As anyone knows, first impressions matter & Brazil, specifically Rio, made quite the first impression at Carnival. Ben had traveled to Brazil 5 years earlier & loved it, & he couldn’t wait to be back & show me everything he enjoyed. Rio, a city known for its spectacular landscape & culture, proved itself to transform for this annual celebration into a beast of its own. To be fair it is Carnival, not exactly the picture of a quiet peaceful city. We expected it to be a bit of a madhouse, you know with Murphy’s law & all if something were to go awry it was going to be in Rio. We went in prepared.
The magnitude of Carnival done Rio-style is hard to explain if you’ve never been. Its’ been compared to Mardi Gras in New Orleans but 10x that. Imagine if you can have block parties involving the entire city that don’t just heavily occupy a few streets (as in New Orleans) but every block. Oh & imagine New Orleans had a metro…. we took the rails several times during our stay & each time hordes of people crowded on board, decked out in costume, dragging coolers of drinks with them & bawdily singing at the top of their lungs (often accompanied by banging on the ceilings of the trains). Somehow amongst all this chaos is still seemed to function better than DC’s Metro.
Each afternoon & evening, different areas of the city (Copacabana, Ipanema, etc.) rotated hosting “blocos” or street parties with parades, dancing & floats. It is impressively well organized. Honestly, for all that, Carnival always seemed on the edge of imploding on itself yet the city does a remarkable job of cleaning the streets, keeping order & providing adequate utilities for everyone (i.e. bathrooms, etc).
You quickly learn (if you aren’t travel tested already) to watch yourself in the massive street parties. People are crushed up against one another, drinks are flowing heavily & while most are there to have a good time there’s always more than one person looking for a quick snatch. Especially with tourist as you stick out like a sore thumb unless you’ve dragged flamboyant costumes along for the ride. As we had not, we certainly stuck out amongst the droves of women (& men) in wonder woman costumes, more than a few Fred Flintstone outfits & scores of mermaids or angel/devil combos. To us it seemed more Halloween than Mardi Gras in the U.S. - no strands of beads to be found here, only some standard glitter & venetian party masks.
Luckily for us, in the grand scheme of things, our losses in the mad parties were minimal. A small necklace I had with me was snatched, (by young kids no less, it’s unfortunate really) & one of our cards was compromised, luckily only once & you can always remedy those things. It’s just more frustrating dealing with banks 1000s of miles away on the phone! We heard worse from new friends we’ve met along our trip; one couple having their pockets riffled through every time they were out, someone being in a physical altercation, etc. More than one local shrugged & said “eh its Brazil”. With all that said, taking the proper precautions like all the locals do (no credit cards, cash belts, etc), the blocos can truly be quite fun. Sometimes you say, “I’ll never be that person that wears cash strapped under my pants,” but then you remember you like keeping your money. It’s normal here for Carnival so hey, why not?
Hands down the favorite event of the weekend was our night at the Sambódromo Marquês de Sapucaí (Sambadrome in English) For all the mixed feelings on the daily parties, the Samba Parades are worth the entire trip on their own. A tradition & dance unique to Brazil, the venue was completed in 1984 serving as the centerpiece of Rio’s Carnival. Traditionally, the parades are held over 4 consecutive nights, each hosting a different group of participants beginning at 8 or 10pm & will run to 4 or 5 am!
It’s different than any dance event we’ve ever seen, larger than most sporting events we’ve ever been to…& we’ve been to some big ones. Imagine if NASCAR only had one race a year so everyone put forth their time, energy & excitement into that single night…then you can start to understand the vibe of the stadium.
Each Samba school performs on their own, each having 75 minutes to make their way down the ½ mile track, displaying the elaborate floats, costumes & step combinations. The floats are the most elaborate things we’ve ever seen, leaps & bounds beyond Macy’s or the Rose Parade. Each school embraced different themes & floats were made for dragons, conquistadors, futuristic concepts & U.S. styles, one was set up as “The Voice”!
When the second school of the evening, “Grande Rio”, began it was like nothing we had ever seen. Obviously, this was the popular local school & for this year’s parade they choose to honor native Brazilian artist Ivete Sangalo. The locals in front of us described her as “Brazil’s Beyoncé” - she’s that popular. People waived flags with her face on them, hosting larger flags in the school’s colors high above the seats. When she made her first appearance I thought people were going to cry! Despite knowing almost 0 Portuguese to sing out with crowd (‘Ivete do rio a Rio’) Ben & I were chanting along, flailing our arms high in the air copying those around us just the same. Still don’t really know what we were saying but the song has been on repeat in my head ever since. It’s this fiery, almost obsessive like passion that makes Brazil an intoxicating place to be.
Rio’s Sites to See
Amongst all the chaos & parties it could be easy to forget that Rio has much more to offer! We still managed to play tourist for a day; grabbing a ride up the hill to “Cristo Redentor”, taking in the city views, as well as a stroll past “Lapa Steps” & we even ran into some Samba Dancers rehearsing!
Overall, Carnival was an event never to forget. The parties, samba parades, and energy cannot be matched by anybody else in the world – the Brazilians truly have something special! But what we needed now was some much-deserved R&R (like so many others) to recoup from the fun…off to Ilha Grande on the Costa Verde.
Looking for more information on Brazil? Check out Jen Reviews for more information & other incredible locations!