ll see samba dancers, with their barely-there costumes and fantastical headdresses, hold centre court in the city’s many street parties for days before the final. Most tourists will choose to attend one Samba parade in the Sambadrome, arriving a few days earlier to soak up the fiestas held all over the city.

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Rio Carnival on the streets

Your chances to see the best Samba schools strutting their stuff all over the city are extensive. Hundreds of blocos (street parties) are held all over the city in the week before the Rio Carnival final, with live samba music, food and cocktail stands providing all the ingredients you need for an exceptional day and night of partying. More and more blocos are organized every year and a comprehensive guide to the best street parties (like the one in Lapa) is available in all hotels and Tourist Info Centres during carnival time. Being free events, Rio’s blocos are exceptionally popular among locals, as well as tourists, and can make for some truly memorable experiences.

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How much are tickets to Sambadrome events? 

Tickets range in price from USD 20 for back row seating on a first-come, first-seat basis, all the way up to USD2,000 for front-row seats in VIP suites. Prices range depending on the event and sector. Tickets to the Tourist Sector, specifically assigned to foreign visitors, usually range in price from  USD50 to USD150 and have allocated seating, which makes for a very comfortable night. Sambadrome tickets can be reserved in advance and are usually released just a few days before each event to combat counterfeiting.

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What's a parade like in the Sambradrome? 

We’d love to leave this blank so you can fill it in for yourself…but suffice to say that you will probably never have experienced something like this before and never will again. A night of Samba madness here is sensational, with the parade and party being a non-stop event until the wee hours of the morning. With food and drinks stalls keeping you fed and hydrated all night long, the parade is a marathon event and you’ll be utterly transfixed by the music, the dancing, the costumes, the elaborate floats and the sheer grandeur of it all.

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How far in advance should you book? 

The short answer is ASAP and the more detailed one is to check with your tour provider as soon as your travel dates are set. Here at VivaExpeditions, for example, we purchase blocks of tickets for all our tours heading to Rio during Carnival week, knowing full well that capacity will be at its highest. If we still have a spot on a tour, it’s highly likely we will have a Sambadrome Carnival ticket available for you. Same can be said for accommodation. Rio is full to the brim during this, the busiest period of the year, so let us know as soon as you’re ready to commit and we’ll ensure your flights, accommodation, Sambadrome tickets and onward travel is all organized.

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Which are the best blocos to attend? 

Ipanema hosts the most ‘tourist-friendly’ street party of all, with a mix of attractions which appeals to visitors of all ages, whilst in Copacabana, you’ll find the partying more suited to wild young things. Botafogo is a great event that attracts local families and for sheer size alone, get yourself down to Centro and get swept up in the mind-boggling crowds.

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Is Rio safe during Carnival time?

Anytime you have an event that attracts millions of people, you’re going to get opportunistic pick-pockets and that true no matter where you go. Leave the bling and your expensive camera at home, take minimal cash – well hidden – for incidentals and simply don’t have anything on you that others may covet. Mobile phones are the single most coveted item in Rio during Carnival time, so keeps yours well hidden. Local police amp up their presence during this time and are particularly protective of tourists and, considering Rio’s infamy for being a dangerous city is woefully overstated anyway, we’ve never had any major issues here at all. Common sense and a keen sense of your surroundings go a long way in preventing any possible problems, as long as you avoid walking around with backpacks or purses of any kind. Of course, travelling in groups is always safer because there are multiple vigilant eyes keeping the group in check.

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What's the (real) biggest threat in Rio during Carnival time?  

The summer heat causes more problems to visitors at the Rio Carnival than any other aspect of a visit. Days can be very hot in the second month of the year and nights incredibly steamy, so dehydration and heat exhaustion are the two most common ailments from which people suffer. Make sure you apply sunscreen every day, wear a hat and increase your water consumption (whilst keeping alcohol to low or moderate levels) and have plenty of rest between nights out in town. The Rio Carnival can be, to be honest, a very exhausting event, so plan for a few afternoons to be spent by the pool or relaxing in your hotel room with a good book at hand. You’ll thank us for this later.

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Can tourists dress up for Carnival?

Oh and we thought you’d never ask! Head to the huge outdoor Downtown market in Saara as soon as you arrive and pick the most outlandish headdress and costume you can get your hands on. Wear it nightly to street parties, to restaurants and hey, why not to bed, and make sure to take it home. Carnival costumes purchased in Rio on a once-in-a-lifetime trip make for the best souvenirs, in our humble opinion.

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How many days should you stay in Rio?

If heading to Rio for the very first time then consider spending an entire week here. Aside from the Carnival shenanigans, you’ll have the city’s best highlights to discover, including the glorious Christ the Redeemer statue, the cable-car up to Sugarloaf Mountain, the glorious beaches to enjoy in Copacabana and Ipanema and all the shopping and dining you can fit in-between. Plus, Rio is a fantastic base for exploring the best sights in Brazil, so consider including side-trips to startling Iguazu Falls or the islands off the southern coast of Brazil as well. Brazil and Rio really have a lot to offer and hey…if you’re going to come all this way…may as well squeeze as much as you can out of your adventure!

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At VivaExpeditions, we offer a fantastic Carnival Package Tour of Rio that guarantees Sambadrome tickets, as well as all your accommodation and excursions to explore the city’s most impressive sights. A 6-day fiesta in Rio de Janeiro during Carnival time and the absolute travel experience of your life. For this and more info on travelling to Rio and further afield in Brazil, even including a 3-day visit to Iguazu Falls or a spellbinding 5-day river cruise in the Amazon, simply contact us.

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